Can Chinese women save declining Victoria’s Secret?
American lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret opened two full-line retail stores, on Huaihai Road, Shanghai and in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, last week. The news generated much publicity, as it is the first time for Victoria’s Secret to sell its signature sexy apparel in China (heretofore they were only authorized to sell perfumes and beauty products).
The increasing purchasing power of Chinese consumers has, in recent years, spun off a burgeoning lingerie market in China. According to market research firm Euromonitor, China’s lingerie market is expected to be valued at $25 billion this year, double the value of the US market. Analysts said compared to the more-saturated luxury and beauty care market, the lingerie industry in China has big growth potential.
As a Chinese woman, I understand Victoria’s Secret appeal. I used to shop from their website from time to time, long before they had any presence in China. It’s where my vocabulary expanded from bikinis and T-thongs to “cheekies,” “cheekinis,” “hiphuggers” and “shorties.” An important reason why the brand is so popular is its affordability. For example, a basic T-shirt bra is only $40 while a pair of knickers is $20 for two, with year-round promotions online. To look sexy in their lingerie is now a totally attainable dream for the average Chinese women.
There of course is no lack of premium lingerie brands in Shanghai, where I live, but Victoria’s Secret has a special place in the hearts of Chinese women because of its annual fashion show. Every year, the brand invites supermodels to saunter down a catwalk wearing lingerie along with a pair of wings (the brand’s symbol) on the backs of models, hence their name, “Angels.” Because of the global exposure this show receives, only A-list celebrities and journalists are invited.
The show is broadcast in 200 countries and is very popular in China. Every detail of the event is closely monitored by Chinese media and netizens, who have become so obsessed with it that during the same month it is aired, local women collectively start dieting, exercising and taking selfies of their slim bodies for social media; their own personal way of showing solidarity with the Angels of Victoria’s Secret.
There have also been numerous reports of fake Victoria’s Secret fashion events taking place around China. Every winter, wannabe Chinese models are hired by local shopping mall managers or auto expo organizers in remote locales like Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, and Wuhan, Hubei Province, to try to attract customers. Dressed in Chinese-brand panties and wearing cheap-looking wings, these poor girls earn only a fraction of what a real Angel earns.
China’s fascination with Victoria’s Secret has not gone unnoticed by the corporation’s brand management. The Chinese elements presented at its event in Paris last year proves that Victoria’s Secret highly values the Chinese market despite having no full-line retail stores here. Five Chinese supermodels were invited to join the Angels team, and Chinese characteristics (including a big dragon hanging on the back of one model) were incorporated into designs seen onstage.
News about the Shanghai soft opening exploded on local social media. Young women from all over China made a pilgrimage to the store for its opening. Crowds, however, were not as huge as expected, probably due to the fact that it was a workday. When the 1,475-square-meter space (formerly a Louis Vuitton store) officially opens next week, I’m sure throngs of women will be there elbowing each other to snatch up all those 200 yuan ($29.10) thongs.
Unfortunately, investors are concerned that Victoria’s Secret sales have been in decline in recent years. L Brands, the New York Stock Exchange-traded parent company of Victoria’s Secret, revealed sagging sales for fourth quarter 2016 and first quarter 2017 in its earnings reports last week. Analysts say sexy lingerie is not what women want anymore, now that more comfortable undergarments have become en vogue.
Nonetheless, Shanghai and Chengdu are only the beginning for Victoria’s Secret in China. The brand announced it would hold a fashion show in Shanghai this year, and more shops around China may eventually open as well. It remains to be seen (but only by their husbands) if the female Chinese masses are willing to replace their tried-and-true local undergarment brands for American-made frill and lace.