Apr 27, 2008
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Lingerie factory brings Russian sexy to Britain

Apr 27, 2008

GAGARIN, Russia, April 27, 2008 (AFP) - Holding up a lacy black G-string, one of the seamstresses in this derelict Russian town beams with pride at the thought that her work could soon be sold on Britain's high streets.

a lingerie factory Wild Orchid in the town of Gagarin outside Moscow
Photo : Alexey Sazonov/AFP

"I'm happy that our products are being bought in England," said 34-year-old Irina Arisova, sitting in her blue smock behind a sewing machine in a pristine workshop set among the crooked wooden homes and muddy streets of Gagarin, west of the capital Moscow.

The factory used to produce Soviet school uniforms and belongs to Wild Orchid, Russia's largest lingerie chain, which has opened three stores in Britain and is set to open on London's Oxford Street next month.

Selling to the British market has entailed a few changes. For one, the bras are being produced in bigger sizes as British women appear to be bustier than their Russian counterparts, said production director Gulya Saliyeva.

"In England they use D cup more. They need more fullness. We now have up to E cup. We're even thinking about F," said Saliyeva, as she showed an AFP reporter around dozens of sewing machines on the factory floor.

British women also seem to have more conservative tastes. "They avoid brighter colours. They're not interested in transparent lingerie. They go for comfort. They want lacy underwear in black and white," she said.

Women in Russia "want brighter colours -- maybe it's because we have longer winters. Lingerie has recently become something that lifts your mood here. It's like buying a handbag," she continued.

Wild Orchid CEO Alexander Fyodorov said sales have been disappointing in Britain because the company, which also sells top designer names, has found itself competing in the mass market.

"Our customers are more discerning," a charcoal-haired Fyodorov, wearing a denim jacket and jeans, told AFP in an interview at Wild Orchid's unassuming headquarters in a Moscow backstreet.

Wild Orchid, which opened the Gagarin factory last year, currently has 270 stores employing around 3,000 people and intends to widen its network in Europe, Asia and the United States.

Maureen Hinton, a fashion expert at British retail market research firm Verdict Consulting, said Wild Orchid's plans were "very ambitious" and the company would find it "difficult" to break into the British market.

"British women are used to buying their lingerie in department stores. I'm sure they wouldn't have a problem selling their brand but as a stand-alone entity I think the viability is a challenge," Hinton said.

"Russian women share more with continental women. Continental women look at it more as a fashion item. We tend to look at it as a necessity," she added, referring to women in other parts of Western Europe.

For the seamstresses in Gagarin, the place where Soviet legend Yury Gagarin, the first man in space, was born, sewing lingerie is mainly about making a living in a town where there are few other jobs available.

"It's a town forgotten by God," muttered a taxi driver as he drove an AFP reporter through the rutted streets of Gagarin, located in the middle of a birch and pine forest some 160 kilometres (99 miles) west of Moscow.

With a starting salary of around 8,600 rubles (367 dollars, 231 euros) a month, the seamstresses produce lingerie that they could never really afford in the shops -- the slinky models sell at around 100 dollars a set.

"I couldn't afford it. Not with our salaries," 52-year-old Tamara Miller said with a smile as she finished sewing up a bra. The textiles she uses come mainly from the Baltic states and the lace comes from Turkey and China.

Surrounded by plastic boxes overflowing with pink, blue and leopard-skin bras, Miller said there was no comparison to the ill-fitting, boring underwear that Soviet women used to wear. "It wasn't very beautiful," she said.

by Dario Thuburn

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