Flights of fantasy: Victoria's Secret

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With its extravagant catwalk shows and a new flagship store – not to mention its supermodel 'Angels'– US import Victoria's Secret is set to ruffle some feathers, says Rebecca Gonsalves

Shopping for underwear can be trying at the best of times and, however confident one is, there's nothing quite like a lingerie model to make you feel less than perfect by comparison.

It was a sensible decision then for Victoria's Secret to leave its infamous Angels off the guest list for the opening of its new London flagship.

Instead intrepid shoppers in early September were greeted by mannequins and dummies trussed up in the feathers and frills modelled by the Angels in the brand's catwalk show last November. With a cost of £7.5m, the annual event has given the largest lingerie company in America wings that span the globe.

Finally settling on London in its most important year, the centrally located flagship follows a Stratford opening to coincide with the Olympics. The hype from across the Pond has certainly been enough to create a healthy appetite for mid-price lingerie, leisurewear and cosmetics.

Starved of the brand for so many years, with plenty of word of mouth – and the occasional pyjama gift-set – making its way across the Atlantic, there has been plenty of hype. And so the new flagship store comes at an opportune time – underwear has proved to be one retail market that is almost recession-proof and by offering something that UK customers believe is unique, sales are almost guaranteed.

Started in 1977 by Roy Raymond, Victoria's Secret was devised to fill a perceived gap in the market and solve a universal problem – that men buying lingerie for their wives experienced an excruciating process. As an antidote, the original store was wood-panelled to create a male-friendly environment, and sales staff were trained to put these customers at ease.

Named after the prudish English Queen, the big secret is that there is no Victoria involved. The concept took off, and in 1982 Raymond sold his chain of five stores for £2.6m. The new owner – a billionaire with a successful clothing business – expanded the reach of the stores, and with the help of a mail-order catalogue, Victoria's Secret grew to become the largest lingerie retailer in the United States.

The American import is not quite as welcome as the queues of shoppers on opening day, spotted leaving laden with the store's signature pink striped shopping bags, would have you believe though. Its upmarket new neighbourhood – it's based on the corner of New Bond Street and Brook Street – has reportedly been less than happy about the clientele that the store may attract.

It would be hard to define the Victoria's Secret shopper in one demographic, however; its mid-price pieces are expected to attract customers away from Marks & Spencer, while the more special sets can compete with Myla and Agent Provocateur.

"Victoria's Secret will offer consumers something that I don't think we have seen much of on the high street – affordable luxury," says Victoria Gallagher, senior reporter for the fashion-business magazine Drapers. "Consumers who are looking to buy themselves something luxurious but who can't afford to fork out £400 on a designer handbag can instead buy a £20 pair of silk knickers and still feel they have a little bit of a treat in their wardrobe."

It is this concept of an affordable slice of luxury that makes the lingerie market so robust even in times of economic trouble. So In January, the brand chose to capitalise on this mind-set by launching the designer collection.

The first in-house designed high-end range featured European lace, ribbons and embroidery and sold out within weeks. At the time, Ed Razek, president and chief marketing officer, told Womenswear Daily the new line was to attract a more affluent and sophisticated consumer and "differentiate Victoria's Secret from any other brand".

In keeping with the exclusivity offered by the neighbouring designer stores, the London flagship's penthouse level is dedicated to private fitting rooms for VIP customers – whether they're big spenders or celebrities who can't run the risk of being snapped in their scanties by the hoi polloi.

In the same way that ready-to-wear catwalk shows are often enlivened by fantasy pieces that won't ever make it to the shop floor, so too are the Victoria's Secret extravagant annual productions. Wings in all shapes and forms adorn the Angels for the events, which cost millions, and are such an American institution that they are shown on television.

In among those creations, Angels such as Miranda Kerr, Gisele, Tyra Banks and Lara Stone model every permutation of bras and knickers imaginable.

There is more to Victoria's Secret than just lingerie though, as the brand also has a successful line of leisurewear called Pink.

Pitched in America as a collegiate collection, the branding bells and whistles, its bright colours and casual cuts, make it sure to appeal to the teenage market which usually follows names such as Paul's Boutique and Hollister.

In the new flagship store the lower ground floor is dedicated to Pink, with design features differentiating from the boudoir feel of the polished black glass upstairs.

A cosmetics and perfume emporium is the final string to the bow – with mini make-up collections and a huge range of best-selling scents, including the newly launched London. It looks likely that the sweet smell of success will be joining that fragrant roster.

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