PARIS - ‘We haven’t yet found a better way of selling knickers than a beautiful bottom,” says Sarah Stagliano of Henriette H, one of a new breed of French lingerie designers grappling with how to make exciting underwear in the age of #MeToo.
With G-strings and push-up bras losing their allure as ultrasexiness gives way to comfort and with the whole idea of seduction being questioned, designers are grappling with how to be interesting without objectifying women.
Aubade, one of France’s leading lingerie brands, does not shy away from sex in its advertising. But it found itself at the center of controversy last month over a huge poster of embroidered panties covering a pair of perfectly rounded buttocks.
Hung from the facade of one of Paris’ biggest department stores, it sparked a furious response from the city’s deputy equality chief, who called for it to be taken down.
Communist Councilor Helene Bidard accused the brand of objectifying a “faceless” woman and demanded “the immediate withdrawal of this sexist campaign.” Others, however, countered that women’s rights tend to be the least respected in countries where such billboards are banned.
“We were not expecting the fuss,” says Aubade deputy general director Martina Brown.
The brand’s “Lessons in Seduction” ad campaign sparked similar horror 25 years ago, she says, when it urged women to “keep it spicy” and “let the situation work to your advantage.”
“It shocked people, but that did not stop women buying the lingerie nor the brand evolving,” says Brown. “Women love to see fine embroidery and lace; it talks to them, and that is why we have been zooming in on the underwear. We have to cut off the models’ heads in the photos otherwise we can’t show the detailing,” she insists.
Nor did she feel that impossible body standards are being set for women.
“Twenty years ago, some brands used ordinary women rather than models for their ads. We prefer to let people dream,” she adds.
Aubade showed alongside 15 other big French brands at a huge “Lingerie Rocks” show Jan 20-21 during Paris Fashion Week.
The line-up also included Henriette H, a young label at the other end of the spectrum that promotes mostly on Instagram. Stagliano, opened her boutique in an area in central Paris once known for its bordellos.
Stagliano says she has tried to capture something of that risque air by putting her changing rooms in the window. It’s up to the customers whether they pull the curtain or not. Nor is her label averse to some rather provocative embroidery, delicately sewn into the arms of chemises and other items.
“I can see how all this could be taken badly,” she says. “But a woman should be at liberty to put herself in the window if she wants to. It’s about re-appropriation.”
Stagliano, 36, says that also extends to women being free to choose whether they want “to be a sexual object.”
She backs her model, Jazzmine, who is in her 30s and refuses to let her photos be altered even if her breasts have “fallen perhaps a little” after she breast-fed her baby.
Jazzmine has been the face of Henriette H for six years and “will still be in 10 years,” Stagliano declares. In this line of fashion, sensual photo shoots are a must, she also says.
“To sell a pair of knickers you need a pair of buttocks because that is where you wear them. … If I was using a woman’s rear end to sell cream that would be another thing,” she argues.
The Simone Perele brand takes a far more restrained view. For the past year it has been showing its creations in still life draped on the end of a sofa, or glimpsed on a sportswoman or writer.
“There is another way of doing it,” says Stephanie Perele, the granddaughter of the label’s founder, who says women have had enough of altered images.
Renaud Cambuzat, a fashion photographer who is now chief creative officer of the lingerie company Groupe Chantelle, says there are still nowhere near enough underwear choices for modern women, who are “complex, multifaceted and ever-changing.”
On the one hand, there are shows like those of U.S. lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret, where it is “as if #MeToo never really happened,” but the signs are that “we could be seeing the end of an era and the start of another,” says Cambuzat.
On the other hand, he says that there is “body positivism” that “we associate ourselves with” but which can end up at opposite extremes.
“Even after #MeToo we are stuck with a lot of stereotypes.” Cambuzat says, “Lots of things are changing but there is still a way to go.”