BUSINESS

Silky new profits

Lingerie’s appeal has never been greater

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 5 1988
BUSINESS

Silky new profits

Lingerie’s appeal has never been greater

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 5 1988

Silky new profits

BUSINESS

Lingerie’s appeal has never been greater

Buying lingerie is usually a private affair.

That may have been the reason that the seven women who had gathered in the basement of a suburban Burlington, Ont., home last week seemed a little ill at ease. The occasion was a so-called lingerie party, given by Ma Cherie Ltd., a Burlington manufacturer that sells exclusively through a network of independent sales agents. As two of the women, mothers in their 30s, modelled ruffled nightgowns, satin pyjamas and relaxed evening wear that would not be out of place in the bedroom, the discussion was alternately appreciative and self-conscious. There were also giggles when more exotic items appeared, and some bewilderment over the correct matching of panties, jackets and gowns. As the evening wore on, the women become more relaxed and receptive. Eventually some of them bought items. For Ma Cherie, a successful party means handsome profits. And for the customers, the purchase of a lace-trimmed nightgown or satin kimono imparts a pleasant sense of pampered self-indulgence for relatively little cost. Because of that—and many other factors—Canada’s lingerie industry is enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity.

Indeed, lingerie’s allure has been growing rapidly during the past two years, peaking this fall in what Montreal designer Patrice Tremblay says is an unusally intense buying spree.

“The fall ’88 collection is in the stores, and

already we have repeat orders,” said an evidently surprised Tremblay, who designs for Montreal manufacturer Linda Lingerie. For lingerie manufacturers who specialize in expensive silk garments, sales are unlikely to be affected by the free trade agreement, partly because such companies have already established themselves firmly in the United States. Other companies that cater to less affluent customers could face stiff American competition with the lowering of protective Canadian tariffs. But many manufacturers in Canada’s burgeoning lingerie industry say that current sales are rising dramatically and that women are spending record amounts for individual undergarments and sleepwear. They are also making more adventurous selections, avoiding utilitarian garments in favor of silky fabrics, graceful styling and such handmade details as flowers, beading and lace. The trend, said Dream Shoppe Lingerie buyer Mariella Ciarlo in Toronto, is based on a desire to “feel feminine and pretty” and, for some women, to please husbands or boyfriends. Added Ciarlo: “By having more feminine lingerie, it can add interest to long-standing relationships.”

The new taste for lingerie has meant expansion and growing profits for a clutch of Canadian lingerie manufacturers based in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Better-off Canadian women seem to disregard price, frequently paying $75 for a slip, $65 for a camisole — a short, sleeveless undergarment—and $50 for matching bras and panties. Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd. buyer Jennifer Cakir says that her regular customers often casually spend at least $100 on a single visit to the Holt Renfrew store and many women spend hundreds of dollars more on fine underwear.

As a result of that kind of buyer enthusiasm, lingerie company revenues have soared to record levels. At Linda Lingerie, sales have topped $12 million this year, up from $7 million three years ago, and president Ronald Farha says that there is still room to grow. Revenues at Vancouver’s Adagio, which markets the designs of Patricia Fieldwalker, have shot up by 200 per cent in the past two years. And Linda Blake, head of a group of lingerie companies that includes Ma Cherie, said that her sales this fall are up by 50 per cent over the previous year. Total lingerie sales in Canada, including both underwear for day and sleepwear, are now estimated at $1 billion. The entire market for women’s clothing in Canada is about $9 billion retail and, except for lingerie, it has been depressed since 1985.

The reluctance to spend large amounts on outerwear has many women turning to lingerie, which generally costs less, to satisfy their appetite for fashionable new clothing. Camisoles frequently range in price from $25 to $85, compared with $200 for a blouse. Edith Murphy, merchandise manager for lingerie chain La Vie en Rose, says that with lingerie, “a woman gets a real buzz out of her clothing dollar.” Some manufacturers say that women are now buying such formerly routine items as bras for their fashion value, not simply as replacements in their wardrobe. The effect of

good lingerie is to help a woman feel attractive and to raise her mood, according to some manufacturers. Said Farha: “Big-ticket items are a hard sell these days. People are putting a lot of money into their homes.” He also said that women have become more comfortable buying expensive lingerie for themselves, rather than relying on gifts from men. Added Farha:

“Once into buying lingerie, women become addicted. It’s a cheap perk.”

