"Lingerie, Mon Amour" by Lingerie Francaise. All photos: AFP
It wasn't exactly bras at dawn, but the French lingerie industry was not going to take a provocation from Victoria's Secret lying down.
The brash US lingerie label flew a jet full of supermodels into Paris in November for its annual Las Vegas-style fashion show, seeking to build a bridgehead into the lucrative European market.
Such a slight to the city that invented sexy underwear could not go unanswered.
The French resistance snapped into action with a rival show called “Lingerie, Mon Amour” (Lingerie, My Love) late on Sunday as Paris haute couture week began.
For the first time in history the country's 14 top brands united on the same runway to face down the US giant's steamroller hype with nothing more than some peek-a-boo lace and fine corsets.
Billed as a clash of class against cash, it set Victoria's Secret's casino showgirl chic, and $3-million emerald-encrusted “fantasy bras” against the subtle age-old French art of seduction.
While Victoria's Secret spent $20 million bringing Lady Gaga and electro star The Weeknd across the Atlantic, the French show settled for a 14-piece orchestra to summon up the spirit of Marie Antoinette, one of the first women, its organisers claimed, “to liberate herself from her corset”.
And rather than a procession of pneumatic models led by Gigi and Bella Hadid, the French show went for older, unknown models to show that glamour was “within every woman's reach”.
Karine Sfar, who heads the French lingerie federation, said that France was still the world's number one for high-end undies because of the unparalleled know-how of its bra makers.
Women buying it for themselves
“Each bra has 30 to 40 individual parts, and it takes an incredible amount of expertise” to really make the best of a woman's assets, she added.
But most of all, she said with such “an intimate garment”, it had to be comfortable and “make you more beautiful” while smoothing away all that you don't want on display.
Rather than lingerie being something men bought for women — the business model that drives Victoria's Secret $7-billion in sales — women buy French underwear for themselves, said Alain De Rodellec of the Chantelle label.
“It is not all about pleasing men. Women buy lingerie first of all for themselves to feel good and to feel beautiful.
Although France is number four in the world behind China, Taiwan and Sri Lanka in terms of volume of lingerie it makes, Sfar argued that the country where Hermine Cadolle invented the modern bra in 1889, still has the edge on style and quality. “The French je ne sais quoi”, she said.
She said they had deliberately not hired big-name models for the packed show to take the limelight off the lacy creations themselves.
The show played on three centuries of Gallic coquetterie, from the courtesans and ladies in waiting of the Palace of Versailles to the femmes fatales of Dior's “New Look”, and Yves Saint Laurent's powerful women in black smoking jackets and suspenders.
Despite its focus on giving women inner confidence, Sfar admitted that the big name historic French lingerie companies such as Aubade and Maison Lejaby, are far from feminist bastions.
“We cannot say that when almost none of the heads of the big French companies are women,” she said.
De Rodellec said lingerie had long been regarded “accessories rather than real clothing. But it is a real fashion item and it deserves its place on the fashion runways.
“It has long been our dream that lingerie shows become part of Paris fashion week, and we hope that will happen one day,” he added.
By the AFP's Fiachra Gibbons