What's sexy in China? Women buying lingerie spurn Victoria's Secret for homegrown brands

Atelier Intimo is among the Chinese lingerie brands sold at Xinlelu, a multibrand lingerie store in Shanghai. Its owner, Yilei Wu, says: “The most important thing for foreign brands that come to China is to understand Chinese ideas of ‘sexiness’.”
PHOTO: Atelier Intimo via South China Morning Post

It has been just over two years since Victoria's Secret hosted its first fashion show in Shanghai and opened a flagship store in the city's Xintiandi shopping district.

The shop's dramatic entry into China as a bricks-and-mortar retailer marked a big shift for China's lingerie industry, and a major win for Victoria's Secret, whose popularity in the US market has since faltered.

Back in the US, consumers have indicated the unwavering image of sexiness that Victoria's Secret has been projecting for four decades is no longer going to cut it. Instead, women have been demanding inclusivity and body positivity, both in lingerie brands' merchandising decisions and their marketing strategies.

Companies like Rihanna's Savage X Fenty and ThirdLove, among many others, have brought wider ranges of sizes and more diversity to the arena.

In China, though, Victoria's Secret's is claiming a growing share of the country's burgeoning lingerie market, one that is expected to be worth more than US$64 billion by the end of 2022, according to business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. One B. Riley Financial analyst told Business of Fashion in December 2018, that China, where young consumers have only recently become more open-minded about public displays of sexuality, holds the "biggest potential" for the brand.

One of China's own rising darlings of the lingerie industry, Neiwai, could hardly be more different to Victoria's Secret, and its message to women, that "this lingerie is for yourself", would probably resonate with many of those in the US who say sexiness should not be defined by what a man wants from a woman.

Neiwai is a Shanghai-based brand that started out on e-commerce platform Taobao in 2012 and has enjoyed rapid growth online and offline; it has more than 30 bricks-and mortar sales outlets and in 2018 raised US$9.5 million in series B+ funding.

Founded by Liu Xiaolu, Neiwai targets independent professional women who prioritise comfort but still seek elegance when buying intimate wear. Its lingerie sets come in shades of nude and colours found in nature, offer wireless support and feature soft fabrics. Its marketing imagery casts aside traditional ideas of sexuality and instead focuses on celebrating femininity.

"Neiwai's whole branding and concept just works well with the current market," says Yilei Wu, co-founder of Shanghai-based Xinlelu, one of the very few multi-brand stores that carries lingerie.

"They're about being truly comfortable with yourself, not caring what other people think about you. That message is clear. There are actually quite a lot of brands doing that these days, but they stand out because their whole visual image is very consistent and they truly understand what the Chinese customer likes."

Wu says she is not personally a fan of Victoria's Secret because she feels it does not "get" consumers like her. She describes the first time she visited a Victoria's Secret store in Shanghai. "I didn't like it, honestly," she says.

"The branding is outdated. It's not very alluring or interesting or attractive for the our group in general. It kind of reminded me of Playboy, the black and pink colour tones - it was very much the old-school sexy."

Wu says she and her friend struggled to find matching sets of underwear and bras as they dug through boxes situated on islands in the store. She also admits she wasn't such a fan of the colour options, which she felt were too loud and unsuitable for her skin tone.

"Branding is also quite a big problem," she says. "The whole feminist movement is international, and the ideas behind the Victoria's Secret fashion show aren't really in line with what's going on."

At her own shop, Wu strives to create a very different consumer experience for her Shanghainese clientele. She emphasises that she can't speak for the mass lingerie market, but that "her clients probably represent what the market will be like in the future".

"Xinlelu represents international Chinese women - what they think, what they wear, and what they love," Wu says. "The whole Xinlelu style is sophisticated and intellectual, but still effortless fun and must be sexy. This is what I'm looking for when working with lingerie brands."

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Part of this is buoyed by Xinlelu's own culture of body positivity. "Most of the clients, when they see the [advertising] campaign or look-book photos, they think they don't have the body for the product, especially if the brand uses foreign models. But when they see other customers sharing photos of themselves wearing it, it just works perfectly. You see straightaway the sales change."

Xinlelu stocks Chinese brands that show international flair, such as Shanghai-based Atelier Intimo, which opened a retail store in 2017 in the basement of the K11 Art Mall in the city. Its Italian-inspired lingerie sets come in soft, natural colours made with lace. Other brands it stocks include The Blender and CourNYC, whose styles are more minimal and colourful.

"With my customers I definitely see a trend going a little bit away from the super feminine kind of look," Wu says. "So we had a lot of floral laces before, but now I think clients try to get a less floral, more unisex style." Wu also notes that her clients do not tend to completely fill their wardrobes with Xinlelu pieces.

"They're still buying Neiwai - even if they're buying more sexy pieces, they still need really basic and comfortable pieces."

Women in Shanghai have a range of international brands to choose from. IPS, a Shanghai-based management company, works in China with niche lingerie labels such as UK-based designer brand Bluebella, Poland's Undress Code, and the UK's Yolke.

"Victoria's Secret is doing big business in China but [they] are far from what well-educated [customers in] tier 1 cities are looking for," IPS founder Olivier Pichon tells the Post, referring to Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

Pichon says when he chooses brands to work with, he pays particular attention to their imagery and how active they are on social media - the biggest buyers of lingerie in China are 18- to 35-year-olds who shop online and look for pieces that are more fashionable and trendy.

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"The image they are showing is key to the China market," Pichon says. "For example, Chantelle Lingerie Group was not considered as a fashion brand - except for its Chantal Thomass label. They recently hired a chief creative officer, who is moving all the brands in a totally new trendy direction.

"Other iconic brands are taking the same direction, too. Aubade is doing cross-collaboration with designers like Victor & Rolf and Christian Lacroix."

Being far from Europe and the US, the Chinese market is challenging, Pichon adds.

"There are not that many multi-brand boutiques, so channels are mainly multi-brand fashion and lifestyle stores. … there's also the threat from the local market with emerging outstanding brands. They can really quickly cover the whole market, placing inventory everywhere, but the competition is mainly in the mass market."

In Wu's case, working with independent Chinese lingerie brands allows her to work out flexible deals. "When working with lingerie, there are just way too many sizes and the import tax is super high," she says. "And you need to work with the brand to create marketing images for your WeChat page because it's very hard for foreign brands to do a brand image that Chinese clients will actually like."

For now, China's lingerie market remains fragmented, with a wide range of domestic and international players - but that could spell opportunity for up and coming Western brands with something new to offer.

"I think the most important thing for foreign brands that come to China is to understand Chinese ideas of 'sexiness' because they're very, very different," Wu says.

"I think the Chinese idea of sexiness is more of a mood, a vibe instead of an object. So when you have a campaign photo, it's more about what kind of vibe it delivers rather than the details of the product."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.