According to Edward Johnson, chief executive officer of Adagio, more contemporary designs and greater sophistication in styling and fabrics are attracting women with money to spend. He added:

“Younger people are now designing lingerie. It is odd, but true, that the undergarment business used to to be dominated by older men.” Lingerie design, he added, had stagnated and had become overly utilitarian because considerations other than function were “not acceptable.

Now lingerie is an expression of lifestyle.”

Some Canadian manufacturers are now establishing reputations for styling and fine craftsmanship in the United States,

Europe and Japan. Adagio and Christine and Company, another Vancouver manufacturer, with designs by Christine Morton, are both known for fine silk robes, nightgowns and camisoles. The majority of their sales are in the United States, and their garments are sold in exclusive stores including Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Neiman-Marcus, a Dallas-based chain, and Nordstrom, a West Coast chain with headquarters in Seattle. Christine Morton’s luxurious designs—the most expensive item is a lacecollared robe that retails for almost $1,500— have appeared in such American television soaps as Dallas and Falcon Crest, and customers include Madonna, Cher and Elizabeth Taylor. Patricia Fieldwalker’s classic pieces have been used in TV series that emphasize fashionable and sensuous styles of living. Those include Miami Vice and Moonlighting.

As well as celebrity connections, markettargeting and strong promotion are also coaxing consumers to buy. Three years ago, when Madonna began appearing in a lacy black combination brassiere-and-corset known as a “bustier,” sales of the garment shot upward. And that new emphasis on lingerie, and feeling more feminine generally, seems to be finding a responsive chord with a whole generation of Canadian women. According to Toronto-based retail management consultant John Winter, lingerie is a “hot segment right now because somebody has targeted it. It was underdevel-

oped. And because the career woman wants to look good underneath as well as on top.” Winter points to Victoria’s Secret, a chain of American lingerie shops owned by clothing retailer The Limited Inc. Since 1981, the chain has grown to 260 stores from five and its

owners say that they expect to have 340 by the end of this year. The company is known for a sexy catalogue that appears several times a year. Canada has also spawned its own magazine devoted entirely to lingerie. The first issue of Linrich, published in Montreal this fall, has received an “overwhelming response” from women, according to editor Martin Stone. The glossy, 100page quarterly whose name is a combination of the words lingerie and rich, features lingerie fashions and is sold on newsstands across the country for $2.50.

Lingerie’s new popularity has also led to a growing taste for sexually provocative undergarments including push-up brassieres, merry widows (a combination bra, corset and garter belt), G-string panties and teddies—a close-fitting, sleeveless, one-piece undergarment. Black and red stretch lace has become more popular, and increasing numbers of women are wearing some items, including bustiers, as evening wear or partly concealed under conventional jackets. Manufacturers have noticed that the taste for sexy underwear varies across the country, with Quebec and the Prairies displaying the greatest preference for provocative lingerie. Said one eastern designer, who requested anonymity: “For Calgary, we can’t make things sexy enough. But in the Maritimes and Ontario, consumers are more conservative.” La Vie en Rose’s Murphy says that lingerie sales are still “reaching for the top” partly because of the current emphasis on body-conscious outer clothing. She added: “Women no longer feel ashamed of their bodies. It is not considered sexist to spend money on lingerie.”

Some experts in the lingerie industry speculate that such trends are natural in an AIDSconscious society where monogamous relationships are receiving more attention. Said Farha: “When attitudes toward sex are more open, clothes are less provocative. When the opposite is true, clothes become sexier.” But others say that women are simply taking better care of their bodies with exercise and diet and are more interested in pampering themselves. Whatever the reason for lingerie’s growing popularity, most manufacturers agree that the current cycle of growth still has room to continue its upward trend. In that atmosphere created by eager consumers, Canadian designers can continue to expect an enthusiastic reception for their designs—at home and abroad.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM