Could a beaded miracle bra lift the nation's sagging economy?
That's what the leading purveyor of lingerie hopes to help accomplish, while getting a dose of publicity on the side, and raising a drawerful of dollars for Sept. 11 charities.
Victoria's Secret kicked off its holiday shopping campaign Tuesday night with its annual fashion show, set against a velvet ceiling full of shimmery stars, in a giant tent at New York's Bryant Park, venue of the city's Fashion Week.
But the world's most-watched fashion show comes to New York at a time when not only the scarred city continues to pull itself out of the ashes of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but as the nation struggles against a sweeping economic slowdown.
Sizing Up Sales
Retailers have been hit particularly hard by the decline in sales growth, which started even before Sept. 11, as consumers' confidence eroded, making them more reluctant to spend. Sales had been flat throughout the summer before plunging 2.2 percent in Sept.
But underwear could give the retail sector a kick in the behind with its own mini sales revival.
Lingerie's $3 billion-plus share of the retail sales category may be small, but while the holiday outlook for the retail sector as a whole is cautious, intimate apparel is set for strong holiday sales, projects Richard Jaffe, retail analyst at New York-based financial services company UBS Warburg.
"Intimate apparel in general, and Victoria's Secret specifically, could possibly outperform many other areas of retail," added Todd Slater, retail analyst at the New York office of financial advising firm Lazard.
Signs of Rising Bottom Lines
Some evidence of how that can fuel the sector came with retail sales figures for October, which jumped a record 7.1 percent, in large part pumped by a jump in auto sales, but also helped by a deep discounting of smaller-ticket items, such as clothing and intimate apparel.
Helping to explain the trend is Stan Williams, fashion director for Maxim magazine. "I still can't get my head around buying clothes," says Williams. "But intimate apparel is not expensive, and anyone — men or women — can buy it."
Sept. 11 created a sentimental response, argues Jaffe. "And what is the holiday season all about? A way to show affection. Consumers will be out there looking to buy gifts because exchanging presents is a way to be sentimental with your family."
Adds Slater, "People don't want to be overt with their purchases in a recession. But unless you're wearing intimate apparel as outerwear — which some people do — it can be considered an inexpensive 'lift-me-up.'"
'Ready for Primetime'
Victoria's Secret certainly didn't spare any expense in its effort to get Americans into the shopping mood early. The fashion show, which is scheduled to be broadcast this evening on ABC-TV (whose parent company also owns this Web site), cost approximately $6 million to produce, says Ed Razek, president and chief marketing officer of Victoria Secret's corporate parent Intimate Brands.
Razek believes it's money well spent. "This is the biggest sales opportunity Victoria's Secret has had and it's a very good investment." Last year more than 1.6 billion people in 140 countries saw some part of the show through media coverage and on the Web. And Victoria's Secret projects its network debut will set new records for TV viewership.
The company can't buy the exposure they'll get with the broadcast, contends Slater. Last year more than 1.6 billion people in 140 countries saw some part of the show through media coverage and on the Web. Victoria's Secret projects its network debut will set new records for TV viewership.
It won't hurt that the company product will be showcased by supermodels such as Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Daniela Pestova, and Molly Sims, alongside entertainment from tenor Andrea Bocelli and hip-hop superstar Mary J. Blige.
But Razek is also very conscious of the responsibility of proceeding as planned with the show. "It wasn't a question of business as usual, or even 'the show must go on.' We considered canceling the show … but I was not in a position to let the mayor down," he says referring to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's impassioned plea that people go back to what they were doing.
"New York City was a good idea six months ago and the huge outpouring of support after Sept. 11 makes it an even better idea," added Jaffe.
And officials at the mayor's office said: "We are delighted that the Victoria's Secret fashion show is returning to New York City, particularly as we continue our efforts to promote the city as a tourism destination for the upcoming holiday season."
Razek also saw the show as an opportunity to raise an additional $4 million for various city-based needs, donating 40 pairs of tickets to be auctioned off at $25,000 each, with the proceeds going to several charities.
Question of Propriety
Yet, some still say that especially in New York, where location and timing are of utmost importance, the show may strike the wrong note with a grieving nation.
"In my own life I accept the notion that I shouldn't change what I'm doing to not let the terrorists win," says Daniel Horowitz, professor of American Studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "But I don't know that I can extend that notion to corporations."
If the company had not donated money to the city of New York, people would dismiss the event as exhibiting the "height of conspicuous consumption," explains Robert R. Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based trauma psychologist and media commentator.
He added: "You may not like the cause, but these people are showing that they care by putting their money where their mouth is. I think they're conveying the message that patriotism isn't just on the personal level, it's also on the corporate level."
But the question of propriety is much more complicated, suggests Sharlene Hesse-Biber, professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of Am I Thin Enough?
On one hand, the politically correct would say it is "unbelievable that when we have all this killing, here we are objectifying women's bodies," she observes. But on the other hand, the show can be seen as an expression of the range of freedoms this country has.
"Women in Afghanistan have to cover their bodies while women here have the freedom to a range of ways to display the beauty of their bodies," says Hesse-Biber. But she adds that models strutting on the catwalks are arguably just as bound as the Taliban women, because they are only appreciated in terms of their bodies, not their minds.
Will tuning in to fashion show send a message of the mass marketing of eating disorders, asks Hesse-Biber, or will women say "Gee, I really like this nightie, and I may not look as good in this as a model does, but it'll make me happy?"