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undercover Whimsy

February 05, 1988|PADDY CALISTRO

Sex sells. Although that's no news to Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Los Angeles department stores are just now taking advantage of the adage. And they're proving the point--appropriately--with lingerie, also know as intimate apparel.

Once a department that refused to live up to its intimate name, lingerie has become at once enticing and romantic, filled with silk tango gowns, post-Madonna bustiers, rhinestone-studded teddies and ribbon-laced Merry Widows. These clothes are "far from functional," says Martha Withers, divisional merchandise manager for intimate apparel at the May Co. However lacking in function, such feminine froufrou is not without purpose, Withers points out, "They're for fun--and they sell. "

While some industry observers have called the trend a mass- market version of Frederick's of Hollywood, department store buyers say they are merely responding to consumer demands.

"The customer is fashion forward, she commands respect and has a minimum of time," explains Tracey Allen, divisional vice-president and fashion director for intimate apparel at the Broadway. "It's much easier for her to have everything pulled together in one special, appealing place."

So to merchandise these far-from-cheap frills, department stores have created specialized boutiques within lingerie departments. At the Broadway, all 43 stores feature Little Romance boutiques filled with petticoats, garter belts, teddies and sundry lacy looks.

At May Co., Amanda's Closet was opened in the fall of 1987 in 24 of the 34 stores, because, as Withers explains: "We felt we needed more intrigue and romance, something to attract a more updated customer in addition to our conventional consumers."

While the most expensive lingerie in Amanda's Closet rarely tops $38, Le Boudoir at Bullock's in South Coast Plaza takes a pricier approach to the sexy sell. According to Elizabeth Morello, Bullock's buyer for designer sleepwear, two customers bought black silk velvet robes trimmed in pink fox, labeled Christian Dior Le Connoisseur, for $1,000 each.

"Our customers splurge," Morello admits, but she notes that most indulge with less abandon, as the average Le Boudoir sale is about $125.

Who buys?

Says Morello: "Husbands and wives together when it's a high-priced item, and working women who want to treat themselves."

Says Withers: "Women in tailored suits."

Says the Broadway's Allen: "Men who want to give a very romantic gift and women with romantic streaks."

Despite different price ranges and labels, the approaches at Le Boudoir, Little Romance and Amanda's Closet are strikingly similar. Each has its de rigueur armoire or etagere and moody, modern mannequins; soft lighting and soothing colors are prerequisite.

For spring '88 there is lots of stretch lace in bodysuits, in short ballerina nightgowns and in the waist of slips in lengths ranging form floor to micromini. All-cotton Victorian teddies and sleepwear edged in feminine lace and satin ribbons are everywhere. Luxurious silk Charmeuse is used in pajama sets, nightgowns, robes, teddy sets and chemise slips.

"Romantic" and "sexy" are the words used most often--and sometimes interchangeably--to describe the merchandise. While one retailer refers to all-cotton gowns by Eileen West for Queen Anne's Lace as "utterly romantic," another says they're "totally sexy."

Within a boutique, one of these romantic/sexy gowns will be displayed next to a garter belt and bustier, but a pristine peignoir and bag of potpourri won't be far away. And neither will man-tailored PJs by Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren for Polo.

"What works about the boutique approach is that it has a narrow focus," says Laney Thornton, president of San Francisco-based Eileen West Ltd., which markets Queen Anne's Lace. "But it reaches a broad base of clientele because each person interprets the merchandise differently. The same item can appeal to 10 different customers for 10 different reasons."

Retailers give credit to Victoria's Secret, a lingerie boutique and mail-order operation based in Columbus, Ohio, for opening consumers' eyes to the pleasures of lingerie.

"Victoria's Secret gave the customer a place to shop where she could feel somewhat private and pampered. We've taken a more romantic, dramatic approach, but Victoria's Secret keeps us on our toes," Bullock's' Morello says.

May Co.'s Withers acknowledges that the 3,097-store lingerie chain taught other retailers that intimate-apparel departments "needed more intrigue and romance. So we decided to take sexy, sensuous, romantic merchandise and put it in Amanda's Closet."

Southern California retailers agree that the cocooning, or stay-at-home, trend has had a positive effect on sexy undies sales. "We're all discussing the impact of cocooning throughout the store. Leisure wear is already reflecting the impact and we expect it to continue," Allen says.

Thornton of Eileen West says his firm has seen dramatic increases in orders for robes, another reflection of the stay-at-home-and-cuddle-up phenomenon. "Our orders used to be two to one for gowns over robes, now it is exactly the opposite."

Wilder abides by the cocooning theory too, but notes the whole trend of the sexy sell reflects that "we're attracting a customer that we've never attracted before. She's willing to spend a lot of money on something fun, and she feels good about doing it. That tells me she feels good about herself."

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