British bras: their cup overflows

I knew there was a reason we love lingerie at Beau Dame Lingerie. There is a battle going on for Britain's breasts - or at least, the bras that support them. Within the past decade, bras have become big news. Retailers now talk about customers having a 'bra wardrobe' containing the average woman's sports bras, fashion bras, T-shirt bras, nude bras, gel bras, sexy bras and more. Bra executives talk of marketing them as a lifestyle and special-occasion item.

This bears no resemblance to the comparative dark ages of the early 1990s when women could either brave the darkened windows of Ann Summers or the more matronly offerings of a department store such as Marks & Spencer. Back then, most bras could double as an ogre's slingshot or carried warnings about standing too close to a fire. Women weren't drowning in choice the way they are now, so it is hardly surprising that on average, we only bought one bra a year.

Two events in 1994 dramatically altered the history of the bra: Eva Herzigova in the 'Hello boys!' Wonderbra advert and the opening of a small shop in Soho called Agent Provocateur, with a scantily clad dummy in the window. Darkened windows were history. (Last year Agent Provocateur was sold for £60 million, and this year it opens its 38th store; its range now extends to vamp shoes and whips.) Today there isn't a high street in the country without 'come hither' lingerie shops vying for our attention. We now buy on average four bras a year - the most per head in Europe.

The upmarket Russian lingerie company Wild Orchid, which has a turnover of £50 million with 216 stores throughout Russia and Ukraine, made its British debut in the summer at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, followed by a shop on Kensington High Street in London. A third shop is planned to open in April on Oxford Street, selling its own brands alongside Christian Lacroix, Roberto Cavalli, Dior and Alberta Ferretti. Wild Orchid is the first Rusian retail chain to break into the European market. The Italian company Tezenis opened last year on Regent Street selling competitively priced underwear (it has 100 stores in Italy and is aggressively expanding throughout Europe).

Even Marks & Spencer has ditched the matronly reputation (though if that's what you are looking for, it is actually still there if you dig around) and has gone largely fashion-oriented with seven 'fashion forward' brands. Soozie Jenkinson, the head of lingerie design at M&S, says, 'Design has been driven by high-street trends. Lingerie has become a fashion accessory.' M&S sold 20 million bras in 2007 - 10 per cent more than in 2006.

At the top end of the luxury market, most brands have expanded their lines into lingerie. The latest to launch is Stella McCartney, whose range went on sale in February in Harvey Nichols, and at Liberty's new luxury lingerie boutique. Her organic hand-stitched designs have adopted the current trend for a coy, schoolgirl take on sexy, so they have names such as 'Ava Swinging' and 'Dolly Snogging', costing between £90 and £155. As with branded luxury accessories, such as sunglasses and make-up, lingerie is a lower price point that makes buying into the big-brand experience affordable. Designer bras are now the new handbags.

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