HOW LINGERIE GOT INCLUSIVE
MILLIONS OF people tuned in to watch the 2018 Victoria’s Secret show last weekend. That the multimillion dollar, bright-lights-and-boobs bonanza was a spectacle, entertaining even, is a given. What’s debatable, though, is how many of those people watching would have seen themselves represented on the New York catwalk? And how many of them looked at models, including Bella Hadid and Stella Maxwell, and felt genuinely empowered?
For something as everyday as underwear, the visual language tends to be exclusive and excluding. Which is an odd fit, when you think about it. Defenders say that the airbrushed, 0.1% definition of beauty (which is not exclusive to Victoria’s Secret, of course) offers fantasy and inspiration. But for many of us, the endless stream of cut-and-paste ‘perfect’ bodies serves less as a source of inspiration and more as one of flagellation. Rare is the woman who has not at some point looked at herself and thought her body was somehow ‘wrong’. And nowhere are those feelings made more starkly apparent than in the nothing-to-hide-behind world of lingerie branding and advertising.
But the kickback is happening. Bored of the conventional narrative, a new generation of underwear brands is seeking to champion a version of empowerment that is built on something much more substantial than abs, tans and thigh gaps: inclusivity.
One such brand is Thirdlove, the lingerie label founded by Heidi Zak. Last month, Heidi published a full-page open letter to Victoria’s Secret in The New York Times, as a reaction to the comments (subsequently apologised for) made by the brand’s chief marketing officer, Ed Razek. Ed said that the brand has not to date cast trans or plus-size models ‘ because the show is a fantasy’.
‘ Your show may be a “fantasy” but we live in reality. Our reality is that women wear bras in real life… We’re done with pretending certain sizes don’t exist or aren’t important enough to serve,’ she wrote. ‘ To all women everywhere, we see you, and we hear you. Your reality is enough. To each, her own.’
‘ We don’t think inclusivity is a trend, we think it’s a movement,’ Thirdlove’s chief creative officer, Ra’el Cohen, tells Grazia. ‘ Women are no longer accepting the singular vision of female beauty that we were spoon-fed for so many years. Now, women are making deliberate choices about the brands we tie ourselves to’.
That choice is growing – with a host of new mould-smashing names making noise in the crowded lingerie market. Brands like Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie collection, which closed last New York Fashion Week with a strong, sexy, swaggering show in Brooklyn Navy Yard, that included women of all shapes, sizes
and ethnicities ( including a nine months pregnant Slick Woods) slinking around a Garden of Eden-style catwalk.
Then there is American brand Aerie, which broke the internet last year for all the right reasons when it released a campaign starring disabled models and those with chronic conditions – including one with a colostomy bag. Meanwhile, Kiwi brand Lonely has been commended for including trans and older women in its campaigns.
Serena Rees made her name in the ’90s when she founded Agent Provocateur. In 2016, she set up Les Girls Les Boys, a youth-focused, primarily unisex underwear line that puts comfort at the top of the agenda. She sees it as her responsibility to promote authentic, unretouched imagery. ‘ The younger generation wants to see imagery that feels honest, unpretentious and “real” – something they can relate to, rather than an unattainable picture of perfection,’ Serena explains. ‘Having lived surrounded by teenagers growing up in this “social media” generation, I have seen first-hand the negative effect this can have on confidence and identity. I believe in celebrating these differences and so-called “imperfections”. Part of the reason for starting this brand was to help people suffering from anxiety and depression. We want to effect positive change!’
This spirit is also translating to the product, though. Not only are these new-gen underwear brands prioritising comfort and wearability, but also offering extended sizing. New brand Cuup wants women to stop feeling ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ – a result, they say, of it being easier and cheaper to squeeze women into the 15-20 sizes typically offered in the industry than produce the 30+ sizes women actually need (they have had an ‘overwhelming response’ from women on social media, since launching this year). Furthermore, brands are also cottoning on to the fact that nude no longer means a single peachy-pink tone: ASDA and ASOS have both expanded their nude tones recently.
This diversity-embracing spirit makes sense commercially. According to Mintel’s 2018 Underwear UK report, 49% of British female underwear shoppers believe the range available at a lot of retailers is too similar; 78% of them think campaigns should feature models who represent the average person. That’s 78% of the market up for grabs. ‘ We’ve seen an increasing awareness and demand for a wider range of sizes and are continuously working on extending our offering to be more inclusive,’ says Net-a-porter’s global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz. ‘ We get such a positive reaction by widening our range of sizes where brands can offer smaller back sizes with bigger cups as well as providing a larger variety of skin tones, which we will continue to grow over the next few months.’
So why is this happening now? According to Caren Downie, the high-street dynamo who was instrumental in the success of ASOS, founded Finery and has now taken on the role of fashion director at new underwear brand Lemonade Dolls, it’s down to a more vocal customer. ‘Customers are so well informed now compared to 10 years ago. That means they have become more exacting and demanding in everything and they really know what they want,’ she says. ‘ They also have a stronger voice and are more than willing to express it. Underwear is the area that has lagged behind in this regard but is now being forced to make rapid changes. Customers are also much more engaged and are happy to tell you if the imagery is unrealistic or if the sizing is limiting. It is actually really healthy and is a very marked change that is forcing retailers to listen.’
It’s also no coincidence that these brands are run by women for women. ‘ The lingerie industry has been dominated by men for too long,’ says Thirdlove’s Ra’el. ‘Historically, women have been told what is sexy by companies that are run by men.’ Indeed, when the founder, CEO and designer all actually wear bras, they understand what we really want: comfort, ease, support, confidence. They understand that we don’t want underwear designed with a teenage boy rather than a busy woman in mind. They understand that we all – AA or GG – just want to feel good.
As Chloe Hayward, one of the models in Cuup’s debut campaign, puts it, these new brands ‘make women who have felt invisible and therefore ashamed of their bodies visible in the lingerie market. The idea of the “perfect” body and “perfect” boobs is being turned on its head because these brands aren’t asking women to change, they are showing women that they are already perfect. The product needed to transform to fit the customer, not the other way around.’