During La Perla’s inaugural runway show earlier this month, Kendall Jenner, clad in a sheer metallic dress sans bra strutted down the catwalk for the final look, ushering in a new era for the famed luxury lingerie brand.
The event was significant for La Perla, as it marked not only its debut at New York Fashion Week but also its pivot to its ready-to-wear side of the business, a strategic expansion of its bra-and-underwear bread and butter. Selecting Jenner, arguably one of the biggest supermodels of the moment, was no accident. La Perla is seeking to redefine itself from the stuffy, old-fashioned reputation it has developed in recent years as a result of increased competition from contemporary brands and intimate apparel startups.
Creative director Julia Haart, who joined the team in May 2016, has big ambitions to breathe life into the high-end lingerie brand. Her first step is making sure the world knows La Perla is ready to be known for more than just unmentionables.
The transformation of the modern lingerie market
La Perla was founded in 1954 by Ada Masotti, an Italian woman with ambitions to start a small atelier of corsetry in a small laboratory in Bologna, in close proximity to silk and textile manufacturers. As the business grew, she began lining the boxes in which her pieces were packaged with velvet to protect the garments like they were pearls, and thus La Perla was born.
Haart is intent on maintaining the spirit of Masotti, but with a focus on evolving the brand in a way that transcends pure sexuality and extends to empowerment.
“My vision for the brand is to unite La Perla’s founding principles with the wants and needs of a modern woman,” Haart wrote in an email. “I think there is a sense amongst women that they cannot be feminine, sensual and a modern professional at the same time. I try to develop garments which eliminate that forfeit of comfort for beauty.”
While La Perla remained one of the most well-known luxury lingerie companies for years prior to Haart’s appointment, competitors like Agent Provocateur began to rise up to claim a piece of the market. These companies “supplanted La Perla as the ‘go-to’ luxury brand for many consumers,” according to Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict. Agent Provocateur opened in 1994, and it brought an edge to the luxury lingerie market that La Perla lacked, as well as a lower price point that was enticing to consumers.
Then came the digital-savvy lingerie startups, which began catering to more specialized demographics, with a focus on customization and personalization. AdoreMe, which describes itself as “the new face of lingerie” requires new consumers to take a quiz to help determine styles and sizes that might be of interest. Others, like True&Co, a rising brand in San Francisco, use comprehensive customer feedback to steer design.
“We live in a world that’s controlled by questionnaires and algorithms now,” said Ashley Paintsil, editorial director at FashInvest. “Brands like AdoreMe, Lively, Brayola and Peach Underneath are doing a really good job of tapping into what their customers want by asking them what they want. When you fill out a questionnaire, you feel like you’re immediately forming a personal connection with that brand. A luxury brand like La Perla is still working on that.”
Iris Voltaire, business and brand development analyst at AdoreMe, said the company has been successful in filling a void for millennial consumers seeking quality intimate apparel without having to drop $550 on a La Perla silk bra.
“We saw that the traditional retail model has been slowly dying. Many of these big traditional players are struggling right now, and customers are moving away from the business model,” Voltaire said. “We are only online and have been since the start. 75 percent of our customers are millennials, and 80 percent of our traffic comes from mobile.”
Lingerie goes digital
Like many luxury retailers, La Perla has struggled in recent years to forge a clear identity amid the digitization of retail. This is compounded by slowing growth in the overall lingerie market — despite being a $13 billion industry, it has only grown by 1.9 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to data from research firm IBISWorld Industry. However, the digital market for lingerie has seen an uptick, climbing from 5 percent of total sales in 2008 to 15 percent in 2016. (La Perla is now owned by Pacific Management Group and does not disclose sales data.)
This means traditional companies like La Perla are forced to rethink their approach to engaging with consumers and enhancing their digital strategies. On Instagram, the brand has increasingly featured posts with influencers like Chiara Ferragni wearing its products, which it mixes in with campaign photos. However, it still lags significantly behind big market players like Victoria’s Secret, which has 51.8 million followers, compared to La Perla’s 355,000.
Harrington said that La Perla is beginning to recognize that relying on historical precedent will not be enough to rise above the changing tides of the industry.
“Something I see with a lot of heritage European brands is the notion that they can almost coast on their history,” she said “That simply existing for decades is enough of a brand story. And perhaps that was true when options were more limited. But now customers want to know why they should buy from you specifically, and the brands struggling the most now are the ones who’ve never really articulated those reasons.”
Becoming a lifestyle brand
La Perla is caught in the precarious position of trying to appeal to a younger consumer demographic, while still maintaining their core consumer base, which tends to skew older. Haart, who in addition to serving as the new creative director also worked on La Perla’s design team for two accessories collections, is taking a cue from fellow retailers that have found success in a offering a more holistic lifestyle approach.
For Haart, this meant moving beyond bras and underwear to clothing, sleepwear, beachwear, accessories and men’s loungewear. Her strategy is clear: Increase La Perla’s visibility by making products that aren’t relegated to undergarments.
“Women all over the world are demanding more,” Haart wrote. “We’re tired of being told that to be beautiful, we have to be uncomfortable. La Perla’s expertise in lingerie means we understand women’s bodies better than anyone. Our preference for exquisite, exclusive materials transitions seamlessly to our expression of ready-to-wear.”
Paintsil said the move into lifestyle is also a clear ploy for the millennial shopper. While a younger consumer might not be looking for expensive lingerie to woo a significant other, they might be willing to shell out for a trendy corset jacket — especially if Kendall Jenner is wearing it.
“If you’re a brand today, it’s really about understanding your specific target audience,” she said. “[Millennial consumers] think of La Perla as something that your rich aunt would wear, not something you wear as a millennial. The company is tapping into that, with using these Instagram supermodels and having Kendall Jenner as the face of their brand.”
However, Harrington warns that if La Perla isn’t careful, it may find itself falling down a slippery slope of muddled messaging that turns off its customer base, who might not appreciate a Kendall Jenner campaign.
“For a company, the question has to be, ‘Do the face and voice of your brand appeal to the people actually buying your products?’ La Perla runs the risk of appearing like a company that’s lost its way and is simply chasing trends if they’re not deliberate with their outreach.”
Despite its shifting identity, Haart maintains that La Perla will long be a luxury lingerie mainstay.
“I think of La Perla as unique in its kind in the lingerie world,” she wrote. “The brand continues its movement, steadily and successfully, into a full lifestyle brand, and we strive to outdo ourselves every season with a better collection than the last.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Julia Haart’s start date at La Perla, it was May 2016 not August. It also noted the wrong holding company. La Perla is owned by Pacific Management Group.