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I have to admit to a certain thrill of triumph when I found out that the Wonderbra went crawling home last year after two years of trying to hock their push-up bra to the women of China.
But one look into the average department store reveals that what lurks in (or on) the breasts of women is not modesty but rather frugality. For those not willing to fork over 300-600 RMB for a Wonderbra, the sales racks are filled with less expensive alternatives that look, at best, like light armor and at worst, like they could have a great social life even without me in them.
I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery of why it is so difficult to find a bra that isn’t going to push up, enhance or maximize what one might just want left alone, dogged though I was with the nagging suspicion that the answers were all too obvious.
Saleswomen for the bras have reached a curious peace about the tautologies inherent in these bras. One manning a Triumph counter said that the bras are padded because Chinese women aren’t fengman (full) enough to fill out a bra and that they have underwire because women like a little bit of support for that new breastage bestowed by the padding.
If women show reluctance, it is about spending money on something that doesn’t improve appearances, claims a foreign bra manufacturer that wishes to go unnamed (hereinafter Bra Co.). “All women are alike. They like to dress up and get made up. They like to buy things,” said a company executive. “But if you give them 1,000 RMB, women from Japan, the States, China will all buy different things.”
Here I waited for the market analysts to blast open the mysteries of femininity. “In urban Japan, 10-20% of the money will be spent on underwear,” said Bra Co. “Chinese women are unlikely to spend much on underwear, because you can’t see it. They are more like to buy more clothes and makeup, outer things.”
Women in warmer South China tend to pay more attention to their undergarments than in Beijing, he says, but Beijing and Shanghai are bigger markets because of higher incomes.
Not surprisingly, then, the bra that sells best is the bra that has an effect on one’s outer appearance ? the “Maximizer” for Triumph and a push-up bra for Bra Co. When Bra Co. used a Japanese model in a 1997 ad campaign for a push up bra, sales fell and they switched back to Western models. “Asian women want their body shape to be fuller, they want that kind of body. They look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not like that.’ They can use this method to get that kind of body.”
How, then, do bra companies tempt women into buying relatively expensive bras? Aside from accepting the slow progress of the market, German-based Triumph created a downmarket brand and adjusted their styles to fit local tastes, often pandering to the Western beauty standards that dictate the use of bust-enhancing bras.
Both Triumph and Bra Co. entered China to manufacture bras for export. In the past five years, they sensed the tides of fashion turning in China and entered the market.
Bra Co. has not found it easy to turn around and sell upmarket products to the country of cheap labor that produced them, selling only around 100,000 bras per year in China versus 17 million in Japan. With bras priced around the 200 RMB range, their presence in China is still mainly for manufacturing.
Triumph came to China in 1994 to manufacture bras for export and entered the China market in 1995. They have taken a more accommodating approach to the market, doing direct sales and marketing downmarket products to introduce their brand to women.
Triumph circumvented the shopping centers by doing direct selling until it was banned by the government in 1998. For the four years that it lasted, they manufactured a less expensive line of merchandise (under 100 RMB as opposed to 100-200 RM:cool: and sold to women of middle-level incomes, mostly housewives. Direct sales accounted for 60% of their sales.
Now they manufacture a less expensive line (around 60 RM:cool: of basic cotton bras without underwire. They also sell in bulk to individual vendors who sell in shops not connected to large shopping centers. Bra Co. has also started using this cash-on-delivery method, though only on a small scale.
A Triumph representative said that they aim for a “fashionable” and “comfortable” image with “elegant” colors in China, as opposed to their Europe market, which aims more for a “classic” image. Last year, Triumph sold 2 million pieces in China ? less than 1% of the entire market, which is estimated to total 300 million pieces.
Both companies are riding the wave of women’s changing body image, hoping that increasing incomes will eventually allow women to fulfill their “natural desire” for fuller chests.
Hoping that the downmarket crowd might have a different opinion regarding these desires, I visited a small shop in my neighborhood that has an entire wall coated with plastic-wrapped bras, all around the 50 RMB range and all looking like breastplates.
Q: Why are these bras so padded?
A: Are you looking for something smaller?
Q: I can just never find any bras that aren’t huge. Why do they need to be so big?
A: To make Chinese women’s breasts fuller.
Q: Why do women want fuller breasts?
A: It looks better.
Q: What’s wrong with small breasts?
A: [Looks at mine] It doesn’t look good to be stick skinny.
Q: Are Chinese women trying to look like Western women, in your opinion?
A: Yeah, sure. [Starts painting nails.]