December 21, 2004

Department Stores Discover That, Um, Sex Sells

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
Naughty mannequins entice shoppers in the newly installed lingerie department at Henri Bendel.

"Men cluster to me like moths around a flame," Marlene Dietrich croons over the sound system in the lingerie department at Henri Bendel in New York. Encouraging customers to get into the mood, loose-limbed mannequins wield riding crops, and others flaunt black lace blindfolds and thongs so sheer they expose a wedge of explicit anatomy.

In the store's windows, instead of the customary Santas and sprigs of mistletoe, there are a pair of mannequins, one draped in fox and little else, another crouching to show off her lacy white knickers. The tableau, more evocative of sex shops like the Pleasure Chest in Greenwich Village than a Fifth Avenue fashion emporium, induced passers-by to press in so closely that their breath fogged the glass.

As the holidays approach, Bendel's is betting its customers are in the mood for love — the playfully kinky variety — and it is not alone. Emboldened by the success of mass-market lingerie outlets like Victoria's Secret, which has long catered to customers' more wanton fantasies — and of British imports like Agent Provocateur and Myla, which sells sex toys and thongs on the Upper East Side — mainstream stores like Bendel's, H & M and Saks Fifth Avenue are borrowing the looks and merchandising strategies of Frederick's of Hollywood.

"Victoria's Secret keeps setting the bar, and now merchants who want to compete have to raise that bar," said Marshal Cohen, a senior analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company. According to NPD, lingerie sales totaled $9.6 billion for the 12 months ending in October, a jump of 6.3 percent over the previous year, compared with a rise of only 1 percent in total apparel sales. "So lingerie is outpacing the total market," Mr. Cohen said.

In a climate in which strip and burlesque shows have been revived as hip entertainment and movies like "Kinsey" confront audiences with full-screen blowups of pornographic photographs, it not surprising that retailers are flouting taboos of their own. "There was a time when if you wanted a garter belt, you would ask for it in a low tone, " said Carolyn Egan, an editor at the Tobé Report, a retail newsletter. "Now it's a thing that's out in the open, where grown men and children walk by."

Visitors to the ninth-floor lingerie department at Saks in Manhattan are greeted by a flotilla of store dummies sporting thongs beneath marabou bed jackets, as well as briefs and matching bras by La Perla with fetish-style corsetry that recalls the movies "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Diary of a Chambermaid."

Michael Fink, the store's senior fashion director, said that Saks branches across the country are displaying lingerie in a similarly provocative way, including those in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Boca Raton, Fla. "I don't want to see a plain foundation garment on a mannequin," Mr. Fink said. "Do you?"

At the H & M flagship at 51st Street, cater-corner from St. Patrick's Cathedral, a series of Christmas windows styled by Patricia Field, who designed the costumes for "Sex and the City," frame skivvy-clad mannequins in languid poses, one of them inside an outsize Champagne glass, absently fondling her thighs. "We are pushing the envelope a bit," said Janke Nystrom, the director of marketing for H & M's 75 stores in the United States, adding that only the Fifth Avenue branch has the racier than usual windows. "But there is nothing here that would shock New Yorkers," she said.

A handful of shoppers do appear to take offense. Confronted by the central exhibit in the new 6,500-square-foot, seven-room lingerie department at Bendel's, some customers promptly spun on their heels and stalked out. Other customers seemed unfazed. Jennifer Barnette, 26, the managing director of the American Place Theater, was at Bendel's the other day, shopping for a pair of seamless underpants. She found the display beautiful. "It sort of puts you in a mood," she said. Ladora Remy, a massage therapist from Las Vegas, pronounced what she saw "a little over the top but tasteful."

Her blasé response was perhaps to be expected. As scholars point out, fetish-style corsetry, blindfolds, black stockings and peekaboo lace date back at least to the turn of the last century. "By the 1920's, all these things were in place in the culture," said Valerie Steele, the author of "Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power" (Oxford University Press), "and that just hasn't changed." So familiar are such items in women's arsenal of seduction, "that they have become domesticated," Ms. Steele said. "Women tell themselves, `We're playing with this naughty cliché. Big deal. So what?' "

To these women, many of whom have taken their sexual cues from Madonna since that diva was a girl, racy underwear is "not necessarily connected to the whole sadomasochistic psychological package," said Kim France, the editor of Lucky magazine, which highlighted black lace demibras and abbreviated underpants in its December issue. Among Lucky readers at least, "there is a huge acceptance of light kink," Ms. France said.

Mainstream stores are banking on it, though most stop short of acknowledging that they hope to steal market share from boutiques and Web sites selling vibrators and elbow-length latex gloves. Isn't all this provocative? "Not at all," Michael McCadden, the president of Bendel's, said on a recent Saturday, with a glance around the lingerie department. "The display is meant to be mysterious and fascinating. We want women to come in and say `Wow!' "

The store (which, like Victoria's Secret, is owned by Limited Stores, based in Columbus, Ohio) courts customers with scented candles and lingerie labels like Roberto Cavalli; Courtworth, the Paris makers of a $3,000 corset; and Andrés Sardá, a Barcelona designer of $600 mink bras. Those labels are the icing on an inventory that includes popular brands like Eberjey and private label camisoles ($128).

The latest Bendel's innovation, to be unveiled in time for Valentine's Day, is Rykiel Woman, a boutique within the lingerie department conceived by Nathalie Rykiel, a daughter of Sonia Rykiel, the Parisian fashion legend. Ms. Rykiel plans to stock the shop with vibrating rubber ducks and lipstick tubes, displayed alongside cashmere loungewear and garter belts. "That way the same woman who sells you a cashmere sweater can show you how a vibrator works," she said.

Not to be outdone, Victoria's Secret, which has long sold what are euphemistically termed novelty panties, with satin bows and rhinestones where the derrière should be, is seeking to boost its raciness quotient. In November, the chain introduced a collection of Chantal Thomass lingerie: marabou bras and panties; black lace bodysuits with cutaway midsections; transparent knickers; and, of course, the requisite pink and black bondage masks. "The line is taking off from where very sexy is today," said Kristine Bokariza-Martin, the vice president for merchandising. Already offered at 119 Victoria's Secret outlets around the country, it is expected to reach an additional 300 stores by fall.

"This line has been a bench mark of sexiness for us," Ms. Bokariza-Martin said. "Are our customers ready? You bet."

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