Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and CEO of lingerie startup Lively is one of at least three Victoria’s Secret alums who have built a business based on lessons learned while working for the struggling chain — largely, what not to do.
On Thursday, Lively added beauty to its product category offerings, which include swimwear and active, with the launch of its first fragrance, Jasmine Sea Sun. The brand’s category mix may mirror Victoria’s Secret’s, but according to Cordeiro Grant, the company’s similarities stop there.
She called Victoria’s Secret, where she worked for five years starting in 2008 as a senior merchant director for panties and bras, a “well-oiled machine,” and owes what she knows about the importance of brand cohesiveness to CEO Les Wexner: “If you are disciplined, you can make sure everyone around the world hears the same few words when they see your brand,” she said, of his theory. “For Victoria’s Secret, no matter where you are, you hear: angel, fantasy, push-up.”
But she left Victoria’s Secret hellbent on starting a new conversation: “I was no longer wearing the product, I was airbrushing Candice Swanepoel, and I was promoting this concept that women should be focused on how they felt when a man looked at them, rather than when they looked at themselves,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell my future daughter she should contour her body and aim to look like an airbrushed supermodel.”
And Victoria’s Secret’s message is no longer resonating. According to a report released today by retail analytics firm Edited, it’s pulling back on underwear categories; they make up 39 percent of the company’s offerings, versus 44 percent last year. “Tops, bottoms and accessories are all expanding as the retailer loses market share, thanks to its former emphasis on push-up styles,” the report stated. According to parent company L Brands’ earnings report for 2017, Victoria’s Secret’s same-store sales were down by 6 percent last year.
When Lively launched in 2016, it entered a crowded space of digitally native lingerie brands that included ThirdLove, True&Co. and Negative Underwear. All touted bras offering a great fit and feel for the wearer, and used imagery featuring models with a natural look — no bronzer, no false lashes. Cordeiro Grant saw the bustling state of the category as a good thing; the other brands were helping to open consumers’ eyes to more players and points of view in the market.
Jennifer Zuccarini, also a lingerie brand founder with VS roots (she was design director from 2008), was similarly determined to move away from the chain’s message when she launched Fleur du Mal in 2012. “Sexy was the word I didn’t want to use,” she said.
But the retailer’s assortment still makes sense to both business owners.
From a practical standpoint, it’s made up of high-margin categories, with small products that are easy and inexpensive to ship, said Cordeiro Grant. And, unlike fashion, the products aren’t “finicky” like trendy fashion. “At Victoria’s Secret, their No. 1 bra and No. 1 fragrance were the same for years,” she said. “And the products we launched with are still our best styles.”
Zuccarini, whose line includes swimwear, also hopes to launch a fragrance in the future. “It’s like lingerie; it’s an emotional purchase. And it’s part of the ritual of getting ready. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
Lively’s first fragrance, Jasmine Sea Sun
Changing the lingerie customer’s mindset is a slow and steady process. For Lively, models not photoshopped are relegated to the “Fit Guide” page, which features customers in bras sizes A to DD. And Zuccarini admits her team still photoshops models, in moderation.
And though stepping in where Victoria’s Secret has long been absent — the extended size category — is a definite goal for both brands, it’s a work in progress. The mass retailer only makes bras up to a size DDD, despite the fact that the average bra size in America is DD. Lively offers 26 sizes, from 32A to 38DDD, and has reportedly spent the last year “developing into the 40s.” And Fleur du Mal is launching an extended size program in time for the holiday season, with a rage that starts at D.
“Customers have been demanding beautiful bras in expanded sizes for as long as I’ve been in the industry,” Zuccarini said. “It’s surprising Victoria’s Secret hasn’t embraced it yet.”
A trend among emerging lingerie brands is a dedication to fostering a community and looking to customer feedback to guide the design process. Lively has regular meet-ups for its 5,000 brand ambassadors, chosen through an application process; in November, the event featured voting booths, where attendees could vote to narrow down the product developed for 2018. And when customers sizes D and larger were vocal about the lack of bralettes in their size, Lively made the “Busty Bralette,” which earned a 3,000 person waitlist in 24 hours.
When Lucy Litwack, took the reins of Coco de Mer in 2014 (she’s now owner and CEO), the first thing she did was overhaul established structures to better engage with potential and potential customers. Before launching its pop-up, now on Mott Street in Soho, Fleur du Mal invited its customers to its studio to shop so the team could see what styles were resonating and get feedback firsthand. What’s more, comments received through emails and the brand’s website are constantly considered.
It’s a different story at Victoria’s Secret, Zuccarini said. (Victoria’s Secret couldn’t be reached for comment.) “It was almost designed by committee: Blue sold last season, so we’re doing blue again. And supermodels in lingerie may be the brand image, but they’re selling more cotton briefs than you know.”
It seems whether Victoria’s Secret can retain customers and meet their evolving expectations will come down to whether it can retool its longstanding “machine,” a word both alums used to describe the company’s inner workings.
“When you’re a little speed boat in the water, you can hit the waves quickly, and take shifts and turns. But when you’re the Titanic, it’s really hard to turn that boat quickly,” said Cordeiro Grant. “A lot of the major retailers have a lot of work to do.”