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The Victoria's Secret backlash: how athleisure-inspired bras hav

In the week that Victoria’s Secret sent a $1m diamond-encrusted bra down its annual catwalk, it seems sexy lingerie is falling out of fashion. Over the past two years, GoogleTrends has seen a surge in searches for “bralette” over “push-up bra” and the market research company NPD Group reported that the highest priority for bra wearers was “comfort”.

Not only does the Victoria’s Secret brand aesthetic sit uncomfortably in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it has also faced opposition from the growing popularity of “leisurée” – an athleisure-inspired take on lingerie – particularly among millennials.

It is a stark contrast from the sculpted, corseted and glitter-covered looks from which Victoria’s Secret showed little sign of diverging this week. But sales are falling, with parent company L Brands reporting a drop in comparable sales in June, which prompted retail analyst Randal Konik to pronounce it “game over” for the label. Last year, 4.98 million viewers tuned in to watch the televised version of the show – an all-time low for the brand, and down 25% on the year before.

Sales of Aerie’s bras are soaring.
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Sales of Aerie’s bras are soaring.

“Brands such as Victoria’s Secret, La Perla and even Agent Provocateur have become over-sexualised, and it’s not relevant to this generation any more,” says Serena Rees, who cofounded Agent Provocateur in 1994, and last year founded the underwear, intimates and streetwear brand Les Girls Les Boys.

“What I did in the 90s was socially and politically for that moment,” says Rees. “Now, we don’t want to be dressed up in stockings and suspenders; we don’t want to parade around for anybody. We’re about comfort: streetwear, sportswear.”

Despite the fact that Victoria’s Secret has introduced a bralette range, which also appeared on this year’s catwalk, worn by models including Georgia Fowler, Isilda Moreira and Martha Hunt, it is “comfortable lingerie” brands, such as Lively, that are seeing sales soar.

It is no coincidence that Lively, which launched in 2016 and coined the term “leisurée”, has a store filled with millennial-pink furniture, leafy houseplants and neon signs, to which it encourages customers to “bring your camera and your besties”. When Madewell launched its first “intimates” range last year, its head of design, Joyce Lee, described the bralettes-and-bottoms collection as “versatile, unfussy, simple and well-designed and in a minimal, effortless way”. Since then, the brand’s sales have continued to outperform those of its sister company, J Crew.

Madewell’s bralettes – ‘unfussy, simple and minimal’.
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Madewell’s bralettes – ‘unfussy, simple and minimal’.

Meanwhile, American Eagle-owned underwear brand Aerie, which offers unlined and lightly lined bras, as well as bralettes, to the millennial market, is gaining popularity with comparable sales up 24% in the second quarter of 2016. Hanro, which has a dedicated “soft-cup bra” range, has seen this category grow more than 10% in comparison to last year.

Increasingly, leisurée-style underwear brands are working to disprove the idea that bralettes can’t be worn by those with a larger cup size – Lively offers “busty bralettes” up to a size DDD. Urban Outfitters’ “grunge-inspired” Out From Under range also taps into the leisurée trend, with crop-top-style bras sitting alongside cami tops, bodysuits and chenille socks and, at Les Girls Les Boys, sales of “comfort” underwear and non-underwired bras have increased 70% year on year. Does Rees think the laidback look of leisurée could usurp “racy” lingerie entirely?

“We don’t really make padded bras because people don’t want to have their boobs shoved up under their chin,” she says. “That’s not really the look any more.”