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Is America ready for Honey Birdette?

The aggressively erotic — and controversial — Australian lingerie brand established a beachhead in the U.S. last weekend with the launch of its American online shop … and hints of retail store openings to come.

The move was widely expected, especially after the company teased a desert-themed photoshoot last fall called Vegas or Bust, triggering rumours of U.S. expansion. A few months earlier, Honey Birdette opened its first UK store in London’s Covent Garden, quickly followed with two more and now says it “ideally” will have up to 50 stores in Britain by year’s end.

None of this should come as a surprise, because there is nothing subtle and nothing slow about Australia’s most successful (and divisive) newcomer to the knickers scene in the past decade.

Offering a potent mix of sophisticated date-night lingerie sets and elaborate fetish-themed ensembles along with its own line of sex toys for men and women, Honey Birdette debuted in 2006 as a woman-owned, sex-positive brand aiming to “inject a sense of sensuality into the bedroom.”

Provocative marketing, like this 2012 ‘flash mob’, helped put Honey Birdette on the map.

The brand opened lavish stores in high-traffic shopping centres and became known for its provocative marketing. In 2012 it staged a Valentines Day flash mob in downtown Sydney, sending over 30 lingerie-clad models into the streets. Such moves infuriated conservatives and made Honey Birdette a frequent target of censors, but it also thrust the brand into a national conversation about women, sex and pleasure.

“I grew tired of not being able to find an inviting retailer and set out to create a luxury space for women to find anything they desired to feel empowered,” co-founder Eloise Monaghan, who was a PR consultant before launching the brand, said recently.

Honey Birdette’s ‘Vegas or Bust’ campaign last fall hinted at its upcoming U.S. expansion.

Honey Birdette was well-positioned for growth in the wake of the global 50 Shades of Grey publishing phenomenon in 2011 — it already offered the product inventory and had the fetish-friendly aesthetic that other brands scrambled to emulate in order to meet demand from suddenly curious customers. The same year, Honey Birdette attracted a majority investment partner in retail giant BBRC, which runs Australia’s low-priced Bras ’N Things chain and which had both the cash and experience to plot the brand’s global expansion.

Today, Honey Birdette calls itself “the fastest lingerie fashion label in the world,” launching at least one new collection every week. For followers of the brand, it’s exhausting to keep up with the steady parade of new designs. And for collectors it can be expensive, as its lingerie sets typically cost $200-300.

Renowned lingerie model Tiah Eckhardt has been a brand ambassador since 2015.

The timing of Honey Birdette’s U.S. debut is interesting to say the least. The North American lingerie market has pivoted dramatically in recent years toward comfortable, stylish basics and activewear crossovers, and the market dominance of Victoria’s Secret, the nation’s leading purveyor of sexy undies, is eroding perceptibly.

Other brands have made waves in the kinky boudoir space, but recent results do not inspire optimism. Coco De Mer, Britain’s retail leader in all things erotic, closed its New York and L.A. stores in 2010 and last year, Kiki De Montparnasse, the home-grown gold standard in pricey kinkwear, simply vanished from New York’s retail landscape.

Honey Birdette’s most obvious industry counterpart is Agent Provocateur, the UK-based sexy faux-French label whose future is now clouded by a messy and widely-publicized bankruptcy.

AP, which has about 30 retail locations in North America, last week announced the closing of all four of its stores in Australia a mere four years after opening there. It’s unclear how much of AP’s retreat can be attributed to competition from Honey Birdette, which preceded it in the Australian market by several years, and how much stems from the toxic stew of malfeasance, miscalculation and management hubris that led to the deplorable fire sale of the trendsetting British brand last month. With the company mired in accumulated debts, it’s also uncertain how much of AP’s global empire of 100+ stores will be left standing after corporate restructuring.

Honey Birdette will also face meaningful competition in the U.S. from hundreds of independent designer-led labels that have sprung up in the past decade, serving (and sometimes creating) every imaginable niche in the lingerie market.

None of these indicators seems to faze Honey Birdette, which says demand for its racy wares is already booming in the U.S. The company has experienced a 374% growth in U.S. sales, it said in a press release, and American (as well as Canadian and Mexican) customers will now benefit from free shipping and pricing in local currency.

The company says it is “currently reviewing locations for our first U.S. store” and, based on its Aussie strategy of luring customers in suburban shopping malls and urban business districts, it could be on a collision course with both Victoria’s Secret and Agent Provocateur in North America.

Two of Honey Birdette’s recent ad campaigns that have drawn censors’ wrath.

Even before its arrival here, Honey Birdette had an international reputation for its eye-popping designs, celebrity fans (Lady Gaga) and its steamy advertising, which frequently generates controversy (and international headlines) Down Under.

Last year, Australia’s Advertising Standards Board upheld complaints about two Honey Birdette promotions — an image showing a bound-and-gagged Santa Claus, which complainants said promoted sexual violence and was inappropriate in shopping malls frequented by children; and a window display called ‘Room Service’ that complainants said alluded to prostitution.

The brand also has the distinction of having its own watchdog protest group, Collective Shout, which leads campaigns to stop depictions of sexuality in corporate culture and which has called Honey Birdette “a sex shop masquerading as a fine lingerie store.” The organization routinely denounces Honey Birdette promotions that appear in public places and has become a persistent thorn in the brand’s side.

In December, former employees burned bras during a protest in Melbourne.

A bigger weight on the brand’s aspirations, though, may be the damage to its reputation caused by allegations of exploitation, harassment and dangerous workplace practices by former employees. Beginning late last year, hundreds of former sales staff — which the company calls “Honeys” — filed complaints saying they were encouraged to flirt with customers and were routinely harassed by male shoppers, characterizing the workplace environment as sexist and degrading.

A group of ex-employees launched an online petition in December called ‘Not Your Honey’, which insisted the company upgrade its employment policies and sales strategies. The group then staged a protest outside a Honey Birdette store on Valentines Day to call for boycott of the brand, using the hashtag #BreakUpWithBirdette.

Honey Birdette has disputed the allegations, saying in December that the brand is “all about empowering women and supporting our wonderful staff.” But the scandal has mushroomed on social media and has even drawn attention from some Aussie lawmakers.

Whether the taint of that controversy follows Honey Birdette into the massive American marketplace remains to be seen. But there’s one thing the company didn’t plan on as it plotted its move — it arrives trailing controversy, dodging comparisons to Agent Provocateur’s sorry meltdown and on the heels of another scandal about worker mistreatment involving another American lingerie brand.

This time, the timing isn’t necessarily in their favour.

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