There will be no escaping it today for it’s the Victoria’s Secret catwalk show. While the lingerie may be filmy little diaphanous frippery, the coverage will be unmissable.
Bella and Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Stella Maxwell, the models that walk their annual catwalk extravaganza are so famous they could eclipse any event, except this. Streaming to 1.4 billion people in over 190 countries, this is a megawatt spectacle that shares more common ground with Miss World and the Grammys than a standard runway show. It looked likely that nothing could unseat Victoria’s Secret in the underwear market. Sure, the sales weren’t singing like they use to and Ashley Graham had called out the brand for its lack of size inclusivity, but the shows were so big, so global, it didn’t seem to matter. Until Rihanna stepped in.
With #metoo murmuring in the background, the fashion market began asking: what does it mean to empower women? We accept the body is political, but how does it take part in the conversation around underwear. Ask yourself about the politics of pants and what bubbles up? Male-run boardrooms and an industry sagging and lagging behind. Companies with firm principals on sustainability, inclusivity and a responsible manufacturing chain stand to benefit in this current climate.
Indead, Rihanna has made it her raison d'être to disrupt. She did it first with Fenty beauty, and she did it again with her first Savage X Fenty runway show earlier this year.
A pregnant Slick Woods in nipple pasties and a babydoll clad Paloma Elsseser are the poster girls of this new era of lingerie. Rihanna took the lingerie market with both hands and filled the gaps. Her models had curves, they had six-packs, stretch marks, curly hair, straight hair, no hair and a raw confidence that came from their underwear, which wasn’t expensive or sized for a gym bunny. Nude no longer meant pastel pink and the signifiers of sexy - long legs, blonde waves, boobs that weren’t too big (nor to small, mind) - no longer had currency. 'Inspired to create a line of intimates that celebrates and speaks to all shades and shapes, Savage X Fenty will celebrate fearlessness, confidence, and inclusivity,’ said the brand’s press team.
' I am completely obsessed with Savage and everything it stands for,' confides Lotte Williams, an underwear model who at size 12 falls into the 'plus' bracket even thought she's two dress sizes smaller than the average UK woman. 'It’s proof that being truly diverse really isn’t that difficult and brands need to stop making excuses.'
It would make a nice neat narrative to say Rihanna did this on her own (albeit with financial backing from the sexily named Techsyle Fashion Group). But, it’s not the case. Next year Curvy Kate will be celebrating it’s 10th birthday, while Neon Moon, Me and You and Toru & Naoko their fifth, and these are only a few of the brands out there catering to feminists.
Like the grandmother of this arena, Curvy Kate has spent the last decade witnessing and campaigning for bras to come in all sizes. ‘Bras are not easy to make,’ confides Phoebe Preston, Social and Communications Executive at Curvy Kate, ‘that’s what makes us different because girls of all shapes, sizes and curves test our bras.’ Indeed, their website markets to women’s desires, not just a man’s boudoir dreams, with designs (from the sexy to the every day) modelled by women of all sizes. It’s a far cry from the aggressively perky sample sized bodies seen on other websites.
Shop: Lingerie Brands For Feminists
Lonely, Bonnie High Brief Pickle, £33.23buy
When it comes to disrupters, Beija London has broken away from the systematic oppression of ancient size guides. Instead, they have their own classifications. ‘Our message is that one style doesn't fit all’, explains Mazie who set up the label with her sister Abbie, 'we invented three different sizing categories named X, Y and Z. The level of construction in each category is adjusted, offering a wire-free range for smaller cups, mid-level support for B-D and a full support range up to a 36G.’
Customers want to be seen, not just in terms of size and shape but skin tone too. As Beija London has expanded their sizes range, labels like Nubian Skin and Fenty have widened the colour palette of ‘nude’ to include those often overlooked.
‘Women and non-binary people are looking to buy from companies which understand and promote their views across the board which is why we're seeing such a huge growth in inclusive brands becoming the norm,’ Neon Moon’s Shaakirah Iqbal tells Grazia. Cellulite in all its wobbly glory is celebrated by the London-based Neon Moon, which has a strict no Photoshop policy. But, their concept of empowerment is beyond skin deep as their production methods are as sustainable as possible and meticulously considered to create a conscious product.
Stats from Net-A-Porter echo Neon Moon as the luxury retailer has said it’s become increasingly aware of the demand for representation within lingerie and is widening its offering to be more inclusive. They’ve already doubled their investment for Cruise SS19 in DD+ bras by buying extended ranges from existing brands, like Stella McCartney, Fleur Du Mal and Agent Provocateur, while onboarding newer labels, like Adina Ray. ‘Net-A-Porter recognises that diversity moves beyond just size, and brands are waking up to this too,’ says PR executive, Anissa Jaffery.
In the 20 years since Figleaves launched, Jenni Burt, head of brand and buying, has seen a dramatic shift across the lingerie market. ‘[W]omen were largely being squeezed into a small size range of 32-36" and A to C cups,’ she recalls, ‘The main change we have seen is a move away from heavily padded bras to supportive but comfortable styles.’ It’s a movement she credits to the lessening dominance of the male gaze.
Intimates may be rarely seen, but Neon Moon thinks they make a loud political statement, Iqbal explains, ‘We live in a world where purchase power is as powerful as voting, if not more so. Buying trends predict the future, and the one we're heading to is a more equal world.