Not all that long ago, the prototype for marketing underwear was to feature tall, thin, often white women, an image epitomised by intimates giant Victoria’s Secret.
Today, many shoppers prioritise comfort over sex appeal, and a crop of new underwear brands have pushed the industry to focus on diversity and inclusion. Products like bralettes now outpace the once-evergreen push-up bra while women of all shapes and sizes are celebrated on social media. Even Victoria’s Secret is swapping out its squad of supermodels (dubbed the ‘Angels’) for a diverse group of women famous for their advocacy and achievements. The intimates giant, which controlled 32 percent of the market in 2015 now owns just 11 percent of it, according to Euromonitor.
In wake of the market’s disruption, legacy brands are evolving to keep up. Cosabella, a 40-year-old intimates brand best known for stretch-lace lingerie is the latest example. The company is unveiling a rebrand, moving towards a more inclusive image. It’s trading its feminine pink bow logo for a minimalist black and white one, and doubling down on niche sizing, selling bra bands as small as 28 and as large as 42. It will also begin selling intimates, swim and sleepwear for the male body form. The company will start including men in its advertising too.
Cosabella never banked on objectifying women the way Victoria’s Secret did — and its rebrand isn’t as dramatic — but it has never been celebrated as an inclusive brand either. The move is a notable step for the company, long a staple of the women’s underwear section in department stores. Cosabella is sold in 2,500 doors globally, including at Selfridges, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Revolve, and Net-a-Porter.
“Our mom started the company in 1983 and we only saw it as a woman’s brand because that’s what we grew up with,” said Guido Campello, co-chief executive, who, together with his sister Silvia, took over the business from their parents in 2015. “The pink logo itself played into the old ideas of femininity and everyone thought we should move away from it at a time when this market is so hot and you have so many new cool players with different ideologies.”
Internet-native companies are dominating social media feeds, so even brands with decades of experience feel nervous.
Cosabella earns $40 million in annual sales, according to a source close to the company. But the women’s intimates market, which Euromonitor projects will hit $12 billion in 2021, is competitive. Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, Kim Kardashian West’s Skims and newcomer Parade are praised for their wide selection of skin tones and sizes, as well as their diverse imagery. Venture-backed startups True&Co. and ThirdLove have leaned into fit technology that helps customers find the right bra size. Increasingly, Cosabella was faced with a conundrum: evolve or get left behind.
“You see this in every category, where young brands become successful, and push older brands to keep up,” said Catharine Dockery, a venture capitalist at Vice Ventures, which has invested in Parade. “Internet-native companies are dominating social media feeds, so even brands with decades of experience feel nervous.”
A Skin-Deep Evolution
Cosabella, owned and operated by the Campello family, has developed a reputation in the decades since its founding. The brand is “known to have the highest quality fabrics and make the comfiest products,” said Laura Barrera, creative director of fashion branding firm Gig Miami who used to work at Cosabella competitor Eberjey.
But while its lace lingerie, like the Never Say Never bralette, used to stand out, others have encroached on its territory. Notably, American Eagle’s Aerie, which surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2020, captured the Gen Z market with its bralettes and inclusive messaging. To boot, fast fashion brands like Shein and Boohoo now sell lingerie at rock-bottom prices.
“When Cosabella started, stretch lace was a big deal, but now it’s everywhere,” said Cora Harrington, a lingerie market expert and editor in chief of The Lingerie Addict. “Your bread and butter can’t be a style that everyone else makes now.”
Shoppers are also increasingly looking for athletic styles, added Erin Schmidt, senior analyst at Coresight Research. Adidas and Lululemon have more than doubled their market share of the women’s intimates market over the last five years with new underwear and sports bras that come in proprietary technical fabrics.
Lingerie marketing is evolving too, and is now about “self-awareness, self-care, self-awakening, and not a pressure to feel sexy,” Barrera said. Products are framed as meant for the wearer, not as something to attract others.
“Over the past several years, the intimates industry has seen a much-needed evolution through the introduction of incredibly powerful DTC brands that started out empowering women to feel confident,” said Lori Marten, a vice president and divisional merchandising manager at Nordstrom.
With Cosabella’s rebrand, the company is trying to appeal to Gen Z — an important customer to capture in intimates, said Harrington.
“Aerie and VS Pink are powerful because they bring customers in early into their bra-buying lifetime and they tend to stick around for the long-term,” she said.
But a shift in branding is important for older customers too, noted Barrera. Millennials and Boomers are seeking out underwear companies that feel worlds away from old marketing.
“This is a customer who was sold the fairy tale of Victoria’s Secret, which is an illusion of beauty and femininity that’s marketed to men,” Barrera added. “The customer has grown up. The fantasy is gone.”
The Cosabella Rebrand
In approaching the rebrand, Guido Campello said he was inspired by brands like Parade and Skims’ focus on inclusivity. A major element of Cosabella’s own inclusivity push is its introduction of men’s products. The brand already had men and male-identifying shoppers buying its women’s products, but Cosabella will now begin selling underwear, bras, sleepwear and intimates for them. Cosabella also sees an opportunity in doubling down on niche sizing for men, like offering cup and band sizing for underwear.
“For a while we had attracted a male shopper, but we weren’t designing for their fit or the male body form,” Guido said. “We want to make sure we are … allowing other genders to experience the product and interpret it in a way they feel comfortable.”
Cosabella will begin featuring men and non-binary models in its campaigns too, which Guido said will help shoppers recognise Cosabella isn’t catered just to women anymore.
We want to make sure we are … allowing other genders to experience the product and interpret it in a way they feel comfortable.
Silvia Campello said Cosabella’s move away from relying solely on wholesale has allowed it to rethink its position in the market — DTC now accounts for 50 percent of Cosabella’s sales, as opposed to three years ago, when it was only 20 percent.
“Technicalities abound when you are tied [to department stores],” she said. “Every section has a different buyer and you’re often limited to specific categories, but DTC pushes the boundaries of what wholesale companies like us were founded on.”
Cosabella’s rebrand certainly leaves it open for backlash and Guido Campello admitted that the changes could also alienate existing customers. Some shoppers might take offence to a historically feminine lingerie company trying to go more gender-neutral while plenty of men won’t want to buy Cosabella’s lace or mesh offering. He said Cosabella will ease into its new marketing directions by first including men with women.
“It’s a concern in the broader scope that it’s not 100 percent accepted,” he said. “It’s an education process. How do we not alienate and upset people and help them understand it? We go step by step. But do we think it’ll be for the betterment of our customers and society? We do.”
As well, getting wholesalers on board with Cosabella’s new men’s products might also be tricky. Sites like Zappos and Zalando have already committed to carrying them, but retailers like Net-a-Porter and Nordstrom have not yet signed on.
“Department stores tend to run their intimates business more conservatively, and don’t take risks,” Harrington said.
But the brand’s messaging isn’t changing entirely. As Cosabella redefines its position in the market, Silvia Campello said that it believes sex is still an important part of the equation.
“There’s a push away from sexy but we don’t think we should abandon it,” she said. “You can use it inclusively.”