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Lingerie’s entanglement with fashion: Salon International de la Lingerie celebrates 60 years

By Rachel Douglass


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WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition.

It’s easy to forget the breadth of change that has happened over just 60 years, and what those shifts have done for the fashion industry as a whole. One sliver of that is lingerie, a now incremental part of the women’s wardrobe that has naturally incurred revolutions of its own. Yet, while fashion and lingerie may seem intrinsically linked, this intertwining is only a recent hallmark in what has been a long and sometimes distant relationship between the two.

It has therefore been the task of Parisian trade fair Salon International de la Lingerie (SIL) to reflect the dynamic underwear market via its shows, acting as one of the few events entirely dedicated to the category. Over its 60 year lifespan, SIL has evolved with the times, something that was only reaffirmed by its most recent show – spanning January 20 to 22 – where new categories, expanded selections and a more diverse offering mirrored the present day.

60 years of lingerie reflected in SIL’s presence

The milestone year offered the perfect occasion to look back at some defining moments for SIL and lingerie as a whole. To do so, past decades were celebrated in a special anniversary lingerie show, where notable models showcased a range of industry-defining looks, and a talk held by executives from French lingerie giants Chantelle and Simone Pérèle, who discussed societal movements that subsequently changed the course of lingerie.

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition.

In more recent years, conversations from the outside world have continued to redefine the meaning of underwear. This was the experience of SIL director Matthieu Pinet, who had initially joined the organisation in 2017 in the midst of the #MeToo movement. It was during this time that it became easy to pinpoint an exact crossroads for lingerie. “All these years, lingerie had mainly been destined for the male gaze,” Pinet said, in conversation with FashionUnited. “Women now wear lingerie for themselves. It’s becoming part of the silhouette and women are doing that for them. Not everybody has entered this new world, but most brands have understood this.”

Anothering turning point for SIL was the 2023 takeover by WSN Développement – which oversees the fashion-based fairs Who’s Next, Impact and Bijorhca. Prior to this, Pinet had been guiding SIL’s Exposed section, solely dedicated to brands that viewed lingerie as a fashion accessory. However, since becoming director, Pinet has since seen this trend overthrow almost the entirety of the show, becoming present not only in the work of young brands, but also the more established names. Speaking on what was new for the Janaury 2024 edition, Pinet said: “For me, it’s more a restart of the beginning of a new story. A story where lingerie is fashion.”

Wellness at the core of consumer demand

Naturally, at the heart of these transformations are the demands of the ever-changing consumer. As such, Pinet has been very intentional about ensuring SIL is constantly adapting to the current environment. This, for example, has seen the inclusion of a wellness section. “The role of a trade show is to anticipate things, and wellness is an opportunity to open up the lingerie industry even more,” Pinet commented, adding: “We have 12 brands currently, but I can easily imagine 40. It’s an opportunity for us to grow, but also for shops to have a larger selection of products. I’m not saying that every wellness product will be in every shop tomorrow, but I can guarantee that in five years you will find these products everywhere.”

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition - Wellness Category.

Among those presenting in this category was Gisele, a consultancy group that oversees a number of the brands involved in SIL, including US lubrication label Überlube and UK sex toy manufacturer Love Not War. Having previously presented Überlube at medical trade shows, SIL was a new venture for the group, yet as the understanding of health and wellness widens, its representatives found that they were coming across similar clientele, just in a different environment.

On this gradually growing market, Cheryl Sloane, Überlube brand manager, said: “[Wellness] is continuing to evolve because the industry has evolved. This industry historically is a one where women use most of the products, but they’ve been developed by men. More women are now involved in the development so it has naturally changed. Another change is that men were previously purchasing the products even though women were using them. Now women are feeling more comfortable purchasing because there’s more education out there.”

"We've always said female pleasure is female wellness."

Lucy Litwack, owner and CEO of Coco de Mer

Wellness has also become more ingrained into the fibres of lingerie brands themselves, as evidenced by UK label Coco de Mer, which had been selling the products in its store since its 2001 founding, later launching its own Pleasure Collection in 2021. The retailer now offers this line via third-parties like John Lewis, Goop and Sephora as demand creeps upwards. On this trend, Lucy Litwack, CEO and owner of Coco de Mer, said: “These products have become so much more mainstream, when they were still a taboo a few years ago. You would never have seen them on the high street. We've always said female pleasure is female wellness, and everyone's coming around to this. Covid really accelerated that, because people were putting self care at the top of their priorities.”

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition.

For Litwack, shifts have been even wider among the brand’s consumer base, with buying habits aligning more with Coco de Mer’s empowerment message. She added: “We’ve always had quite enlightened customers, but there has been a massive difference in lingerie. So many more women are buying for themselves. Even luxury lingerie, which was previously bought by men as a gift, is now a year-round purchase. They are also so much more open to experimentation and expressing what they want.”

Maturing markets of a self-assured woman

The demands of these self-assured women are becoming ever-present in the workings of SIL, where new markets and emerging brands are pushing the expectations of lingerie even further. Menstrual lingerie is one of the categories leading the way here, driven largely by young, women-led brands that recognise the need to feel good no matter what time of the month it is. Founded in 2021, French label Lövane is among these names, with communications manager Khelida Andjorin noting that the acceptance of such products has only become more palpable this past year.

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition.

