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Lingerie moves further into the light of day

Intimate-style clothing continues its progress from bedroom to boardroom, defying the meaning of its label.

October 17, 2005|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

Looking into the windows of the new Frederick's of Hollywood, positioned between the Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, can be a little disorienting. The sleek red awnings that suggest Barneys New York and the large picture windows with scantily but elegantly clad mannequins posed as if at a movie premiere seem somewhat incongruous with the lingerie emporium that has merited a place in so many punch lines.

And that's not the only disorienting news in the world of intimate apparel. Within a week of the Frederick's grand opening, national headlines decried what some shoppers had called the provocative raunch on display in two Victoria's Secret stores' windows. Reacting to life-like mannequins in suggestive poses wearing garter belts, thigh-highs, thong panties and low-cut bras, a Milwaukee-area group staged protests, and shoppers at a suburban Virginia mall voiced disgust.

The marketing efforts of both chains are just more evidence of lingerie's growing status in the world of fashion. Lingerie is multitasking so much (Is it a blouse? A camisole? Shorts? Underwear?) that it's outgrown its label. Consider: The Chicago-based market research firm Mintel expects sales of intimate apparel to reach $8.6 billion in 2005 and predicts that figure will grow to $9.3 billion in three years.

Underwear has become synergistic with fashion, according to Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "It used to be that women's foundations helped shape the fashionable body, and as body fashion changed, the lingerie fashion went with it." Now, says Steele, we simply choose our lingerie to match whatever style we're wearing.

'From sheets to streets'

For a moment, it seemed as if Frederick's, with its new boudoir-like pink and cream motif, crystal chandeliers and trendy lingerie, had become less brazen, more Victoria's Secret-like, while the latter was attempting to project a naughtier image. Frederick's retired its infamous marabou slide to Web-only sales while Victoria's Secret offered bondage wear. In truth, both chains have no intention of neglecting their original clients. Each company simply wants to expand its customer base as lingerie continues to move from the bedroom to the boardroom.

Underwear as outerwear is not new; what's up to the moment is the extreme nature of what's being worn and how. "The whole body is an erogenous zone now," says Kevin Jones, costume historian at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles. It's up to the shopper to figure out what to emphasize -- bust, derriere, legs -- and how far to push it.

The idea isn't infecting just specialty stores. Department stores such as Robinsons-May increasingly feature lingerie as part of sportswear. The cover of the fall Robinsons-May fashion catalog featured a sheer chiffon tunic that exposed its coordinating underpinnings.

"The lines between categories are all blurred now, and everything speaks to fashion trends," says Hope Brick, the chain's vice president and fashion director. Lingerie "goes from the sheets to the streets."

That poses a challenge for Frederick's, which used to be alone in over-the-top underthings. Now the 59-year-old chain is aiming to also be a destination for trendy and sophisticated lingerie. Though there isn't a bra that isn't push-up, padded, low-cut or see-through, they're all in this season's colors (burgundy, deep green, dusty pink). The dozen corsets offered at Frederick's can swing from innerwear (they come with matching thongs) to outerwear when you remove the detachable garter straps.

Step into Victoria's boudoir, and you might find a set of floral satin bondage wristlets with a matching blindfold. The $28 items are part of a special collection for Victoria's Secret by French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass. Check out the mannequins wearing the Sexy Little Things collection of strappy thongs, and you'll wonder why a foot of ribbon can cost $25. Corsets have rhinestone "laces" bridging the cleavage, while a rhinestone heart charm dangles in a panty's rear cut out.

But it seems as if Victoria's Secret is trying to add sizzle to stores crowded with basics. Earlier this year, the chain started a campaign to nab college-age shoppers with its new "Pink" collection of dorm-friendly loungewear such as cotton hoodies, baggy pajama bottoms and T-shirts. With such innocent-seeming basics in store, along with a profusion of fuller-cut panties and boy shorts, Victoria's Secret may seem headed down the same path as sportswear brand Abercrombie & Fitch, whose sensual ads and racy (and now defunct) catalog helped deliver a controversial edge to a collection of rather ordinary distressed jeans and T-shirts. A typical Victoria's Secret store stocks a broad selection of cotton panties and bras designed to be discreet.

Slippage of the slip

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