Lingerie manufacturers come out of the closet: Roger Tredre reports on the underwear trade's revealing autumn collections in Birmingham

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THE LINGERIE trade came to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham yesterday to display and inspect the new autumn collections.

To a first-time visitor, it seemed an unorthodox kind of business: rows of exhibition stands staffed by earnest men in navy blue suits and bored women wearing next to nothing.

The business of selling lingerie has been revolutionised in recent years. Once the trade worked behind closed doors in showrooms where young women discreetly modelled bras over sweaters to protect their modesty. Now the major manufacturers stage mini-catwalk shows on their exhibition stands, and the models look genuinely surprised when you ask them whether they find their work embarrassing.

The men are more interested in talking margins and sales figures. Ken Campbell, retail sales director of Playtex, said: 'You get used to it quickly enough. It's just another product we're selling. Like baked beans.'

Robert Kimpton, sales director of Gossard, which is enjoying boom times because of the popularity of its underwired Wonderbra, looked impassively at a row of flame-coloured briefs and bras. 'I won't pretend it's not a pleasant industry to work in, but that's money you're looking at.'

Gossard pioneered bolder techniques for selling lingerie. In the mid-Eighties, it launched the Gossard roadshow, staging catwalk shows for store buyers.

Peter Herd, national accounts manager, said: 'It used to be a very secretive, almost closet, industry. People thought we did all our selling in macs. We wanted to demystify it.'

The company has also recruited more women into a male-dominated business. In 1986, Gossard's sales team included 13 men and one woman. Now it has 42 women and 10 men.

Men, however, continue to do most of the selling in other lingerie companies. Peter Cronin, a former lingerie firm executive, said: 'They're very anxious not to be labelled perverts. That's why they all wear ties and look like bank managers.'

The lingerie show is part of Premier Exhibitions, Britain's biggest clothing trade exhibition, which closes today. It is, however, the most buoyant sector. The pounds 1bn lingerie business is enjoying good times while the rest of the clothing industry struggles to maintain orders.

Mr Cronin said: 'In a recession, families cut down on holidays abroad and three-piece suites, but women keep on buying their lingerie.'

Fashion-led demand for underwired bras is good for business, but lingerie manufacturers are also alert to changes in the shape of customers. Bust sizes are changing steadily, prompted by more exercise, better nutrition, and the pill.

Ten years ago, the average bust size was 34B, but now the average size has gone up to 36C. The number of bras sold in D cups and larger has doubled in the last four years, according to the bra firm Berlei.

(Photograph omitted)