Gloomy economic times appear to have ushered in a new fashion trend: the “silk rush”. Coined by the founders of lingerie website Fox & Rose, the term describes the boom in luxurious underwear that they’ve experienced during the financial downturn – and there’s absolutely nothing austere about it. Co-founder Amanda Lorenzani says: “Consumers are tempted by expensive lingerie as they opt to spend more free time at home ... Sales at Fox & Rose in November grew 130 per cent on last year’s figures.”
Lorenzani compares the trend to the “lipstick effect” theory, advanced during the 2001 recession by Leonard Lauder, then chairman of Estée Lauder, that when the economy is unstable women treat themselves with small luxury items such as lipsticks. At Fox & Rose the company’s top performing brand this season has been Stella McCartney – the “Annie Picknicking” bra, in electric blue lace, is £105 – while less expensive lines have not performed so well.
The bar was raised in September when Anglo-French fashion house Worth showed a collection of couture underwear at London Fashion Week. Worth’s collection is priced from £200 to £8,000 and includes sheer, corseted bodysuits with long sleeves that become gloves, made from different fabrics such as tulle and silk velvet fused together for a luxe animal print effect. There are also black panniers and white lace bodysuits with built-in bra and knickers. They are available at Maxfield in Los Angeles, and the plan is to make them available as ready-to-wear pieces.
The next few weeks will also see the launch of the second Jean Paul Gaultier collection for La Perla, which combines the appearance of classic French lingerie with unexpected luxury fabrics, techniques and textures. A fine netting similar to lace and produced on a Calais loom (the northern French town is famed for its lace) has been hand-cut into fine strips then bunched into flirtatious mini ruffles on bras and knickers. The big twist of the collection is the use of laser-perforated leather paired with Leavers lace with a netting background. The two materials merge together on a palest pink corset (£1,620), a plunge bra (£405) and French knickers (£360).
But apart from leather that is so supple it resembles silk, what do you get for splashing out on posh pants and bras? Deborah Phillips, an accountant who buys her underwear from Fox & Rose, says she appreciates “quality fabrics, proper construction and proper fit which gives you the correct posture”. It can also be addictive, she adds. “Once you’ve indulged it’s tempting to spend more and more. For me it’s no longer a luxury but a necessity.”
Helen Attwood, lingerie buying manager at Selfridges, says: “Lingerie is essentially a technical garment and it takes real craft and workmanship to make it by hand. The best design will push boundaries, use surprising details and play with trends in the same way as ready-to-wear. At the moment the 1950s pin-up look is still a big influence, with the longer-line bra and more generous knickers. Then there’s the quality of the fabric – Calais or Italian lace are particularly special.”
Attwood has noticed that high-end lingerie is “trending” at Selfridges, with year-on-year sales growing more than anything else in her department. When the Agent Provocateur concession was refitted, a specific area was reserved for the higher-priced Soirée collection. Knickers by Nichole de Carle with a real 0.1-carat diamond on them (£232) already have a waiting list.
At affordable online underwear and loungewear retailer Figleaves.com, it’s a similar story. This is the first year the site has seen a shift in consumer spending towards the “luxe lingerie” sector, compared with the same time last year when customers spent more on cheaper bulk buys or three-for-two offers from more affordable brands. “This Christmas there is a real emphasis on quality ‘wow’ items, with partners more willing to treat each other with luxury items than in recent years,” says Sue Herrick, product and brand director at Figleaves.
Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty, echoes this view: “It’s a sign of the times that people would want something less disposable.” Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire, says men are aware of this: “No fairly clued-up young man would buy his girlfriend high street lingerie. We know that girls like luxury brands and the same goes for underwear.”
Not that women necessarily care what men think. Martin McCarthy, Worth’s business developer, says: “I don’t think it’s about men, it’s about women wanting to feel good.”