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The Pillar of Panties

Frederick's is trying to pull itself up by the garters, but it's no secret that Victoria's Secret seems to have the corner on lingerie cachet.

August 11, 2000|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

People come from far and wide to see and touch this aging Hollywood icon. A white sequin and lace bustier with matching panty peeks out from under hot pink awnings. Pink neon signs alluringly beckon visitors to enter through glass doors into a world of pink--of 1950s glamour. Time seems suspended here at the Frederick's of Hollywood flagship store, a few blocks from Mann's Chinese Theater.

Frederick's, once innovative and provocative, seems quaint these days. At a time when lingerie is anything but undercover--think Victoria's Secret--Fredrick's is having a difficult time even though it draws customers from around the world.

Unable to escape a tawdry image acquired in the 1970s, despite all the pink, and burdened by heavy debt, Frederick's time warp gives a cheesy feel when compared to the slick Victoria's Secret.

Victoria's Secret boutiques put on a British air--or what the Ohio-based chain thinks Americans believe is British. Boudoirish. Tony. Upscale. Victoria's Secret's idea of a risque product is Sweet Temptations body splash. Compare that to a jar of Frederick's Body Butter (not animal tested, the store pointed out), which is an "edible cream of white chocolate, decadent chocolate, warm cherry and strawberry delight."

Get the picture? Frederick's comes off as naughty, Victoria's Secret high-toned. And, Frederick's advertising and catalogs are no match for Victoria's Secret's, which have an almost cultlike following. The difference in marketing savvy is reflected in sales. Frederick's has annual sales (200 stores--45 in California--and catalogs) of $140 million, compared to Victoria's Secret's (with 902 stores and 365 million catalogs a year) $2.1 billion.

If only times were as good as when Frederick Mellinger, inspired by the World War II pinup of Betty Grable, established a New York store in 1946 to sell "unmentionables." A year later he moved the store to Los Angeles. The late Mellinger, who ran the business until his retirement in 1984, introduced different colored undergarments--white was standard and proper--to America as well as padded and peekaboo bras and padded and edible panties. In 1981, Frederick's began selling thongs--long before it became a panty staple.

The company also sold its products through mail-order catalogs and opened stores in malls. In the 1970s, the company went public and diversified into other products. Since 1997, when Frederick's went private, it has had two owners--the latest the Newport Beach investment company Wilshire Partners. Last month, Frederick's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to get a handle on its financial problems--$55 million in bank debt and a series of costly blunders.

Now Frederick's has to pull itself up by its garter belt straps to emerge from bankruptcy. Linda LoRe, chief executive officer and president, faces the task of taking Frederick's into the new millennium by giving the chain a fresh image and modernizing stores.

The challenge for LoRe is to maintain Frederick's world-famous brand while stripping the company of the sleazy image. LoRe came to Frederick's last year after 11 years at Giorgio Beverly Hills, where she launched and relaunched fragrance brands, such as Hugo Boss and Red.

She described the Frederick's catalogs of the 1950s and '60s as "sexy and glamorous--not trashy, not sleazy." Then in the '70s, Frederick's response to women burning their bras was to carry more risque items, such as sex toys.

"And wouldn't you know," said the 46-year-old LoRe, dressed in black pants, black top and a colorful jacket, "that's when the baby boomers--and I'm a baby boomer--would have gotten a lot of that image." A "Boogie Nights" feel, is how she summed it up, referring to a film about the Los Angeles pornography industry.

You can still find crotchless undies along with cotton thongs--Frederick's sells 40,000 a week nationwide. Vampy shoes and boots can be found at the back of the Hollywood store. They are strappy, high-heeled, vinyl, Lucite and, of course, there's the traditional mule with marabou toe made famous by Jean Harlow.

One local, who preferred to go by the drag name Asia, was strapping on a pair of 3 1/2-inch platforms with 7 1/2-inch heels. Asia was looking for the right shoe to wear to a drag queen pageant in L.A. later this month. When asked, "How do you wear those things?" Asia, strolling up to a mirror, said, "Very carefully."

Other shoppers are attracted to the more practical Frederick's offerings. Somer Williams, a nurse who lives in Beverly Hills, said she shops at Frederick's every couple of months for undies and bras because she likes the competitive prices and quality of the merchandise. New Yorkers Sandra and Alexander Fine, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in L.A., stopped by Frederick's and picked out a sexy nightgown for their married daughter.

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