Sometimes I hear people wonder why it is that certain lingerie brands, particularly Agent Provocateur and Victoria’s Secret, has achieved such a strong foothold in the American public’s understanding of ‘lingerie.’ And I’m always surprised to hear them ask, because to me the answer is simple: they have the kind of marketing that tells a story.
Lingerie seems to exist in a liminal place, somewhere between fashionable and functional and yet lacking many of the advantages of both categories when it comes to marketing. Fashion has the advantage of being bold and flashy, reveling in the new and the public. Functional items are useful, but innovation in the lingerie world really moves fast enough or in a helful enough direction that its marketing can be driven by ‘updates’ like an iPhone.
Why can’t lingerie just be like fashion? The answer lies in a simple fact: lingerie is invisible. Of course, outerwear fashion brands spend immense amounts of time and money on their designs, lookbooks, PR and advertisements which all create a solid, branded experience. But nothing will match the moment of seeing a friend or a style icon carrying a certain bag and making you feel in your gut that you would be some much more fashionable, put together and confident carrying that beautiful bag with you. (Replace bag with hat/shoes/necklace/dress as it applies).
With lingerie, that moment of identification is so often missing. We so rarely see other people in their lingerie that we have no points of reference of what it means to wear lingerie and what it feels like. A woman sweeping down the street in a magnificent red coat is an image of that allows us to connect that coat with that attitude and perhaps imitate it ourselves. The woman in red satin panties is unfamiliar, even disconcerting– which is exactly where fantastic marketing by lingerie brands like Victoria’s Secret comes into play.
What Victoria’s Secret gives its consumers is not underwear– yes, it may literally be a thong and a poorly fitted push-up bra, but they make it clear it really is about sexy. Victoria’s Secret is not subtle about it; they even have several lines that have ‘sexy’ in the name. But they also have their Angels, models who they use to embody all of the ‘sexiness’ that the average American woman is taught to yearn for. They’re out of reach, but they are real– you know the kind of woman you might turn into in the right panties and it’s not anything you’re going to get at Target or a department store even if they’re using the same padding and stretch lace.
If lingerie is rarely seen, it needs other, inner reasons to be important. I adore pretty things, which is part of what I love about lingerie– but the catalyst was Gossip Girl, a seemingly silly show, but one where the ultimate in luxury and self-collectedness came from utterly beautiful underthings. For a moment, those fictional characters were an entree into a world of hidden lacy garter belts and beautiful robes. That’s why the Victoria’s Secret Angels are so effective: they have such a strong presence and story that you associate with the brand. Through the lens of the Angels, lingerie itself takes on a more specific meaning than a glimpse in a changing room, the first bra your mother ever bought you or even the underwear of your lover. Loud and clear, the giant images of Victoria’s Secret Angels tell you exactly who the Victoria’s Secret woman is. And if you want to belong to that perfect, larger than life womanhood, that push-up bra may just be your ticket.
Agent Provocateur works very much in the same line, although the characters are less obvious– the strong identity they give to each of their lingerie sets, as well as choosing a well known model/actresses to be the face of each season makes the relationship between individual and lingerie an easier bridge to cross. Even if Agent Provocateur feels like it has lost its footing a little with its latest ridiculous (and somewhat offensive) videos, it continues to do what it promises: to provoke, to be sexual to be for a woman who knows what she wants.
‘Pretty’ might be enough to make someone buy a skirt, a bracelet, a watch– but it’s not enough for them to buy lingerie without already having an idea of the type of person they will be when they wear it. We need to be convinced of lingerie’s magical powers, of its ability to transform us in whatever way we’d most like to change. Lingerie means something when it connects with the body that’s wearing it– first in their imagination and then on themselves.