Underwear: The next big thing in smalls
Victoria's Secret, America's top lingerie brand, has just opened its flagship Bond Street store. Rebecca Gonsalves uncovers its mysteries
For a lingerie brand that has built a worldwide reputation by flaunting (and boosting and covering in rhinestones) the assets of some of the world's top models, the exterior of the new Victoria's Secret flagship store in London is somewhat demure. Perhaps its refined appearance is to assuage the fears of its neighbours – the designer boutiques and department stores that flank its Bond Street locale – which have already voiced concerns that the US import would lower the tone. Large windows may display the outlandish, not to mention skimpy, outfits from the brand's famous fashion shows, but the feathers and frou-frou frills are displayed on dummy-style mannequins rather than provocatively posed.
Once through the glass doors, however, the sense of feminine sensuality is ramped up over four vast floors topped by a penthouse of private fitting rooms for VIP customers. Throughout the 40,386 square foot space elaborate design elements – Murano glass chandeliers, a spiral staircase backlit by a two-storey high video screen playing footage from the brand's fashion shows – create a high-end experience for a high-street brand, with many styles costing less than £40.
As well as more permutations of brassieres than it is possible to imagine – lace, padded, wireless, plunge to name just four, plus matching knickers – the store will also sell fragrances and cosmetics, while the lower ground floor is dedicated to the Pink line. Pitched as a collegiate casuals range in the US, the heavily branded and embellished clothes are sure to be a hit with brand-savvy tweens and teens (with the help of their parents' hard-earned cash).
"Victoria's Secret nicely bridges the gap between the Marks & Spencer and the premium end of the market including the likes of Agent Provocateur and Rigby & Peller," says Victoria Gallagher, senior reporter for the fashion-business magazine Drapers. "Retailers at both ends of the lingerie market could be set to miss out on shoppers as Victoria's Secret offers UK consumers something we haven't seen much of on the high street: affordable luxury."
Originally devised in 1977 by Roy Raymond as an antidote to the intimidation and hostility he thought men experienced when buying underwear for their wives, by the Eighties Victoria's Secret was the biggest lingerie retailer in the United States. Today the brand has 1,000 stores in the US and delivers to homes one million copies of its mail-order catalogue eight times a year – that's a lot of undies. In 1995 the now-annual Victoria's Secret Angel fashion show was born, in which supermodels – past Angels include Giselle, Heidi Klum, Alessandra Ambrosio and Miranda Kerr – walk the catwalk in rhinestone and diamond-laden designs, paired with huge angel wings. A marketing tour de force, the pre-Christmas event is screened on American television before being uploaded to YouTube for worldwide fans (not all of them women, obvs) of the brand to salivate over. More than just a lingerie show, the 2011 spectacle cost a reported £7.5million to stage, including performances by Jay-Z and Kanye West, and has so far racked up nearly four million views on YouTube.
"Although the retailer has never graced our shores the scantily clad models are well known throughout the UK," says Gallagher. "For the first month or two Victoria's Secret is sure to enjoy a glut of custom as UK shoppers find out what it's all about, despite prices being higher. The real test will be early next year – when the mystery has been unveiled, I question whether UK consumers will continue to shop at the pricey American chain or trudge back for their M&S cotton staples."
Only time will tell, although the brand reports that business is booming at the Westfield Stratford store it opened to coincide with the Olympics.
Oh, and about that secret… there is no Victoria. Reports vary, but the namesake is said to be Queen Victoria for her prudish attitude although this legacy obviously doesn't extend to the designer's workshop.
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