With G-strings and push-up bras losing their allure as ultra sexiness gives ways to comfort, and 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 centre of controversy last month over a huge poster of a pair of perfectly rounded buttocks wearing embroidered panties.
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 councillor 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 tended to be the least respected in countries where such billboards were banned.
“We were not expecting the fuss,” said Aubade boss Martina Brown.
The brand’s “Lessons in Seduction” ad campaign sparked similar horror 25 years ago, she said, 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,” said the German-born managing director.
“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 insisted.
– ‘Let women dream’ –
Nor did she feel that impossible body standards were being set for women.
“Twenty years ago some brands used ordinary women rather than models for their ads. We prefer to let people dream,” Brown added.
Aubade will be showing alongside 15 other big French brands at a huge “Lingerie Rocks” show this weekend during Paris fashion week.
The line-up also includes Henriette H, a young label at the other end of the spectrum which works mostly on Instagram.
Its creator Stagliano opened her boutique on a street in central Paris once known for its bordellos.
Stagliano has tried to capture something of that risque air by putting her changing rooms in the window. It is up to the customers whether they pull the curtain or not.
Nor is her label averse to some rather provocative embroidery, with an explicit come-on delicately sewn into the arm of a chemise.
“I can see how all this could be taken badly,” she told AFP. “But a woman should be at liberty to put herself in the window if she wants to. It’s about reappropriation.”
And according to Stagliano, 36, that also extends to women being free to choose whether they want “to be a sexual object”.
– No more Photoshop –
She backs her model, Jazzmine, who is in her 30s, and refuses to be photoshopped even if her breasts have “fallen perhaps a little” after she breastfed her baby.
Jazzmine has been the face of the brand for six years and “will still be in 10 years”, Stagliano declared.
In this line of fashion, sensual photo shoots are a must, she said.
“To sell a pair of knickers you need a pair of buttocks because that is where you wear them,” the designer added.
“We haven’t yet found a better way to sell them than a beautiful bottom.
“If I was using a woman’s rear end to sell cream” that would be another thing, Stagliano argued.
The Simone Perele brand takes a far more restrained view.
For last 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,” said Stephanie Perele, the grand-daughter of the label’s founder, who says women have had enough of photoshopped images.
Renaud Cambuzat, a fashion photographer who is now artistic director of the Chantelle group, said there were still nowhere near enough underwear choices for modern women, who are “complex, multifaceted and ever changing”.
At one extreme you have the ailing American giant Victoria’s Secret, he said, “which seems totally oblivious to #MeToo” and whose difficulties show that “we could be seeing the end of an era”.
On the other “there is the opposite extreme where you can no longer see the form of the body and we are in a kind of cartoonish plus-sized” universe.
“Even after #MeToo we are stuck with a lot of stereotypes. Lots of things are changing but there is still a way to go,” Cambuzat argued.