Pushing Up

For moneyed women, lingerie is a private, delicious secret.

Walking through Beijing’s financial district – past women in trousersuits, crisp white shirts and demure accessories – the casual observer might get the impression that working in the once male-dominated industry involves giving up traditional ideas of femininity for a sterner, toned-down look. What the passer-by doesn’t know, however, is that underneath the uniform, those suited-up women are probably wearing thousands of yuan’s worth of lingerie.

High-end underwear is booming in China. While the luxury sector has seen an overall drop in sales, partly due to Xi Jinping’s austerity measures over free- spending officials, pricey undergarments have joined handbags and watches asa must-have item among high-powered women and mistresses alike.

Once known as the world’s low-cost garment manufacturer, China is now becoming a main consumer of luxury lingerie. Total sales of women’s underwear in China totaled RMB124 billion in 2014, of which 30 percent was ‘luxury intimate apparel.’ According to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, that proportion is set to increase by 18 percent between now and 2019, as consumers shift from basics to fashion lingerie.

It is a counter-phenomenon to the slowing pace of other high-end markets and a different, more discreet way to flaunt one’s wealth.

“For moneyed women, lingerie is a private, delicious secret,” says Irene Lu,a designer of custom-made underwearin Beijing and founder of luxury lingerie label Pillowbook. “It offers them a way to splurge without people having to know about it – luxury next to the skin. It’s almost empowering.”

Twenty years ago, Chinese womenhad a handful of underwear choices: most bought monochrome briefs or high-waisted knickers in bulk, or picked up a pair of cheap bras at their local department store. Wary of looking showy or overly sexy, female consumers would rarely think of indulging in extravagant lingerie. Now, a silk bra or strapless bustier is seen as a fashion statement – albeit an inconspicuous one.

“I spend more on bras and panties than dresses these days,” says 35-year-old Li Yang, a PR account executive browsing the underwear selection at Stella McCartney’s in Beijing’s Parkview Green mall. “Feeling confident in great-fitting lingerie can be a real boost to the ego. And, in an office environment, it’s less pretentious than sporting an expensive bag.”

“Women have more money,” says Matthew Crabbe, Asia-Pacific research director for market research firm, the Mintel Group. “With greater spending power, they are becoming more discerning. They are exposed to more brands across a wider range of media, and are now aware of more product and brand choices.

This has meant healthy competition between local and foreign labels. Domestic players like Beijing-based brand Aimer (China’s ‘first’ lingerie venture, founded in 1993), Hong Kong’s Embry Form, and Shenzhen’s Enweis and Eve’s Temptation have been offering expanding ranges of racy, lace-laden underpinnings to meet changing tastes and demand, branching into special lines and collections priced upwards of RMB500 apiece.

Western counterparts have since followed suit, with profitable results. In January, Victoria’s Secret made its first foray into the Chinese Mainland, opening nine beauty and accessory shops. During an analyst call last month, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands Inc., called China an “incredibly significant market for us in the future,” hinting that it wouldn’t be long before its underwear range becomes available here too.

London high-end lingerie company Agent Provocateur, a pioneer of independent-spirited lingerie in the early 90s, recently revealed that sales across its four China stores were at least 25 percent higher than expected. The label entered the mainland in 2013 with four boutiques and, according to CEO Garry Hogarth, plans are in the pipeline to open 20 more stores in China over the coming years.

Also known for opulent lingerie – silk fabrics, exquisite packaging, feathers and intricate details – Agent Provocateur’s direct rival, La Perla, is performing similarly well. Through sales of items starting at around RMB1,000, the Italian lingerie company’s overall revenue was up 42 percent in 2014 and the brand’s expansion across the Mainland is set to continue with a handful of new openings this year, including a men’s boutique in Shanghai.

“Our Chinese clientele is financially independent and often looking for a new level of comfort when it comes to a braor a slip,” says La Perla’s Asia Marketing and Communication Manager, Betty Peng. “They demand value – a combination of quality, service and price – rather than just price alone. In that sense, the market here is becoming increasingly similar to the West, where consumers have a much longer history of buying luxury lingerie. The gap is getting smaller.”

The market retains intrinsically Chinese characteristics, however.

“Some of our most popular itemsin China are what we call ‘in-and-out’ garments – sleepwear that can also be worn to the office, underneath women’s suit jackets,” explains Peng. “Chinese women tend to go for that kind of product as they are still very careful spenders. Value for money is one of the main factors influencing local purchasing trends.”

Labels are still experimenting with a variety of targeted marketing strategies. Over the last two years, the Italian lingerie maker has cast Liu Wen and Ming Xi – two of China’s most sought-after models – in its ad campaigns.

Then there are the yearly Chinese New Year collections produced by both Agent Provocateur and La Perla, which suggest that both brands are determined to adjust their image and cater to local customers.

But interest in luxury underpinnings cannot be solely attributed to wealth. Changes in societal and cultural attitudes, from sex to beauty and lifestyle, have also been pivotal to the sector’s growth. Irene Lu of Pillowbook agrees.

 “We are now living in a ‘have-it-all’ society, where women are more confident about themselves and their sexuality and aren’t afraid to experiment with lingerie that’s frivolous or stylish,” she says. “Underwear is almost becoming a way for them to express themselves. Beneath a boring shift dress, you could be wearing a crimson plunge bra and a thong. There’s a kind of freedom to it that you don’t get with normal clothes.”

Lu’s customers range from twenty- something graduates to women in their 40s. It’s a similar target market – mainly self-employed professionals, CEOs and entrepreneurs – to more mainstream retailers. They choose to buy Pillowbook products (which all start at around RMB1,000) because, she says, “they are living a healthier lifestyle and care for what they are wearing. I also use no padding, and that’s resonating quite well among Chinese clients: educated, modern women no longer care for push-up bras. They are confident with their bodies. The mentality has definitely changed over the last few years.”

Padded or not, pricey bras and other fancy undergarments are becomingan essential feature of many Chinese women’s closets.

“Underwear is one of those guilty pleasures I can never get enough of,” says Li as she pays for two pairs of Stella McCartney knickers and a silk nightie. “It allows you to be a different person.” Then, after a pause: “Agent Provocateur is on this floor too. I think I’ll go take a look.”

First appeared in That's Shanghai magazine, March 2015.