Regular women as lingerie models? Startups challenge Victoria's Secret to get 'real'

A number of new lingerie companies are taking aim at Victoria's Secret by featuring regular-looking women in their advertising — complete with scars, stretch marks and medical devices. Proponents of the trend say realistic marketing can help drive sales.

Rivals use women of all sizes and abilities to model lingerie

The Victoria's Secret fashion show has been a popular annual event for years, but this year criticism is mounting, due to the company's refusal to include a wider range of body types. (Victoria's Secret)

Tall, slim and sexy. Sunday night's broadcast of the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show featured the usual suspects: supermodels in tantalizing bras, panties and garter belts, strutting their stuff down the runway — and straight into controversy.

"Every single year I say, 'This is going to be the year they start including women of different sizes and become more inclusive,'" said Joanna Griffiths, founder of Canadian lingerie company Knixwear. "I tell myself, 'This has to be the year.' 

"But they continue to not do it. It almost feels tone-deaf at this point."

Knixwear is one of several new brands that feature regular women in its advertising as a way to capitalize on what they see as a glaring weakness in Victoria Secret's marketing: The lack of diversity in body shapes and sizes.

Joanna Griffiths and her marketing team meet to select models for KnixWear's upcoming promotional campaign. Customers of the brand apply via Instagram to be featured, submitting photos of themselves wearing the products. (Keith Whelan/CBC News)

The Toronto-based company uses its own customers as models, who proudly show off the lingerie on their less-than-perfect bodies, some bearing scars and stretch marks.

And when pop star Rihanna has launched her own line of lingerie, Savage x Fenty, the line's first fashion show featured models of all shapes and sizes, including several plus-size women and one who was conspicuously pregnant.

Earlier this year, American Eagle's Aerie line of lingerie showcased models with disabilities — among them was a woman in a wheelchair and another wearing her insulin pump.

ThirdLove, of San Francisco, sells a wider-than-usual range of bra sizes, boasting "our shapes don't define us, our stories do." Like Knixwear, the company advertises with pictures of regular women wearing ThirdLove bras.

Aerie, the lingerie brand of retailer American Eagle, featured a number of non-traditional models in its campaign this year, including one with the skin disease vitiligo.

Griffiths says her company's inclusiveness drives sales; she's on track to double sales from last year, expecting to hit $35 million this year.

"I interviewed hundreds of women and I spent a lot of time online when I was preparing to launch the brand," she said. "People were outright saying, 'Victoria Secret and other lingerie brands make me feel badly about my body.' It was clear they wanted to see ad campaigns featuring women who looked more like they did."

'The halo extends to the brand'

Canadian advertising executive Tony Chapman was involved in one of the first campaigns to showcase non-traditional types of female beauty: Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign of the early 2000s. He says debunking beauty myths and celebrating self-esteem helped build Dove into a major global brand.  

"When you put a real person out there and consumers go, 'Wow, that person's got courage, that person's got confidence,' that halo extends to the brand," said Chapman. "Right now, this concept of body-shape diversity says that a brand wants to be part of what's happening in today's culture. They want to be relevant and they want to be authentic."

Marketing executive Tony Chapman says brands that feature a wide array of body shapes in their promotional material appear to be more connected to the culture than those that don't. (Keith Whelan/CBC News)

But there's also a risk in straying from the tried and true. Any time a company opts to present its product in a way that doesn't conform to the accepted norms of the day, it could find itself rejected by consumers who are turned off.

"For years, Benetton freaked everybody out with their 'United Colours of Benetton' campaign," he explained.  "People were angry that they would have nuns in their ads, or that they'd have a mixed-race couple in their ads. But for their target audience, those people liked the fact that the company was challenging the status quo."

Nike took a similar attitude with its divisive decision to feature football player Colin Kaepernick — who created controversy by taking a knee during the national anthem — in an ad marking the 30th anniversary of the brand's iconic "Just Do It" slogan. (The spot dropped as the NFL's regular season kicked off.) 

"Nike thought, 'We know we're going to alienate some old white guys that buy one pair of running shoes every two years, but our core audience is going to really like what we stand for,'" said Chapman.

Victoria's Secret? Sagging sales

Victoria's Secret still has a huge core audience: The chain has 1,600 stores in 70 countries around the world, including 35 in Canada. With sales of $1.7 billion US in 2017, one market research firm estimates Victoria's Secret sells 62.8 per cent of all lingerie sold in retail stores.

But the brand is declining by a number of measures. Its first televised fashion show in 2001 attracted more than 12 million viewers. Last year, the audience was less than half that.

Meanwhile, the stock price of its parent company, L Brands, has seen a sharp drop this year, "primarily due to slowing sales at Victoria's Secret," according to the Wall Street Journal. Last month, the company chopped its annual dividend in half, and the CEO stepped down after only two years.

'Comfort is the new sexy'

"I grew up shopping at Victoria's Secret," said Knixwear's Griffiths. "I had to stop shopping there at a certain point because they didn't carry my size.

"But a lot of the products they create are designed to be worn for five minutes or five seconds. They serve a very specific purpose and that purpose will continue to be served. But in terms of what are women reaching for every single day — comfort is the new sexy."

By one estimate, Victoria's Secret sells 62.8 per cent of all lingerie sold in retail stores. But Knixwear's Joanna Griffiths says more women are increasingly opting for comfort when it comes to what they wear. (Laura DaSilva/CBC )

Griffiths believes there will always be a place for picture-perfect models, but that more brands will begin to diversify their marketing materials — particularly if they intend to sell online.

"We show every product in every size on different-sized models," she said. "To build up consumer confidence so that they feel comfortable purchasing online on our site."

Chapman observes that "brand personalities" themselves have become more diverse.

"The world has started looking beyond that stereotype of the goddess and started realizing that diversity is interesting, transgender is interesting. Cultures are coming together and becoming part of our conversation and part of pop culture. Brands that refuse to go that way may no longer be interesting to consumers."

The most successful advertising attracts attention, he said. And if the use of regular-looking people becomes even more widespread, it may no longer be as remarkable or exciting as it is currently.  

But "real" people come in all shapes and sizes — and that, at least, is a trend unlikely to change.

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.


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