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Newcomers trigger bra wars in the UK

Overseas lingerie retailers are gearing up for a UK assault. But the dominance of Marks & Spencer and fashion multiples means they will have to work hard to gain a foothold in the market

The lingerie market is faddish in the extreme, with periods of relative peace followed by spells of apparent madness. Underwear-as-outerwear gave way to the Wonderbra explosion, when breasts were forced to perform acrobatics in the pursuit of a crowd-pleasing cleavage. Then knickers started vying for our attention; skimpy thongs emerged from low-slung jeans like they were trying to escape. They must have been successful: underwear had never been as conspicuous as it was at the start of the millennium.

In the mid-2000s, there is no craze to drive lingerie sales. Underwear madness seems to have transferred to men, who are snapping up multi-coloured Y-fronts as fast as you can say “Calvin Klein”. Meanwhile, what women want now is a well-fitting bra. And in the midst of this more subtle and sensible lingerie revolution, underwear retailers are gathering on UK shores.

Wild Orchid is Russia’s largest lingerie specialist, with about 200 shops. It manufactures underwear in Russia and south-east Asia under the Vendetta and Decollete brands. Its first UK store opens this week at Bluewater in Kent under its Vendetta fascia, with three more stores planned in London and Kent this year. Chief executive Alexander Fedorov also plans to open in the US and China.

Meanwhile, US brand Playboy will use next month’s opening of its European flagship store on London’s Oxford Street to help push Playboy Intimates, an underwear range based on the outfits of the Playboy bunnies, and young fashion brand Diesel recently inked a deal with the manufacturer behind lingerie business Victoria’s Secret to produce Diesel underwear.

Italian lingerie retailer Calzedonia is hot on their heels with plans to open a standalone store in London for its younger Tezenis underwear and hosiery brand, after introducing its Intimissimi chain to the UK last year. The UK’s first Tezenis store will open in the old Shellys unit at Oxford Circus before Christmas.

Carol Duncumb, chief executive at Intimas, which owns lingerie brands Lepel, Charnos and Discover Mademoiselle, says: “Intimissimi is a dominant player in Italy. It doesn’t surprise me that (Calzedonia is bringing) Tezenis to the UK. Other than La Senza and Marks & Spencer, there is plenty to go for.”

The difference between the UK and European lingerie markets can be summed up in three words: Marks & Spencer. The company has worked hard under chief executive Stuart Rose to clearly define its underwear brands, which include Ceriso, Per Una, Adored, Truly You, Body and Autograph, and to target a broader range of prices and age groups. Between 2006 and 2007 the company said its market share grew from 24.3% to 26.1%, five times more than any other operator. And in a 2006 report on the sector, market research group Mintel credited M&S with selling underwear to 37% of UK adults.

M&S may be the dominant lingerie player in the UK, but fashion multiples also have a healthy share of the £2.5 billion market. The lingerie offers from Debenhams, Primark, Asda and Matalan - not to mention Next, New Look and Oasis - are all thriving, alongside the UK’s major lingerie specialists La Senza, Contessa, Ann Summers, Agent Provocateur, Bravissimo and Figleaves.com.

It is a wonder there is any room left for the branded lingerie labels that have arrived in the past few years, such as Elle Macpherson Intimates. “Brands are not so powerful here as in Europe,” explains Duncumb, who will open a trial Intimas brands store in Nottingham in October. “The market is not there to support them. It is dominated by the multiples. The total market share for brands is something like 5% - it is quite a small, fragmented market.”

Despite the penetration of the multiples, there is a sense that specialists are on the rise. “We had a tough summer,” says Duncumb. “But we’ve come out of the international shows feeling optimistic, and sales for autumn/winter are optimistic. Independents are in a good position, with lots of brands performing. There is lots of newness. There is no shortage of advertising from retailers such as Next and M&S, which heightens consumer awareness. I feel really good about it.”

The market has recently missed out on the type of “Hello Boys” headline advertising that drove sales across the board in the 1990s. Brands including Wonderbra, Playtex, Shock Absorber and Berlei - all big advertising spenders - were sold by US parent the Sara Lee Corporation in November 2005 to private equity firm Sun Capital. They are now part of the DB Apparel group, and this has freed them up to start innovating and advertising again, but they are a big-hitting part of the branded sector and their absence has been felt.