“At SIL last year, we were talking about menstrual panties and a lot of people were skittish. With these kinds of products you have to take the time to educate people. Some [retailers] that we had seen have now come back and have become more interested in working with us,” said Andjorin. The demand is as such that there is now increasingly more competition in the market, with big names like Chantelle also launching their own iterations, making it challenging for smaller entrepreneurs to be seen. Andjorin, however, noted that Lövane stands to be different, pushing boundaries with sexier product launches and expanding into new categories, like swimwear.

This emphasis on functional products could be seen throughout the fair at exhibitors like Bye Bra, a Dutch company that has become a SIL mainstay and has continued to expand its stand to reflect its growing presence on the international market. Now in its 12th year, Bye Bra’s line of adhesive underwear has also seen demand spike since Covid, driven by its never-out-of-stock, seasonless approach to production. “We’re complementary to the outfits of women,” said head of buying and product development, Arlette Wagenaar. “Demand rose a little before Covid, but now it is booming. A lot of retailers get in-store requests for adhesive bras so clients are really looking for you as a brand. Adhesive solutions are becoming more mainstream, which is a big change in lingerie in general.”

On the other side of the spectrum are the more fashion-focused labels, such as Cape Town’s Nette Rose, a six-year-old South African label whose extraordinarily floral line of underwear sets and one-pieces drew the attention of a wide ranging SIL crowd. While the brand is still on the path to cater to a more diverse range of bodies, its products particularly speak to European and Asian buyers, where smaller retailers take precedence. “Our South African market’s very diverse, we haven’t been able to tap into that yet,” said designer and founder Meg Miller. “We’re getting there, which is going to be exciting. We cater more to smaller cup sizes at the moment, which seem to be more widespread in Asia and Europe. We are in Taiwan and Hong Kong already, for example.”

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition - Nette Rose stand.

Lingerie as an international power player

In fact, countries in Asia are becoming a more interesting base for lingerie as the market there begins to mature and demand continues to rise. While buyers from Japan and Korea have also started to become more evident at SIL, the fair’s Pinet said that China was among those that was stepping up its presence, despite its vast difference in approach to the market. “What is really interesting is that 10 years ago, we couldn’t imagine having Chinese brands in our Exposed section, but that has changed,” Pinet noted. “I have been surprised by the evolution of the market there. In the past, there have been negative connotations with Chinese design, but there is a new world that is so creative and has so much energy. It’s a specific emerging market, but we follow it really closely.”

"There is a new world that is so creative and has so much energy."

Matthieu Pinet, Salon International de la Lingerie director

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition - Posie stand.

One label representing the country is four-year-old, Shanghai-based Her Senses, which offers locally-produced lingerie and, akin to the rise of fashion-infused lingerie, considers itself a ‘Fashion Lingerie’ label – hence its place in Exposed. This is only emphasised by the inclusion of ready-to-wear, an element that has always been a part of its offering yet has recently seen an increased level of interest leading to a resulting expansion. It marks the second time Her Senses has attended SIL as it looks to continue exploring the European market, where it is more likely to come into contact with lingerie-specific retailers and concept stores interested in its aesthetically-pleasing line over the primarily e-commerce-focused China.

“There are nearly no lingerie boutiques in China, it’s mostly fashion concept stores. Buying lingerie also mostly takes place online and it's really competitive, so it's quite mature. [Retail] is not growing very well. [In Europe meanwhile,] there is a bigger market of lingerie boutiques, so we want to explore these opportunities,” Her Senses’ overseas project manager Quina Huitao Zhou said, adding that there is also a difference in international consumer demand. “A huge majority of people in China are seeking simple, functional and supportive styles. Our bras are more of the French style – quite sexy, see-through and non-padded – so there is definitely a niche market. We have a loyal customer base though. We are still focused on e-commerce and exploring offline opportunities at the same time, and are developing a worldwide website right now, which will be launched February 2024.”

Her Senses. Credits: Her Senses campaign imagery.

What is to come for SIL and lingerie?

In terms of the show, as seen throughout its existence, changes, adaptations and shifts remain ongoing. From her own perspective, long-time attendee Coco de Mer’s Litwack has seen SIL take a more practical format in recent years, making it good for buyers as it increasingly becomes a space where the industry is all under one roof. “[SIL] is getting back to the way it was. With Covid we missed a few years, then when it came back it lost the buzz. This show is starting to get busy again, and we’ve had a lot of different countries visiting. It feels like the industry is finally coming back, and people are starting to trust in bricks and mortar retail again.”

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition - Club Tonic stand.

This sentiment comes despite a slight hesitancy surrounding the wellbeing of the lingerie market, which like ready-to-wear is financially suffering – albeit not as much, according to Pinet. However, the fair’s director said that upcoming categories like activewear and swimwear were only helping to bolster this side of the industry, causing brands to seek out these new forces of stability. Another element that is due to change is sustainability in light of the upcoming EU regulations. Pinet noted: “For this, ready-to-wear is finally evolving so lingerie is following behind a bit. We would love for it to evolve faster, but the direction is good and I’m confident for the future.”

When it comes to the outlook for SIL, Pinet said that while Paris will remain the event’s major homebase, he is also imagining bigger events elsewhere, namely in the US and China, where the market is beginning to take off. Having already organised shows in each region – Curve New York in the US and Interfilière Shanghai in China – Pinet has a feel for what these markets need. In the US, for example, he hopes to help the very business-oriented mindset shift towards a one that can envision a merging of fashion and lingerie. He concluded: “My strategy is not to develop many small events all over the world. I prefer to have less, but stronger events.”

WSN. Credits: Salon International de la Lingerie, January 2024 edition.
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