Smashing Stereotypes: Lingerie Brands Chase Ethnic Markets

The potential of the $12.4 billion ethnic market has lingerie firms scrambling to take advantage of the growing opportunity.

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Maidenform’s ad in Spanish.

Photo By WWD Staff

NEW YORK — How to appeal to the melting pot of multicultural consumers can be an enigma, but there’s one common denominator for marketers: All women want to look beautiful, especially in lingerie.

Minority niches are increasingly seen as having untapped potential in the $12.4 billion innerwear market and lingerie specialists are responding to the opportunity. Major intimate apparel companies such as Sara Lee Corp, VF Corp., The Warnaco Group and Maidenform Inc. are arming their marketing arsenals with consumer-specific research aimed at the multiethnic consumer, as well as ambitious advertising and promotional campaigns designed to capture this burgeoning audience.

Their efforts come even as company executives privately acknowledge that Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American consumers represent a market that traditionally has been misunderstood and underserviced.

A number of misconceptions abound over who the ethnic consumer is. Is she average size, curvy, petite, tall, short or plus size? And what does she want? Fashion, designer brands, comfort or function?

The answer is, all of the above. As a result, cracking the mind-set of the multicultural market and shaking off archaic perceptions remains a challenge for the fashion apparel industry, said Iris LeBron, fashion director of intimate apparel, swimwear and activewear at Invista Inc.

“There’s definitely tremendous potential in the multiethnic market, whether the consumer is young, old, slim or plus size. There tends to continue to be a generalization and a stereotyping,” said LeBron. She added that this “judgmental attitude” can limit a brand’s reach to niche segments such as a hip-hop generation of shoppers who wear urban brands; Latinas looking for sexy, over-the-top lingerie, or boring, lackluster products for the plus-size woman.

Executives from the manufacturing, retail and marketing arenas agree the key challenge is learning to understand the cultural divides and how they affect different taste levels. They acknowledge that a main reason for the delayed response to ethnic consumers is a preconceived notion that ethnic often is a code word for plus sizes, a classification that has long been ignored by retailers and vendors.

Along with beauty products, lingerie is one of the most important culture-sensitive categories. While psychographics and consumer research are standard practices at companies, executives have discovered over the past year that producing and advertising undergarments that are desirable, fashionable and functional for a diverse consumer base is not an issue of race, a consumer’s color or cultural background. Rather, it’s about projecting self-confidence, a celebration of sensuality and a smart, modern attitude.
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