When Kathleen Jordan stopped at a Victoria’s Secret store a year ago to buy something for herself, the visit had an unintended consequence: Her 13-year-old daughter got hooked on Pink, the lingerie brand’s collegiate line. “Now she has more bras than I do, in every color under the sun,” says Jordan, a principal at design and architecture firm Gensler in New York.
Limited Brands’ (LTD) Victoria’s Secret and others are cashing in on the growing demand among middle and high school girls for intimate apparel. Hot Topic (HOTT) is testing an edgy line called Blackheart, and Urban Outfitters (URBN), which has said intimates could eventually make up 10 percent of sales, has increased such offerings across its brands. Even Justice, the store for 7- to 12-year-olds owned by Ascena Retail Group’s (ASNA) Tween Brands unit, is selling $21.90 tie-dye bras and $9 flowered panties online.
Retailers are taking care to present the garments as cute vs. sexy, says Marcie Merriman, founder of consultancy PrimalGrowth. Still, the reality is that stores are “all going to say they’re targeting 18- to 22-year-olds, but the reality is you’re going to get the younger customer,” says Merriman. Intimate apparel for girls and women overall generates more than $11.1 billion in annual sales, according to market researcher NPD Group. And Limited Brands has said its approximately $1.5 billion Pink brand may be a $3 billion business in a few years.
A decade ago girls had little choice in underwear; a training bra was often a plain garment bought at Target (TGT). No longer. “Sensuality and body image continues to be a message that young girls are seeing and are being exposed to in a much less controlled fashion perhaps than even 10, 12 years ago,” says Dan Stanek, executive vice president at consultancy Big Red Rooster. They’re aiming to imitate the lingerie styles worn by celebrities seen on the Web, he says.
Victoria’s Secret was among the first to tap the market, introducing Pink in 2004. The sub-brand is geared toward college girls, with logoed goods and brightly colored bras and panties. Limited Brands is opening free-standing Pink stores and adding more of the merchandise to Victoria’s Secret locations. At the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in November, the company hired teen heartthrob Justin Bieber to perform during a segment showcasing Pink merchandise. “When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be?” Stuart Burgdoerfer, Limited Brands’ chief financial officer asked at a conference last month. “They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink.”
Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters, which debuted its $250 million Aerie intimates brand in 2006, is also betting on the category, opening more stores alongside namesake locations and expanding online. It’s leveraging pop culture as a marketing tool as well. Last month, the company hired Jenn Rogien, the costume designer for HBO’s (TWX)Girls, as Aerie’s style and fit expert for six months. American Eagle, which had 154 Aerie stores as of October, started carrying more bras, underwear, and loungewear in the past couple of years while cutting back on broader apparel.
Lingerie makers have to be careful adjusting their messaging for a younger audience so it’s more about the girl and less about dressing in a way that’s appealing for men, Merriman says. Jennifer Foyle, Aerie’s senior vice president of global merchandising, agrees. “We really use the word ‘pretty’ more than ‘sexy’—that’s really not the Aerie girl,” she says.