The most talked-about new lingerie collection of 2012 didn’t come from a precocious design school grad or a wannabe Gaga stylist, though there’s plenty of both around these days.
It’s the new Victoria’s Secret Designer Collection, which caught consumers and the industry itself by surprise with its sudden appearance in late January — when the powerhouse retailer is usually busy boggling our minds with new swimwear collections and a pink blizzard of Valentine’s Day offerings.
The new Designer Collection was released only online and in a handful of stores after months of secretive planning that included the unannounced debut of some pieces during last fall’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Numerous media reports stated that the collection sold out in one day.
And although that’s not quite true, the collection is sufficiently different from the company’s other products that it could be a game-changer — for Victoria’s Secret and the North American lingerie industry in general. Here’s a Q&A guide to the new collection, and why it’s worth paying attention to.
What’s so special about this collection?
First, it’s gorgeous. Gone are the style signatures that often undercut Victoria’s Secret‘s aspirations as a fashion label: there are no logos, no cheesy digital prints, no Sexy Little™ branding and, best of all, none of the bright candy pink you’ll find throughout the VS catalog.
Colorways are mostly soft and understated (with the exception of the summery lemonade hue above) and there are plenty of genteel embellishments like silk straps, sparkly bows and elegant embroidery.
It’s a small collection and pieces are meant to be worn in sets, which is another deviation from the company’s typical mix-and-match approach. Those ubiquitous VS T-shirt bras are, for the most part, replaced with stylish underwire demis and balconets and a few tastefully embellished push-ups.
Of course, it’s also a lot more expensive than almost everything else in the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Bras go up to $158, which is more than three times the cost of a typical VS bra. Some people have complained about the price tag, but Victoria’s Secret would rather you thought of it this way: it’s still less than you’ll pay at La Perla.
Why is it called a “designer collection”?
That’s a good question, since a “designer” fashion label usually carries the name of its designer — which this one doesn’t. The collection was produced by longtime VS supplier Bennett & Company (which also produces their popular erotic costumes line), but VS doesn’t showcase or even identify its designer or design team members.
This is essentially a generic, upscale capsule collection that could have been called the “premium” or “luxury” collection. Internally, where the collection was shrouded in secrecy befitting the Manhattan Project last summer, it was known to employees as the “red label” collection.
Branding it the “designer collection” appears to be a way of piggybacking on the company’s earlier designer series (see below) and, oddly, giving Victoria’s Secret some couture cred by positioning it alongside other fashion lingerie “designers”.
It also capitalizes on the snobbish appeal of the word “designer”, which usually means “better and more expensive” in a consumer culture besotted with designer dogs, designer cocktails and even designer diapers.
Of course that approach could backfire, since it begs the question: If this is “designer” lingerie, what’s all that other stuff they sell?
Is it really sold out — and if so, why?
It’s hard to know whether this collection sold truckloads or if VS simply ordered a small test run — regardless, there’s not much left. The collection went on sale online and in fewer than 10 stores in the last week of January. To make matters worse, most styles were offered in a very limited range of sizes. The pretty powder-blue sheer lace corset above, for example, only comes in four sizes — and only the 34C is still available.
This has all the hallmarks of a market test which, given its eager reception, will almost certainly come roaring back later with much wider distribution and selection. Think of it as the lingerie world’s equivalent to the McRib.
Why was there so much secrecy around this collection?
There’s a lot riding on this for Victoria’s Secret: they’re not just trying to sell a new line, they’re ultimately hoping to redefine the lingerie shopping experience for North American women. By testing this market, VS wants to learn whether there’s a broader public appetite for the kind of luxury and status-symbol appeal offered by the dozens of tiny brands nipping at their heels and, more importantly, by sexy (and more costly) European imports like La Perla, Agent Provocateur and others.
In other words, are North American women ready to start spending more for better intimates?
If they’ve guessed right (and we think they have), it’s a timely move. Just as Victoria’s Secret continues to expand into other countries (its UK flagship store is set to open this summer in London), so too are offshore competitors — especially Agent Provocateur — looking to expand stateside and take a bite out of their North American market share. Expect a long, hot summer ahead.
