Frederick's of Abu Dhabi: Why Bringing Racy Lingerie to the Middle East Might Work

lingerie store
lingerie store

Frederick's of Hollywood (FOH) was the baby boom's dirty little secret. Last month, the lingerie company -- which bills itself as "the original sex symbol" -- opened up its first international flagship store in a surprising place: Abu Dhabi, the conservative capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"It could have picked London of Hong Kong. . . but instead [it] chose the button-down sheikdom," the AP writes.

Of course, Frederick's -- and two-year CEO Thomas Lynch -- hopes the expansion will help boost its revenues. The company has been struggling ever since it filed bankruptcy in 2000, with net sales slipping 11.3% in 2010.

Middle East
Middle East

Moreover, the UAE has wealthy citizens, a thriving tourism industry and gung-ho local franchisers eager to make deals with international brands, the AP reporter points out.

But market opportunities aside, does it really make sense to sell corsets and crotchless panties in a city that is "conservative but generally tolerant when it comes to dress code?"

Maybe it does. In her book, "The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie," British journalist Malu Halasa makes the point that lingerie is popular in the Middle East precisely because of the strict regulations on other kinds of clothes.

"Because of the religious distinction between women's outer and innerwear, 'indoor clothing' has a bigger market in the Middle East than clothes worn in public. Indoor clothing, often bright and garish, counteracts the anonymous drabness of the mainly black, gray and blue clothes worn in public," she writes.

Conservative Values: A Frederick's Legacy

In the '50s and '60s, Frederick's of Hollywood built its brand around selling racy clothes in private. As it turned out, dealing sex to a generation of couples who pretended to sleep in separate beds turned out to be a great business plan.

Named for founder Frederick Mellinger, the son of a Hungarian tailor from New York's Lower East Side, Frederick's of Hollywood first gained popularity when a client was arrested on Venice Beach for wearing the never-before-seen "bikini" in 1947. In the decades to follow, the company would be responsible for the first push-up bra, the first blow-up bra and the first thong.

Back then, all of these items could only be ordered by mail. In 1964 -- the year of the "Marry-a-Millionaire" catalog -- wide-eyed pinups posed provocatively, sporting blow-up bras (straw included), underwear with hip and butt pads ("for that Come-Hither Natural Look!") and, of course, lacy, crotchless panties.

Mellinger's grinning face adorned many of his ads and catalogs, guaranteeing women that other creepy, mustached men would leer at them in the same way if they bought his products.

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In the decades since Frederick's inception, of course, lingerie and lingerie shopping have become much less scandalous. Meanwhile, as normal clothes have become sexier, truly kinky underwear has become trashier in the eyes of many consumers. In the '80s and '90s, Frederick's lost many of its buyers to Victoria's Secret, the chain launched by a California businessman who felt embarrassed when buying his wife lingerie in department stores.

Unlike Frederick's, Victoria's Secret makes lingerie shopping seem (almost) family-friendly, broadcasting push-up bras on prime time during its annual fashion show.

In 2000, Frederick's of Hollywood filed for bankruptcy and rebranded itself in order to "cut down on 'racy' and [stay] with fun and sexy," then-spokeswoman Penny Mullins told CNN. "In the last year, we've been undergoing a rebranding process, taking Frederick's a little more mainstream," she said.

Perhaps the company's new expansion is an attempt to rekindle old flames with conservative buyers. It remains to be seen whether the Middle Eastern market -- whose conservative dress arises from its own unique set of social and religious circumstances -- will take to "the original sex symbol" as fervently Atomic-age housewives. Still, if he were still alive, Mellinger surely would be grinning.

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