A model approach

Victoria’s Secret uses its fashion show event to woo new Chinese customers


He Sui at the lingerie event

Angela Lindvall – a model who has appeared several times at the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show – once compared her line of work with that of a boxer. “You have to make weight,” she told the New York Times. For her, that means shedding 20 pounds by subsisting on a diet of spinach, chard and kale.

Liu Wen, the first Chinese model to don angel wings at the annual extravaganza in 2009, is equally disciplined about her preparation. In a behind-the-scenes look, Sina, a portal, reveals that Liu eats a small bowl of cereal for breakfast and she consumes just seven teaspoons of rice for dinner.

This year Liu wore an ethnic Miao-style outfit at the fashion show. But she wasn’t the only Chinese model at the event in Paris last week. The lingerie brand selected four ‘angels’ from China this year – Liu plus Xi Mengyao, He Sui and Ju Xiaowen. That’s a disproportionately large showing among the 50 ‘glamazon’ supermodels who made the cut.

Producers of the event claimed to have taken inspiration from the costumes of Asian and Mexican culture. To that end, there were plenty of Chinese elements in the show. Elsa Hosk opened proceedings with a three-dimensional Chinese dragon wrapped around her. Adriana Lima strutted down the runway in thigh-high boots with dragon embroidery. Jasmine Tookes wore an outfit inspired by a traditional Chinese qipao dress.

The organisers got what they wanted in response: the Chinese media covered the event exhaustively. Tencent Entertainment provided play-by-play commentary and Yangcheng Evening News wasn’t alone in giving detailed run-downs on each of the outfits.

This year Chinese audiences could also catch the raciest runway performances online after Victoria’s Secret sold the broadcasting rights to online video platform Youku Tudou, which livestreamed the show last Tuesday.

Xi and He also held live chats with fans to reveal what was happening behind the scenes.

Industry observers say Victoria’s Secret now has Chinese consumers firmly within its sights. The lingerie brand has opened a new flagship outlet in Beijing that sells beauty and accessory products, says Beijing Youth Daily. And it has announced the opening of two more flagship stores in Hong Kong and Shanghai next year.

“Maybe someday we’ll have the fashion show in Shanghai – maybe – because we’re a global brand,” teased Leslie H Wexner, founder of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret. “We have demonstrated that we have the best brand-building ability in the world. People who can’t read English, when they see the Victoria’s Secret name, they smile.”

But not everyone is quite so enthralled, including Jung Helin, a writer for Cosmo Magazine, who accuses the lingerie firm of “cultural appropriation” in its latest catwalk show.

Jung complained: “The Orientalism on display here doesn’t show an understanding or an attempt at dialogue. It doesn’t close any gaps. What condescension, for Victoria’s Secret to think that by wrapping a model in a dragon, it could connect directly with a new consumer in China.”

Indeed, Victoria’s Secret may have a challenge ahead in encouraging shoppers to spend more on undergarments. Many of the country’s largest lingerie firms have reported disappointing results in the first half of the year. Cosmo Lady, which is listed in Hong Kong, announced net profits of Rmb2.2 billion ($318.9 million), a slight increase of 0.2% from a year ago. Embry, another Chinese underwear brand, says net income fell almost 40% during the same period.

Industry insider Ma Gong told National Business Daily that the reason traditional lingerie makers are struggling is because the sector has become increasingly fragmented, with a growing number of smaller brands battling for market share by selling their products online.

Market research conducted in 2013 revealed that five of the largest domestic brands controlled only 30% of the market.

Nevertheless, Ma reckons that a handful of brands will dominate the mass-market in the future, while smaller brands will carve out market share by targeting more specific niches like underwear for teenage girls and fuller-figured women.

Victoria’s Secret has had problems in China in the past thanks to an imitation store in Shanghai, which was selling surplus stock that the Chinese provider had acquired abroad (see WiC230). L Brands disavowed the outlet and sued the party for trademark infringement. This time it will want to ensure Chinese consumers know its forthcoming Shanghai store is the real thing.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.