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Underwear on the up

Updated: 2014-04-14 07:14
By Matt Hodges ( China Daily)

German innerwear brand Triumph is hoping to re-stitch the embryonic bra market in China. Matt Hodges investigates what lies beneath.

Chinese women are notoriously stingy when it comes to innerwear, and getting them to splurge on bras and lingerie remains a daunting challenge for brands like Germany's Triumph, Japan's Wacoal and China's Gujin, despite their strong presence at department stores nationwide.

"The market for sophisticated underwear products in China is quite nascent," says Matthew Crabbe, director of Asia Pacific Research at Mintel.

"The idea of buying lingerie as a fashion statement is only just starting to happen. Similar to the cosmetics market, Chinese women are still quite wary of looking showy or overly sexy."

There are more than 600 million female consumers in the country, indicating huge future rewards when purchasing levels in this segment begin to track Asian neighbors like Japan and South Korea.

However, more visible designer accessories that denote higher social status, such as Hermes silk scarves, Louis Vuitton purses and red stilettos by French designer Christian Louboutin-now flavor of the month in China - still reign supreme for those with the spending power.

"Chinese women prefer to buy bags," says Louis Lin, China CEO of Triumph, one of the first companies to introduce women to bras 128 years ago. Founded in Germany, it opened its first Asian branch in Hong Kong in 1960 and established a presence on the mainland in 1985.

"The big challenge for us is that the market consumption of bras in general is still very, very low compared to other Asian markets," adds the Taiwan-born Lin.

"Department store CEOs always ask me, 'How come our business is so small in China?'"

Even though the market is still "conservative" and "modest", "things are changing rapidly", says Crabbe. Mintel's research shows that China's underwear market has been growing by 20 percent a year recently, with the bulk of customers buying lingerie aged 24-35.

"The potential for growth is really strong moving into Tier-two and - three cities as consumers catch up in terms of spending power and trade up their products," he says.

A seismic shift on Taobao recently hints at the potential future landscape of consumption that is both exciting and frustrating retailers.

China's top e-commerce platform saw record bra sales on Nov 11, an annual celebration for singles in China dubbed "anti-Valentine's Day". Women's underwear accounted for the lion's share of its total daily sales of 6.7 billion yuan ($1.07 billion), off-loading 1.6 million bras in the first hour, Taobao said.

Despite Triumph's travails, and its preference for brick-and-mortar stores over e-commerce, the company is now considered one of the top four innerwear brands in China.

Domestic brand Aimer tops the market with a 12-percent share, according to data from the National Commercial Information Center of China. Gujin, Embry Form and Maniform, all Chinese brands, have stakes of around 10 percent each, as does Triumph.

Triumph's flagship store at Shanghai's Grand Gateway Mall sells around 30 pieces a day, according to a clerk there surnamed Li. She says she used to sell three of its new-line products a day on average but now sells almost twice as many.

Company sales have been growing at 10 to 20 percent a year in Shanghai, Beijing and other top-tier cities, according to Lin. Among its various brands, eponymous Triumph is the most popular in China, followed by Sloggi for younger women and Valisere at the luxury end.

Accelerating sales are also encouraging other big-name foreign brands to enter the Chinese market. Victoria's Secret is launching fragrances and accessories to test the waters before introducing its bedroom lingerie.

"We're targeting high-end consumers in the 25-to-45 age bracket," says Lin. "Not necessarily high-spending, but more experienced women with higher needs psychologically who are more confident and who really care about themselves."

Triumph held a fashion show on a tropical beach in Hainan on March 25 to promote its new bonding technology (Thermo Stretch Adhesive, or TSA) that removes the stitching to make its bras seamless and easier to wear.

"Their products are comfortable and trendy and sell well. They claim their lingerie fits like a second skin, and it involves a lot of research and machinery to get the perfect silhouette and fit," says India's Sandhya Srinivasan, a former professor at Raffles Design Institute in Beijing who now designs bras for British brands like H&M and Marks & Spencer.

"Chinese women have a quite unusual body type. For example, there's usually a two-finger space between the breasts, but market research shows that for Chinese women it's just one and a half. Chinese also love heavy padding."

During the fashion show, Hong Kong singer-actress Karen Mok and mainland star Tang Yan spoke to the media as European, Brazilian and Chinese models showed off the company's bras, negligees and swimwear.

"I like all of Sloggi's products. But if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the X Nello series because it is so artistic," says Tang, whose pencil-thin physique and TV drama roles have made her popular among Chinese teenagers and women in their early 20s. "It suits young people and represents a freer kind of lifestyle."

Triumph has a history of pioneering breakthroughs. "We have a 400-strong team in Hong Kong whose daily job is to study changes to the Asian woman's body," says Lin.

It launched a deep-V series in 2007 to accentuate women's cleavage, a memory cushion in 2010 for greater comfort and a "new sexy" campaign in China three years ago to help women shed old stereotypes and focus on confidence-boosting lifestyle changes.

"We did a lot of studies and discovered that Chinese women are closer to Italian women in the sense that they are open-minded and care more about themselves, rather than just dressing to be sexy for men," says Lin.

"In different parts of China, the design code is different, the body shape is different, and the appreciation of colors is very different, although it's generally much more colorful here than in other markets."

The company introduced concept bras in Japan but most are never commercialized. Past examples include a baseball mitt-shaped bra, another that looks like tiny fish bowls, and the konkatsu "marriage hunting" bra.

"They are not a boutique brand, but they have innovated and come up with this range which has made them a leading and huge brand of lingerie," says Srinivasan.

"Enthusiasm for perfect quality and forward-looking design without doubt plays a key role in our success at any point in our history," says Triumph's managing director and co-owner Dieter Braun.

Sales of the company's Valisere brand, known for its fine lace and special French cups, may get a boost after Mintel released a report on March 25 asserting that Chinese consumers' definition of luxury is shifting away from price to appreciation of "craftsmanship".

Triumph claims its customers appreciate the pains it goes to, such as having its sales assistants follow them into fitting rooms to give advice. It also organizes focus groups to record their feedback.

According to Crabbe, foreign brands aiming to jump into the Chinese market should proceed with caution.

"The domestic brands are very strong," he says.

"They would need a very specific marketing message to differentiate themselves."

Contact the writer at matthewhodges@chinadaily.com.cn.

Underwear on the up

German label Triumph still faces challenges in expanding its Chinese market, though it opened its first Asian branch in Hong Kong in 1960 and established a presence on the mainland in 1985. Photos provided to China Daily

Underwear on the up

A fashion show is held in Sanya to display Triumph's new styles.

Underwear on the up

Triumph's sales have been growing at 10 to 20 percent a year in big mainland cities, according to Louis Lin, China CEO of Triumph.

(China Daily 04/14/2014 page22)