In the lingerie industry, there's a little man behind the curtain who pulls all the corset strings and his name is Frederick-of-Hollywood. Fred Mellinger passed away in 1990, but the company he started in 1946 is still the think tank of the undergarment industry. Yes, Victoria's Secret gets most of the attention, but if Frederick's CEO Linda LoRe has her way, the company will soon grab some limelight of its own, thanks to a re-branding campaign that has Frederick's embracing its saucy heritage.
Mellinger, who moved into the flagship store's current location on Hollywood Boulevard in 1947, started out on the cutting edge. His first product offering was black lingerie, something Americans had never seen outside of a French postcard. Most of today's bra-wearers (and the people who love them) probably don't know that Frederick's also pioneered the padded bra and the push-up bra; sold the first bikini in California (it was a leopard-print number); and introduced the now-ubiquitous thong and the boy-leg panty to the American public.
But despite its persistent creativity, Frederick's has been languishing for years-just like Hollywood. The city and its namesake company seemed clueless about how to update their tacky image. Today, when most Americans think of women's lingerie, the picture that most likely comes to mind is of a Victoria's Secret supermodel striding aggressively across the screen during a break in the Super Bowl. Every season the retail giantess kills Frederick's with mega-selling versions of its innovative products (being first doesn't count for much in the fashion business, where good ideas circulate freely). Now, as Hollywood attempts to pull itself up by the bootstraps, Frederick's, the second-largest lingerie retailer in America, is doing the same.
How does a company announce its own retooling? with a party, of course. This spring, the "new" Frederick's staged its first fall fashion week runway show in the Star Shoes bar/boutique on Hollywood Boulevard. The company previewed its fall line as well as its carnally delightful models. The party was so crowded that the fire marshal arrived to keep in check a horde that included a healthy number of extremely fashion-forward, if not quite A-list, celebrities. (If you can be a hit with both Melissa Rivers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis, you're certainly onto something.)
The fashion show is just one in a series of surprises that started three years ago when the Frederick's owners, Wilshire Partners, hired a new CEO to shake the company awake. Linda LoRe is not a typical corporate turnaround artist, judging by the unlikely story of her rise from shopgirl to executive. As a young fragrance buyer at Robinson's in the early '80s, LoRe saw an ad for a new perfume called Giorgio from a small boutique named Giorgio Beverly Hills. (The Giorgio name was starting to register on the public radar because it was mentioned in Judith Krantz's fashion-industry potboiler, "Scruples.") LoRe cold-called Giorgio and got through to the CEO, Fred Hayman. The rest of LoRe's story reads, oddly, like a Judith Krantz novel.
Before she knew it, LoRe had single-handedly brokered a deal between Robinson's and Giorgio that led to one of the biggest fragrance launches in history at that time. Going to work for Giorgio later, she worked her way up to CEO by repeating her success with another record-breaking fragrance launch, this time for Giorgio Red. LoRe spent 11 years at Giorgio, seven as CEO, before leaving in 1997 to develop a nonprofit entrepreneurial academy for disadvantaged youth.
In 1999, LoRe accepted the job of CEO of a decidedly disadvantaged company; Frederick's was creaky, with outdated cash registers and a confused corporate identity. Before she could put her marketing ideas to work, she had to tackle a mountain of debt acquired during a 1987 stock repurchase and buyout that took the company from publicly held to private. Forty-four million dollars is a lot of debt for a company with estimated annual receipts between $200 million and $250 million. The o! nly way LoRe had a shot at reinventing Frederick's was to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
As for the business itself, the catalog and retail divisions treated each other like competitors, and the 200-odd stores were not generally located in the best malls (the company's X-rated reputation was such that some high-end malls refused Frederick's entry). Even the flagship Hollywood store was hopelessly outdated, having received its most recent remodel in 1982, which is certainly not a moment any fashionista would care to be stuck in. The merchandise was downright bipolar, with a selection of racy-to-downright-sleazy stripper wear on the one hand, and a line of overly utilitarian, no-nonsense foundation wear on the other.