How does this affect independent lingerie designers?
To make room for the Designer Collection, Victoria’s Secret axed a long-time tradition of showcasing the work of hand-picked independent labels by buying their goods and giving them display space in select retail outlets. Among those featured brands were The Lake and Stars, Yes Master, La Fée Verte, Bordelle, and Ell & Cee. The program also gave established international labels such as Pleasure State, Chantal Thomass and Lascivious an introduction to the North American market.
Numerous young labels benefited from the program, which put VS in the unusual position of promoting (and profiting from) its competitors. Even so, that program allowed VS to market-test some fashion-forward styles that didn’t fit its own catalog, and it created a lot of industry goodwill. Indie labels appreciated the outreach and coveted a spot in the VS designer series, knowing it could provide brand exposure and much-needed revenue during their startup phase.
“They were wonderful to work with,” Laura Mehlinger of the young fashion label Lola Haze told Lingerie Talk. “Their buyer was talented and made elevated and interesting buys. I was initially surprised at how daring some of her choices were for a mass market store.”
The Turkish label Else had some of its distinctive Chevron collection picked up by Victoria’s Secret last fall, just before the program was discontinued. “We were happy they picked us and wish that business was continuous rather than just a one-time opportunity,” Else designer Ela Onur told us. “I think having a high-end designer mix was a good strategy to raise VS’s consumer profile.”
Alas, that highly sought-after market entry point is now closed to a new generation of up-and-coming designers.
Is there anything original about the new collection?
The promotional material for the Designer Collection calls it “lingerie only Victoria’s Secret could create” — an odd bit of hyperbole that is both untrue and kind of a rude jab at the hundreds of other designer brands that are in the same business.
VS creative chief Ed Razek offered the same kind of silliness when he told Women’s Wear Daily: “We took it in-house because we have a design team that has such a passion for lingerie and they differentiate Victoria’s Secret from any other brand.”
In fact, the opposite is true here. However lovely the VS Designer Collection is, much of it is boilerplate French lingerie design — nothing wrong with that! — and the kind of thing produced by innumerable other couture labels and department store brands alike. It’s only “new” to Victoria’s Secret.
The company admits as much in its own promo material, which says the collection is “inspired by iconic Parisian fashion and crafted with a nod to European couturiers.”
How will North American indie designers survive now?
The move by Victoria’s Secret into “fancy” undies isn’t so much a threat to independent designers as it is a recognition of the tremendous growth in the number and creativity of new labels over the past few years.
These days, creative designers can pitch their wares to a growing assortment of distribution channels such as high-end fashion retailers like Barney’s, online stores like Net-A-Porter and aggressive boutiques with robust web operations.
Treacle from The Lingerie Addict told us about bumping into a couple of lingerie designers in Seattle who were on their way to a meeting with Nordstrom which, she said, “is swooping in and beginning to carry a lot of designer lines after years of sticking to the same old brands.”
Fashion retailers are scrambling to offer exclusive labels and boutique collections to differentiate themselves and incentivize customers. A big, creative independent lingerie industry fits that model very well.
What’s the long-term impact of all this?
The Designer Collection opens Victoria’s Secret up to a whole new market segment — women willing to spend hundreds of dollars at once on lingerie shopping sprees. That usually means a more mature customer with more discretionary income and more glamorous tastes than they are used to serving.
But it’s not just the older market up for grabs here. Assuming VS decides to expand this collection, it could have a long-lasting impact on their typical, younger clientele as well.
Countless women (and men) in North America under the age of 40 learned about lingerie and developed their own style preferences primarily through their exposure to Victoria’s Secret and its relentless marketing. Many are either unaware of, disinterested in, or don’t have access to luxury import labels or arty designer offerings.
The Designer Collection is poised to change all that by introducing a higher standard of lingerie fashion to millions who now think splurging on a $30 three-pack of lacy briefs is the height of self-indulgence.
If Victoria’s Secret succeeds in stimulating people’s appetite for finer, more stylish lingerie, everyone will benefit and all those small labels currently on the outside looking in will be glad they did.