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Lingerie leader Victoria’s Secret has new competition: Brands embracing body positivity

"There is now room for all types of bodies to be their own version of sexy," said an analyst.

Models wearing Victoria's Secret, Aerie, ThirdLove and PINK.
Models wearing Victoria's Secret, Aerie, ThirdLove and PINK.Read moreVictoria's Secret, Aerie, ThirdLove and AP.

In the Victoria's Secret window at the Shops at Liberty Place, a thin model with parted lips and straight hair stares straight ahead while wearing a black bra and lace undies. The words plastered around her image say she's wearing the "Very Sexy Push-Up" bra.

A block away at 1721 Chestnut Street at the intimates brand Aerie, models of all sizes show their stretch marks. One sits in a wheelchair, while another wears an ostomy pouch to collect waste. The words Change your bra! and Don't change you surround them.

Several companies are challenging the conventional view of what's sexy in the lingerie business.

Victoria's Secret's sexually charged images set the industry's standard for decades. But now upstarts are making inroads with a bold approach focused on self-acceptance. It's fueled by women who believe sexy is embracing their bodies, regardless of size or shape, and buying bras and lingerie for themselves, not necessarily for a partner's pleasure.

Brands like Pittsburgh-based Aerie, American Eagle's intimates brand, are pushing a body-positivity movement and selling products rooted in comfort and a wider sense of what's beautiful.

Victoria's Secret still maintains a grip on the $9 billion industry. Its parent firm gets 62.8 percent of those revenues, according to a 2018 IBISWorld report. But experts said the brand's inability to adapt to social changes is leaving room for competitors to flourish.

"These companies, now opposed to Victoria's Secret, want to say: 'We make for every skin tone. We make for every body type. … We're really thinking about you and what you want,' which I think is completely different from what's ever gone on in lingerie marketing before," said Lisa Hayes, director of the fashion design program at Drexel University.

Of course, brands like Aerie and Soma represent only 3.5 percent and 3 percent of industry demand, respectively, according to a 2018 IBISWorld report.

Many women continue to buy bras in department stores and at big-box retailers, said Cora Harrington, editor of the Lingerie Addict blog. What is popular in some fashion circles, like showing stretch marks, does not reflect what all women want, Harrington said. "A lot of women in middle America, they still want to wear shapewear and contour bras," she said. "Aerie is having a much larger impact on newer brands."

Still, Jennifer Redding, a Wedbush Securities senior analyst, said she sees the body-positivity trend as growing and long-lasting. While the frequency of the word sexy mentioned in womenswear newsletters has fallen 27 percent from January to October this year from 2016, the word power is up 60 percent and confident is up 140 percent, according to the retail technology and data firm Edited.

Experts say Aerie's success shows how many women's views are changing and that if Victoria's Secret doesn't alter its advertising, it could lose its dominant status. Victoria's Secret did not respond to requests for comment.

"The whole shift in the attitude of what lingerie expresses about a woman has harmed Victoria's Secret," said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail. "There is now room for all types of bodies to be their own version of sexy."

‘Early innings’ of a long decline

Victoria's Secret was once a radical concept. Its parent company, L Brands, was founded in 1963 in Columbus, Ohio, during the start of the women's sexual revolution. Bra fashion and a woman's place in society have long been closely linked. These undergarments have been used to define to what extent a woman's body should be covered and how it should look, and whether it's with a corset, bullet bra, Wonderbra, or no bra.

"Lingerie advertisements include showing women who are very thin, but still curvy, and in passive poses that men would conventionally find attractive," said Rosemary Clark-Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication. Often, models will be shown as just a body with the image cropping out her head.

But there's a new wave of shoppers who call out brands on social media for what they deem to be sexist and demand the products they want, she said.

There has also been a shift to more choices, to include different races and ethnicities in models. The intimates brand Naja launched the "Nude for All" lingerie line in 2016 with seven shades for all skin tones. And the bras becoming more popular — wireless, bralettes, and sports bras over push-up bras — indicate many women are actively choosing to be more comfortable.

Victoria's Secret has taken a more conventional approach. Last Valentine's Day, it advertised for women to buy lingerie for themselves, with messaging like "Me-day," "It's all about getting what we want! Gift your girls. Surprise your valentine. Treat yourself."

Even so, the company's business has taken a hit.

