There are plenty of things I’ve found egregious about Victoria’s Secret over the years: its tone-deaf cultural appropriation of headdresses and “tribal" tattoos for the over-the-top get-ups on display at its annual blockbuster catwalk show; the Train like an Angel YouTube videos that bolster the idea that if you’re going to dare to put on something lacy, your body better be whipped into the best shape imaginable; eyeroll-inducing collection names such as “Dream Angels” and “Sexy Illusions.”
As a 37-year-old woman, it’s clear to me that most lingerie brands aren’t focused on my comfort. Which isn’t surprising when you consider that many of them were founded by men and, at least in the case of VS, for men. Roy Raymond launched his lingerie catalogue business in 1977 because he found it embarrassing to shop for something sultry for his wife in a boutique.
Navigating through the websites and stores of brands such as VS and La Senza, many of us feel left out for myriad reasons, from age to shape to ethnicity to an aversion to wearing more eyeliner than a Drag Race contestant. Thankfully, there’s a growing crop of lingerie brands that are taking a more nuanced approach to the design and marketing of undergarments.
It’s millennials who we have to thank for the shift. In a landscape that’s more inclusive, connected and woke than ever, society is finally starting to see representations of what’s desirable that aren’t just in the eyes of the beholder, but the wearer, too. “Millennial women are sick of being told what is sexy and what is not by corporate companies, especially those led by men,” says Nicole Corbett, CEO of Worn, an all-female creative agency based in New York. “The truth is VS’s bras and underwear have never been comfortable, but we’ve tolerated it until now because we had no other choices except outdated designs from department stores. I think women just got fed up and started their own companies to design what they actually wanted to wear.”
One such entrepreneur is Laure Stromboni, founder of the Toronto-based handmade lingerie brand, Lorette, which launched in 2017. Stromboni’s delicate wares were brought to life after her own dissatisfaction with what was on the market, including a fateful trip to Victoria’s Secret. “I cried,” Stromboni recalls. “It was the worst experience. Nothing seemed real, and nothing seemed to reflect a real femininity, a real sensuality.”
Stromboni took matters into her own hands and launched Lorette to fill that gap. In its marketing images, Lorette’s models stretch, meditate and smile genuinely in a way that says, “I feel great because I feel comfortable and beautiful, and that makes me happy.” The models are athletic, playful, plus-sized and stretch-marked, with nose rings, tattoos and natural hair.
Made-in-Montréal brand Sokoloff Lingerie has also woven diversity into the way it communicates with the consumers who covet its soft bralette, an anti push-up bra. Its model cast includes pregnant women, a 78-year-old model, and a trans model, Jossua Collin D.
But it’s not only smaller brands that are adopting a more inclusive approach. In January, American Apparel, which was acquired by Gildan Activewear in 2017, debuted a new intimates line that has a size range from XS to XXL. Its campaign features women of varying skin tones and shapes (the age range is still relatively young, but the AA demo skews under 35).
Savage X Fenty, Rihanna’s lingerie endeavour, has more than one million Instagram followers, and it’s going after VS’s customer-base armed not only with its founder’s star power, but a stable of unique, diverse models and equally boundary-pushing wares. “Rihanna is clearly making a statement, a bold one, that needed to be made, through this line,” says Carolyn Rush, vice-president at Worn. “It’s a pioneer in the photography style, the model choices, the lingerie designs themselves," she says. "Finally, a line that’s a true representation of all types of women and all of our shades and shapes. It’s disrupting on price and it’s definitely not holding back on the fearlessness in its styles.”
While Corbett doesn’t think the Victoria’s Secrets of the lingerie industry are completely down for the count, their influence is waning. “I think brands like Victoria’s Secret are quickly losing relevancy and will decline even faster if they do not make a huge pivot to be inclusive and expand their idea of beauty,” Corbett says.
“It’s really interesting to notice how lingerie trends are always going in pair with [the] feminist movement," Stromboni says. “It’s been like this since the twenties, when women wanted to free themselves from corsetry.” In the end, what women want has always determined who wins and who loses in lingerie.