“I think what is missing is original advertising campaigns that make us stop and stare as women, and not just the same old formula. The advertising industry needs to be more creative,” says Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold.

Instead of advertising to focus women’s minds, several TV programmes have put lingerie in the spotlight. Fashion makeover shows have made a big play around the issue of a well-fitting brassiere. “We got an amazing uplift from shows like Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear,” says House of Fraser lingerie Amanda Lepar.

Duncumb adds: “Recent TV programmes have emphasized wearing the ‘right’ bra. I don’t think the sexy and flamboyant stuff has gone away, but women are more aware that fit is important. The media is doing a very good job of translating the fit message, but it has not been well picked up at high street level.”

Playtex will launch a TV ad campaign in October on terrestrial and Sky channels to push its new range of My Size bras in half-cup sizes. Available in A to D “and everything in between”, My Size is being supported by bra-fitter training sessions for stockists nationwide.

DB Apparel managing director Debbie Rix says: “The lingerie market is increasingly driven by impulse and solution purchases and less by replacement, as we’ve seen in the past. With this shift in buying habits, the market looks set for more growth which is good news. The response by retailers and consumers to breakthrough innovations, such as Playtex My Size, shows the ability to grow. By marketing big ideas that meet consumer needs, we hope to drive breakthrough growth in the lingerie market.”

In its 2006 report, Mintel found that a quarter of consumers did not care whether a product was branded or own brand. Less than a fifth preferred to shop where there was a range of brands on offer. Mintel also found that just one in 10 thought it was worth paying more for branded underwear, which suggests consumers do not see a big difference in quality between brands and own labels.

However, more than a third of consumers said they always bought their underwear from the same place, demonstrating that retailer loyalty is more important than brand loyalty, especially among those aged under 45.

Where fashion and fit is an issue - on bras for example - consumers were less price-sensitive. The fun aspect and the treat aspect of underwear was noted by Mintel as an area ripe for exploitation, which helps to explain why the likes of Diesel, Playboy and Karen Millen - which will launch its first lingerie line this autumn - have opted to pursue lingerie as a brand extension.

“UK women still see lingerie as an accessory, but the perception in Europe is more advanced,” says Lepar. “Women there buy a new set of lingerie every month because it makes them feel better. The UK has only started to catch on in the past few years. It’s the next step for a lot of women. We’re educating them about the real benefits of a brand - Italian laces, Swiss embroidery. Once you get it, you’re hooked.”

Overseas lingerie retailers that are new to the UK will discover a sector that is getting better at protecting its market share. Women are better fitted; customer service is improving; and ads are visible, if not loud. There is a vast range of brands, styles and prices. The store environments where lingerie is sold are not quite so shambolic. But there is a huge amount of money being spent on lingerie by shoppers and a sense that the market can still grow if women can be persuaded that lingerie is a treat they deserve regularly.

Gold says: “You could not buy sexy lingerie on the high street 25 years ago. Today consumers are spoilt for choice. There is always room for new players, but it will be much harder for unknown foreign brands and chains to make their mark without huge ad campaigns, because they are competing with trusted brands.”

NEW UK LINGERIE PLAYERS

Calzedonia

Italian company Calzedonia was founded in 1986 and sells lingerie, hosiery and swimwear. The retailer has about 1,100 stores in 16 countries, including Spain, Portugal, Greece and Mexico. It generated EUR600 million (£407m) in sales in 2006. Calzedonia’s Intimissimi brand, launched in 1996, is one of the leading lingerie brands in Italy. There are two Intimissimi stores in the UK, both in central London.

Wild Orchid

Russian lingerie business Wild Orchid started from a single Moscow boutique in 1993, when it was the city’s only specialised store for luxury lingerie. In 2000 it launched a new middle market store concept, Bustier, which has 156 stores in Russia and the Ukraine. By 2005 the company also had an online store, and had launched its Vendetta label. Wild Orchid itself has 187 stores in Russia and 21 stores in the Ukraine. In the first quarter of 2007 the firm reported revenues of £11.8m, and posted sales of £35.5m for the whole of 2006.

Playboy

US brand Playboy will unveil its ninth retail store - and its first in Europe - in London on September 14. The 4,000sq ft shop will stock the company’s signature Intimates brand. Playboy Intimates’ lingerie range is inspired by the iconic costumes worn by the Playboy Club bunnies in the 1960s and 1970s.

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