Shares of L Brands, the Victoria's Secret parent, peaked at almost $100 in late 2015, but since then have tumbled to the mid $30s, a loss of over 60 percent. Most recently, it saw comparable store sales decline every quarter in 2017 and 2018. Chief financial officer Stuart Burgdoerfer told analysts that he was "not satisfied" and is "very focused on improving performance."

Randal Konik, an equity analyst at Jefferies, called Victoria's Secret "still broken" in a recent note to investors. He also criticized PINK, the company's intimates line for teens and young adults, as being in "the early innings of what we believe will be a long decline."

"Victoria's Secret has stayed more true to their brand aesthetic vs. having picked up on the trends of different shapes and sizes and body-positivity trends," Wedbush's Redding said.

Even when faced with declining shares, Les Wexner, CEO of L Brands, told the Financial Times that he still believes in the brand's signature image. "Why lace? Why silk? Why push-up? Why these characteristics? It has something to do with the shape of the figure. Women want to project a figure."

American Eagle, meanwhile, saw shares grow to $23 from about $15 in late 2015. Comparable sales at Aerie, its intimates brand, rose 27 percent, or $25.5 million, in its second-quarter filing in August. This was the 14th consecutive quarter of positive sales increase for American Eagle, according to the filing.

"After starting a body-positivity movement, Aerie is nothing short of spectacular, delivering record growth rates and gaining market shares in the intimate space," CEO Jay Schottenstein crowed on a May earnings call.

Stacey McCormick, Senior Vice President for Marketing, described the company's approach in an email: "We wanted to show our girls that shopping for bras and underwear and swim should be fun – not scary or uncomfortable. Being happy in your own skin, loving and being true to yourself – that is what is beautiful and sexy!"

Aerie's strategy is reflecting a society shift, experts say.

At New York Fashion Week in September, women of all sizes, races, and ethnicities — along with two pregnant women and models who have been Victoria's Secret angels like sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid — walked in Rihanna's Savage X Fenty lingerie show. The YouTube video of the show has racked up more than 1.4 million views.

"This couldn't be a more ripe time to say: 'I want what I want. This is just for me. I'm proud, I'm happy the way I am, and make something for me and I'll buy it,' " said Drexel's Lisa Hayes.

A ‘new normal’

When Bess Neiblum, 17, looks at Victoria's Secret ads, she feels like she isn't worthy enough to wear those bras. The women, in her view, all have "perfect" skin, bodies and makeup and none look like her. But after about a year of following Iskra Lawrence, a body positivity activist and one of Aerie's designated role models, on Instagram, and seeing the company's ads, Neiblum said she feels more empowered.

"When I see the Aerie campaign I think 'That's me," Neiblum, of West Chester, said.

Another company promoting body acceptance is ThirdLove. Founded in 2013, the women-led start-up offers bras in more than 70 sizes including half-cups with an emphasis on comfort and functionality. It promotes its direct-to-consumer brand with models of all ages, including women over 50 who are part of the industry's key demographic but are rarely reflected in advertising.

ThirdLove has grown 300 percent year-over-year on average in the last two years and had 1.3 million on a wait list for the "Perfect Coverage" bra in the extended sizes launched in June, according to the company.

When asked about diversity in lingerie, Ra'el Cohen, ThirdLove's chief creative officer, said: "We actually think it's the new normal.

"Women are really taking back and owning things that have historically been defined by men."

Alyse and Lexi Scaffidi of Glassboro, N.J., decided to start their own body-confidence show after years of watching the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show without any indication that the models would become more diverse. Earlier this month, people of all shapes and sizes, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, and disabilities from 15 states crowded into the 2300 Arena in South Philly for the DreamWalk fashion show.

Last year they had to recruit people to walk, said Alyse, 28, and Lexi, 26. This year there were more than 300 applications for about 65 spots. Those models included Jaleesa Graham, 28, who was born missing the lower half of her right arm; Ginger Dean, 30, who has alopecia universalis, a condition causing complete hair loss; Jessica Elstone, 37, who has Down syndrome; Jani Gerard, 51, who does not usually see women of her age on the runway; and Elena Hernandez-Sixtos, 25, who loves Victoria's Secret lingerie but had to lose dozens of pounds to fit into its products.

“We’re starting to redefine what beauty is,” Alyse Scaffidi said.