China Consumer

What lies beneath

China offers firm support for luxury bra sales

Liu Wen model victoria's secret

Liu Wen: Victoria's Secret model

In pre-Communist China a woman’s outerwear was strictly prescribed according to her rank. But her underwear was not and Qing Dynasty courtiers often sought to express their individuality through the dudou (bellybands made from silk, an ancient form of bra) worn under their robes. Many were richly embroidered with Mandarin ducks (to signify loving couples) and geckos (to ward off evil spirits).

Back then flat chests were considered graceful and the dudou aimed to compress rather than inflate a woman’s natural assets. In today’s China the opposite is the case. Bra cups are moulded and even include side boning to thrust the breasts closer together.

The Western concept of ‘lift and separate’ sometimes has no meaning in China where many women want their bras to ‘lift and nestle’. Global lingerie manufacturers have been slowly learning to adapt to local tastes.

Britain’s Agent Provocateur, for example, first entered China in the early 1990s. However, according to a recent article by NetEase Finance it failed to understand the difference in Chinese body shapes and withdrew a few years later.

Now it is back with seven stores across the country and plans to open a further 20 over the next few years. CEO Garry Hogarth recently told reporters that its Chinese sales have exceeded the company’s forecasts by 25% this year.

The Wall Street Journal has also speculated that the ongoing anti-corruption campaign has been helping luxury lingerie companies such as Agent Provocateur, La Perla and Calvin Klein. Unable to flash expensive watches and designer handbags, upwardly mobile consumers are replacing logo mania with inconspicuous consumption. This represents a complete change from earlier trends where successful brands were those that targeted the outer layers. As luxury goods consultant Angelito Tan tells, “Sales of high end lingerie were limited for a very long time by the fact that underwear is worn next to the skin and not for show.”

However, a new generation of strong, independently minded Chinese women are buying expensive lingerie as a way to underline their individuality. “Their purchasing power is a strong force in the market,” Tan comments.

The lingerie market has been a highly competitive one. No single company dominates. According to Mintel’s research Aimer, a domestic brand, has the largest market share on about 3.6%, while Euromonitor believes the industry leader is Hong Kong-listed Cosmo Lady (see WiC242 for our profile of the bramaker) with a similar market share.

In October Regina Miracle, the Shenzhen-based supplier for top brands such as Victoria Secret and Calvin Klein, also went public in Hong Kong and has seen its share price almost double. As of this week Regina Miracle’s market value stands at $1.8 billion, meaning its chairman Hung Yau-lit is worth $1.1 billion, reports Bloomberg.

Other top 10 selling brands in China include international firms such as Japan’s Wacoal and Germany’s Triumph. Italian fashion label La Perla also recently opened a flagship store in Hong Kong, bringing the number of its outlets in China and Hong Kong up to 14.

All eyes are now on Victoria’s Secret, which has had a troubled history in China thanks to a bizarre distribution issue (explained at length in WiC230). It opened its first stores in China earlier this year. The group pioneered the use of Asian models back in 2009 when Chinese supermodel Liu Wen became the first East Asian woman to walk the catwalk at the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

However, as the Washington Times reports, the group has so far left its “signature push up bras and frilly panties” behind and is only selling beauty accessories locally. The newspaper suggests this reflects a strategy to crack the Chinese market “without stepping on any culture or social land mines in a country that has more utilitarian tastes in lingerie and underwear”.

Meanwhile for lingerie makers, guessing what Chinese women will want next remains tricky. The dudou, for example, has been making a comeback as underwear and even as a fashion item in its own right.

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