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40th Anniversary : Frederick's Cuts Down Glitz, Keeps Up Shape

October 30, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

Ancient Egyptians created loin cloths, skirts and other linen garments so fine that they were virtually transparent.

Botticelli's models in Renaissance Italy wore gauzy, loose-fitting outfits, the forerunners of thin, cotton see-through gowns worn by early 19th-Century European women.

Victorian women donned lacy, colored, transparent underwear along with colored silk and satin petticoats and embroidered stockings that were supposed to be seen when they lifted their skirts.

That history notwithstanding, it was still somewhat scandalous when Frederick Mellinger, inspired by the Betty Grable pinup, introduced his line of scanty undergarments in 1946.

But time passes, and the line seems far less shocking this month as the the 140-store lingerie chain Mellinger created, Frederick's of Hollywood, celebrates its 40th anniversary selling what one fashion expert sees as virtually a bit of Americana.

"They have stayed with that pinup style of the '40s for 40 years," said Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The slightly naughty, but not necessarily offensive look. I would call it almost an American folk dress. It sounds odd, but a folk dress is a fashion that stops and remains the same."

Now, prodded by the first annual loss in company history--a deficit of $148,000 on sales of $45 million last year--Frederick's is modifying that "folk dress" and trying to change its image.

Edible Love Oils

The customer will still find the type of items that made Frederick's famous: edible love oils, lacy, backless, one-piece Little Bare's and padded panties that shape the derriere.

And the centerpiece of the business, the original Hollywood Boulevard store, retains its two-story purple exterior and gold, cranberry and peach interior.

But as the Hollywood store traded briskly in brief nurse and pirate Halloween costumes this week, some things were different. Opaque blue and green teddies and camisoles joined traditional red and black see-through items on the racks.

The store catalogue had excised bare-breasted models, and Frederick's no longer sold books on sexual positions or other items that current management considered offensive.

While the Hollywood store retained its gaudy color scheme, a Frederick's branch store at the Del Amo Fashion Square in Torrance, the prototype for a company-wide remodeling program, lured customers with muted lavender carpeting, mauve walls and pink dressing rooms.

George Townson, who took over as chairman and chief executive officer in 1985, the year after Mellinger retired, said the company changed when it was forced to seek a more mainstream market.

"I reviewed the company for three months before I agreed to take over," said Townson, 45. "The bottom line came across as an untapped gold mine. It just needed updating and tender loving care."

Townson said department stores, independents and the Limited's 133-store intimate apparel chain, Victoria's Secret, had been taking discreet bites out of the intimate apparel market that Frederick's used to dominate.

Prodded by the competition, Frederick's started its upscale Private Moments stores, now open in eight locations.

But competition was not Frederick's only marketing problem, Townson said. Standing outside many Frederick's stores in shopping malls had convinced the new CEO that the outlets "stood out negatively to mainstream customers. The types of mannequins and the look in the window was always sort of hard. It reeked of Hollywood in a negative context. There was too much glitz. . . ."

"People walking by were almost embarrassed to go in," he said.

Sitting in Mellinger's former office in the basement of the Hollywood store, Townson said Frederick's needed to change that impression.

"We want to be known as a legitimate intimate apparel company, not just as a flaky, kooky place to get off-color items. . . ," he said.

'Sleazy Is Bad'

"We use the guideline sexy is good; sleazy is bad. It's a fine line. Sometimes it's purely judgmental. But I get very offended when we are referred to in print as sleazy merchants. The problem is the image in the customer's mind, which takes a long time to change."

Frederick's hopes to accomplish the change without softening public demand for its bras. Although promotions for items such as black nighties, five-inch heels, and musical panties created Mellinger's reputation as the "King of Fashion Passion," bras have always been the foundation of Frederick's business, accounting for 30% of current sales.

During its anniversary celebration, the Hollywood store has exhibited earlier Frederick's gowns and bras, including two from the 1950s: the heavily stitched missile and snow cone bras for "ladies who wanted to look pointy and projected" and the rising star, which "pushed up and in and gave you cleavage," said Ruth Frolove, the bra buyer for Frederick's stores.

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