In accordance with strict Muslim tradition, women in Middle Eastern countries are
expected never to appear in public without wearing the hijab, or hooded veil, that
covers the entire body and most of the face.
But if a Canadian company plans its lingerie invasion properly, those same women will soon have the last laugh, wearing racy bras, panties and teddies under their veils.
Suzy Shier Ltd., a lingerie retailer based in Montreal, has already licensed its La Senza intimate-apparel brand to 18 successful shops in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This week the company announced it will target more licensing agreements in other Gulf states. By the end of the year, La Senza stores will open in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Buying lingerie in the Persian Gulf is a sensitive experience for women. In Saudi
Arabia, only men are allowed to work as sales clerks. The existing La Senza stores, which operate under an agreement with Saudi-based F.A. Al-Hokair Ltd., also have no fitting rooms, says Laurence Lewin, president of La Senza Inc.
"The male sales clerks are trained in the product when it comes to things like
materials, availability and price, but the customer is on her own when it comes to
determining the appropriate size," Lewin tells Canada's National Post.
So if you're expanding your underwear empire, why target a culture that has hidden its lingerie for hundreds of years? Why not take a path of less resistance, like selling thongs in Brazil? Or better yet, sign a deal with an entertainment corporation and market Britney Spears push-up bras?
Lewin insists that selling lingerie to an ultraconservative country like Saudi Arabia "gave us valuable experience dealing with some of the toughest issues first."
And if you aspire to conquer the underwear world, you have to continue to expand. La Senza already owns and operates 211 stores in Canada, operating under the La Senza, Silk and Satin and La Senza Girl banners, with another 75 stores licensed outside Canada. A British subsidiary lost money and was sold two years ago, but La Senza vows to continue its lingerie invasion into markets in the Far East, Europe and Latin America.
In other words, if they can handle Saudi Arabia, they can handle just about anybody. "What goes on underneath the veil is between a woman and her husband, and I am assured most Saudi women are very fashionably dressed," says Lewin. "They're interested in all aspects of fashion, lingerie included."