On a recent day off from school, teenagers Ellie Sung and Isabella Mas were wandering the Copley Place mall. As she paused for a break, Sung took out her phone and began searching for bras online — ignoring the Victoria’s Secret store a few feet away.
Sung, 15, is just not a fan of the brand, which she said doesn’t reflect her values. “I know they’re transphobic and not inclusive,” she said, echoing a prevailing criticism of the retail giant. “If young girls are shopping, they need to see every body type.”
Young women like Sung have helped upend Victoria’s Secret’s status as the lingerie industry’s juggernaut. The company once synonymous with sexy is now seen by many as passé, out of step with what modern women seem to want: comfortable bras and underwear that fit properly on a range of body types. Its parent company, L Brands, has seen its stock sag 75 percent since 2015 as it’s faced a litany of troubles, including investigations into chief executive Lex Wexner’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, and a scathing report this month from The New York Times alleging its executives created a “culture of misogyny, bullying, and harassment.” According to CNBC, a possible sale of the company could happen soon.
The chaos at Victoria’s Secret has been a boon for new entrants into the $11.9 billion intimate apparel category, and local retailers and lingerie designers are now eager to steal their share of the underwear drawer.
Lisa Mullan, who in a previous life helped usher HubSpot through its IPO, got her start making “beautiful, functional” silk undies because she didn’t want to choose between style and comfort. The cofounder of Uwila Warrior now sells her underwear on Neiman Marcus and Free People websites and in her store on Charles Street in Beacon Hill.
“I have young kids and I’m working,” she said. “I don’t need underwear that is giving me a wedgie.”
Local lingerie purveyors say they are seeing a lift in part thanks to the blitz of Instagram ads from direct-to-consumer brands like ThirdLove, Lively, and Cuup that use algorithms, quizzes, and “fit therapists” to help women find their perfect size. They also point to the messaging of brands like American Eagle’s Aerie and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, which feature full-figured women on full display.
Meredith Amenkhienan and Rachel Wentworth, owners of the Forty Winks boutique in Harvard Square, will celebrate a decade in the lingerie business in April, and say they had their strongest year in 2019. The “better fit” messaging that ThirdLove promotes is actually driving shoppers into their store. You can’t get one-on-one fittings when you’re getting a bra in the mail, Amenkhienan joked.
“It’s good for the industry, it’s pushing a lot of people to rethink what lingerie means,” she said. “But we have had customers who come in who tried ThirdLove and it didn’t work for them. They want to come in and touch and feel. It’s helping us.”
Now in her 40s, Lauren Beitelspacher, a marketing professor at Babson College, said she used to be the target audience for Victoria’s Secret. “But I’ve gotten older, and it hasn’t gotten older with me," she said. "I don’t want to shop there anymore, and the younger generation doesn’t want to shop there because they don’t want the things that it stands for.”
The prospect of receiving a frilly, lacy little number for Valentine’s Day doesn’t jibe with the current cultural climate, Beitelspacher said. Customers are less concerned with the male gaze, she said, and are instead responding to marketing messages promoting self-love and empowerment.
“I don’t see it as being a gift that people want to give anymore,” she said. “My husband is not going to buy that for me, I want to buy it myself.”
Victoria’s Secret just "didn’t change with the times,” said James West, who’s worked as a Boston-based lingerie salesman since the ’80s and now represents several European brands. Other lingerie brands like Chantelle and Cosabella have proven more nimble, and are increasingly pushing T-shirt bras, wireless bralettes, and larger cup sizes.
“Most of the US brands used to go to a triple D — most of them now are going G and H cups,” he said. “Women want to be comfortable.”
Younger shoppers are seeking out American Eagle’s Aerie line for bras, panties, and sleepwear. The company’s #AerieREAL campaign ads feature a full spectrum of body types and use unaltered photos of models like athlete Aly Raisman and actress Busy Philipps.
Noelle Scarlett, 24, who works as an associate at Wayfair, said she’s been shopping at Aerie since she was a teen. Their ads “have really authentic, beautiful women of all different shapes and sizes," she said, and their garments are both cute and comfortable.
“I don’t want things that are wedged up there,” she joked.
When she thinks of Victoria’s Secret, said Scarlett, it’s all “thin bombshell models with angel wings.” Even if they are taking steps to be more inclusive, she said, “they don’t showcase it.”
L Brands has tried to broaden Victoria’s Secret’s appeal, hiring transgender and plus-size models and adding two additional women to the parent company’s board, which until recently was dominated by white men with a median age of 71. In November, the company canceled its televised fashion show, saying it was rethinking the format. The company’s board of directors said in a statement that it’s made “significant strides” in recent years in providing “a safe, welcoming, and empowering workplace” for its employees and remains “fully committed to continuous improvement and complete accountability.”
In the meantime, upstarts are rushing into the breach. Masha Titova broke into the bra business after working in apparel manufacturing for Los Angeles-based brands like BCBGMAXAZRIA and Kanye West’s Yeezy line. But she was frustrated with the substandard options for underwear.
“I kept feeling like I could be doing something better,” Titova said. So last June, she moved home to Massachusetts to launch Titov, a line of sexy yet supportive bralettes and underwear designed to fit larger sizes.
Her line, which is manufactured in East Boston, is already gaining traction: It’s featured in the UnderClub monthly lingerie subscription box, and Titova held a Valentine’s Day pop-up shop this week in Rebecca Minkoff’s SoHo store. Titova, 26, has a specific audience in mind for Titov: women of a certain age.
“Women over 45 are neglected in this space. They don’t see themselves reflected in any brand because every model is a 22-year-old,” she said. She’s now partnering with the company Divorceify — which offers support for people ending their marriages — to offer a giveaway for women who are seeking a fresh start.
Women now rank “sexiness” eighth when asked about why they purchase intimates, according to research from The NPD Group. Instead, support and comfort top the list.
"I don’t think that Free People or Neiman would have even talked to us unless their teams were like: ‘We need to move away from sexy, constrictive garments,' " said Mullan, of Uwila Warrior.
“Our line is all about comfort and fit. The whole idea is that it doesn’t come off in five minutes.”