Sports bras to lift Victoria's Secret sales?

NEW YORK • In March, Victoria's Secret aired its annual swim special, an hour-long bikini bonanza starring a dozen of its supermodels.

Filmed at the sun-drenched paradise of St Barth's, "angels" such as Lily Aldridge, Candice Swanepoel and Behati Prinsloo showed off the label's latest looks, Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato performed hit songs and everyone played slow-motion beach volleyball to Salt-N-Pepa's Push It.

It was classic sex-infused advertising from a sex-infused brand. And it failed.

Two months later, parent company L Brands said it would shutter the swimwear business. While it was exploring new territories to conquer, its home turf of bras and underwear had come under assault by new rivals. Shares are down almost 30 per cent since October last year and sales growth had slowed.

Pressured by the rise of  athleisure - workout gear you can wear in the gym and on the street - Victoria's Secret had to change its priorities. It came up with a two- pronged approach.

In recent months, lingerie giant Victoria's Secret has ramped up its push to sell sportswear and bralettes.

The first is bralettes - an airy, more comfortable style that lacks underwire and is touted as no less enticing than the underwired counterpart.

After all this time spent telling women that cleavage-generating bras will make them more alluring, Victoria's Secret says women do not really need padding, after all. The question is, can it persuade shoppers that this is the new sexy?  

The more seismic, second prong is the company's decision to intensify its previously clumsy pursuit of the sports-bra consumer.

In recent months, Victoria's Secret has ramped up its push to sell sportswear and bralettes.

In e-mail messages for the bralettes, it assured customers that "no padding is sexy". In a promotional video for Victoria Sport, various models explain how hard they work out for their jobs as they jump rope, pump iron and take shots at a punching bag.

Victoria's Secret built a US$7.6- billion (S$10.2-billion) business by owning the gold standard of what was considered sexually desirable women's underwear.

Since it started selling lingerie in 1977, the brand seduced shoppers by playing to their fantasies. Catalogues were mailed to homes, their pages laden with busty women. An annual televised fashion show flaunted the rail-thin, toned bodies of the label's most famous models.

Padded bras became Victoria's Secret's moneymaker. The promise was simple: Wear this bra, become a bombshell. As the definition of sexy changed, its models slimmed down and showed more skin. Then they became more athletic.

Now, consumers demand intimate attire for different body sizes, a development that followed years of blowback over the unhealthy examples set by skeletal models.

But no matter what Victoria's Secret sells, it all comes down to sexiness.

Sports bras, in particular, present a peculiar puzzle for it. By nature, they are not overtly sexual - they are performance products made for a specific task. Women want them to create a static, dry and cool feeling. It is a tough sell to make moisture-wicking fabric come across as seductive.

Victoria's Secret has found itself losing ground to new online business models. Adore Me, a subscription commerce site, churns out new lingerie designs and keeps customers coming back with its VIP programme. True & Co uses a quiz to help shoppers pick their bra type, then sends products to their door, bypassing the fitting room.

Nonetheless, Victoria's Secret executives remain committed to their sports business,  saying they are getting "good sales growth". 

Mr Stuart Burgdoerfer, L Brands' chief financial officer, said in June: "We're in a business that has different fashion trends from time to time. Hopefully, in most cases, we're leading those trends, or certainly taking good advantage of those trends, in things like sports bras or bralettes."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Sports bras to lift Victoria's Secret sales?'. Print Edition | Subscribe