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Sex Still Sells

Fashion may be having a genderless moment. But are consumers?
(L-R) Emilio Pucci, Balmain, Mugler Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: Indigital
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — This season, the runways were awash in genderless clothing. Even at Gucci, a house long known for its sexed-up aesthetic, newly installed creative director Alessandro Michele embraced the trend. Yet, as fashion goes genderless, a group of designers, including Anthony Vaccarello, Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Peter Dundas at Emilio Pucci (now Roberto Cavalli) and David Koma at Mugler have resonated with consumers by tapping a very different approach: sex appeal.

"The trends change every season, but the business of fashion brands that have 'sexy women' as customers is increasing season after season. Balmain, [Anthony] Vaccarello, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Zuhair Murad are the designers that perform best for us," said Silvano Vangi, chief womenswear buyer at Italian e-tailer Luisa Via Roma.

Indeed, while fluttering diaphanous gowns with thigh-high splits or second-skin silhouettes with suggestive cut-outs may not be 'on trend,' some designers are capitalising on the fact that what many consumers actually want has shifted very little since Gianni Versace's heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period mined ad infinitum by designers who trade on sex appeal.

“Demand [for sexy clothing] is partially influenced by fashion trends; higher when fashion is more adorned and extrovert and ‎slower when fashion trends are minimal and introvert. Nevertheless, some customers like the sexy style regardless of the trend and key brands in this segment have more stable demand from season to season,” said Mario Ortelli, senior vice president of European luxury at Bernstein, a financial services firm.

“Sexy always has a place and a customer,” added Justin O’Shea, of, the European e-tailer owned by Neiman Marcus. “We stock sexy eveningwear in every buy. Emilio Pucci and Balmain are two of our best performing.” At London department store Selfridges, “Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain is hitting exactly the right note for now,” said womenswear director Judd Crane. “Givenchy’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection embodies the idea of sex and power in fashion. Alaïa is also consistently one of the best-selling labels we retail.”

The consistent appeal of sexy clothing is a global phenomenon. “Sexy clothes sell all over the world from the USA to Europe and Asia. Women want to express their femininity that's why these kind of clothes work worldwide,” said Vangi. “All of our major markets are experiencing strong sales with brands such as Roberto Cavalli, Hervé Léger and Balmain,” agreed O’Shea.

Ortelli has noticed geographic trends, however: “Sexy brands perform better in markets like Russia and the USA and also the Brazilian, Asian, African and Middle Eastern markets. High spending clientele buy these dresses when travelling abroad in Paris, London, New York and Milan.”

Furthermore, the newest purveyors of sex appeal — Rousteing, Dundas, Koma and others — have been able to tap the aesthetic because, according to Crane, “traditional ideas of what’s wearable — and for when — also seem to be disappearing,” meaning consumers are more comfortable wearing sexy looks once reserved for eveningwear during the day.

Today, ‘sexy’ means more than a tight dress, however. “The Balmain woman is always powerful, she is confident, she is sexy. But sexy doesn’t only mean a body-con sexy dress,” said Rousteing. “There is a bit of revival actually. Balmain in particular has actually transformed their customer from the stereotypical sexy diva to a more sophisticated women which has opened their reach,” explained O’Shea.

“But what will never change is the will of the women to be sensual, attractive and desirable,” said Vangi. “This segment will be always in ascent.”

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