Maidenform Worldwide Inc.
Maidenform Worldwide Inc.
Incorporated: 1923 as Maiden Form Brassiere Co., Inc.
Sales: $420 million (est. 1996)
SICs: 2341 Women’s, Misses’, Children’s and Infants’ Underwear and Nightwear; 2342 Brassieres, Girdles and Allied Garments
Maidenform Worldwide Inc. is one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of brassieres and other articles of women’s intimate apparel. It was a pioneer in the development of brassieres and for many years produced and sold more bras than any other company. Still a family-run private company, Maidenform marked its 75th anniversary in 1997, but its future was uncertain because of a heavy debt load. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in July 1997.
Maidenform to 1950
Ida Cohen came to the United States from what is now Belarus in 1905. She established a small dressmaker’s shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, the following year and married William Rosenthal, a dress wholesaler and manufacturer, in 1907. She moved her shop to New York City in 1919 and three years later relocated on Manhattan’s fashionable 57th Street in partnership with an Englishwoman, Enid Bissett.
Mary Phelps Jacob (later known as Caresse Crosby) is credited with inventing the modern brassiere—free of bones and leaving the midriff bare—in 1913. The boyish silhouette favored in the 1920s required the bra to suppress, rather than enhance, the contours of the female bosom. Explaining the circumstances that led her into brassiere manufacturing, Mrs. Rosenthal later said, “In those [flapper-era] days—it was a very sad story—women wore those flat things like bandages, towels with hooks in the back. Now in those days the cheapest dress we made was $125, and it just didn’t fit right. So we made a little bra with two pockets. Not too accentuated, of course.”
William Rosenthal was an amateur sculptor. He improved his wife’s brassiere, employing a fabric called swami, which was similar to soft nylon tricot. His bra also had an elastic center. Mrs. Rosenthal and Mrs. Bissett began to give away with each dress this simple brassiere, which proved so successful that they soon began manufacturing brassieres under the Maidenform (originally Maiden Form) name and within a few years left the dress business. Their company was incorporated with capital of $4,500 provided by Mrs. Rosenthal, her husband, and Mrs. Bissett. Maidenform established its manufacturing operations in Bayonne, New Jersey. William Rosenthal, who became president of the company in 1927, took out many patents on brassiere design, including nursing, long-line, and full-figure bras and the first seamed uplift bra. Maidenform was credited with being the first to offer a truly fitted bra cup. Rosenthal also organized a production line, with one seamstress sewing backs, another making straps, and a third sewing together bra cups. His wife assumed charge of sales and financing.
By 1928 Maidenform was making nearly 500,000 brassieres a year. Sales declined only in the Depression year of 1932. During World War II the company also made parachutes, head nets, mosquito bars, mattress covers, and a brassiere-like nylon vest for carrying courier pigeons when they traveled with the armed forces, but it always received an allotment of cotton gingham for bras because, in Mrs. Rosenthal’s words, “women workers who wore an uplift were less fatigued than others.”
Maidenform at midcentury was selling more brassieres than any other U.S. company, with about 10 percent of the market, annual revenue of $14 million, and net profit of nearly $1 million. The 12 million bras it produced in 1950 came in 15 styles, each with over 100 different combinations of size, cup size, color, and material. Even the simplest Maidenform brassiere consisted of at least 20 separate pieces, and a long-line model might have as many as 50. In addition to the Bayonne plant, Maidenform now was producing bras, bra pads, and garter belts at seven other factories in New Jersey and West Virginia. The company had 9,000 retail accounts selling its brassieres for between $1.25 and $5.
Adapting to the Marketplace, 1950-80
During the 1950s Maidenform’s biggest seller became Chansonette, a pointy style. William Rosenthal died in 1958 and was succeeded by his widow as president, chairman, and chief executive officer of Maidenform. In 1960 she estimated that 30 percent of all U.S. women owned a Maidenform bra, and they were being sold in 115 other countries as well. That year the company, after taking in revenue of $34 million in 1959, continued to sell nearly 10 percent of all U.S. bras. By 1961 it also was selling swimsuits equipped with Maidenform bras.
Maidenform’s profile in this period owed much to one of the most famous campaigns in advertising history, apparently prompted by the popularization of Freudian psychology in plays and movies of the 1940s. Between 1949 and 1969 the company launched 163 ’’dream sequence” print ads that showed a model wearing only a Maidenform bra above the waist. In the first one the copy read, “I dreamt I went shopping in my Maidenform bra,” but from this prosaic start the campaign moved on to more adventurous activities, with the subject engaged in such dream pastimes as fighting a bull, hunting a tiger, addressing a jury, ascending a balloon, and floating down the Nile in a barge.
By the mid-1960s Maidenform’s annual revenue had reached an estimated $50 million to $55 million, but its well-known name had not kept Playtex, and perhaps Warnaco as well, from surging to the front in bra and girdle sales. Maiden-form even briefly had to face competition from designer Rudi Gernreich’s No Bra bra, although Ida Rosenthal warned that “after 35 a woman hasn’t got the figure to wear nothing.” Analysts said the company’s conservative styles and reluctance to move heavily into television advertising had cost it sales. After Mrs. Rosenthal suffered a stroke in 1966, her daughter, Beatrice Coleman, became chairman of the company. Dr. Joseph A. Coleman, her son-in-law, became president but died two years later, whereupon Mrs. Coleman also assumed the presidency. Ida Rosenthal died in 1973 at the age of 87.
By 1970 Maidenform was making sportswear and lingerie as well as foundation garments. Its girdles and brassieres now also came in stretch materials such as Lycra. Annual sales had reached $65 million to $70 million, with the company’s products sold to some 12,000 department and specialty stores through its own sales force. But by the mid-1970s Maidenform had fallen farther behind Playtex in brassiere sales, although the firm maintained it held the top spot in the contemporary segment, which was accounting for about one-quarter of the total market. Maidenform’s contemporary bra line includes No-Show Naturals, stretch-bra styles with a “softer, more natural frame than the traditional fortress-built bras,” according to the company’s vice president for advertising.
Maidenform had annual revenue of about $100 million in 1980, more than 60 percent from brassiere sales. The company now had 14 factories, some of them abroad, making bras, panties, girdles, sleepwear, and swimwear, with some 10 to 15 percent of its production exported. During the late 1970s it continued to shift emphasis not only from cotton and nylon to stretch materials but also from basic white to a variety of colors. Maidenform introduced three coordinated bra and panty lines: stretch-lace Private Affairs and satin-and-lace Chantilly and Sweet Nothings, and successfully agitated to place them in department-store lingerie departments. Ten million Sweet Nothing bras had been sold by 1987, making it the industry’s best seller.
“Gradually we took a lesson from sportswear, and color and prettiness came in,” Mrs. Coleman told a New York Times reporter in 1980. “Within the last five years, our production of white garments has shrunk to about half.” She said the company had been profitable every year since its founding. Nevertheless, swimwear and sportswear, manufactured for Donald Brooks for about five years, proved unprofitable and eventually were dropped. The company also lost money on a short-lived jeans venture.
Advertising in the 1980s and 1990s
During the early 1970s Maidenform shifted 95 percent of its print-advertising dollars into television. Because TV stations would not show live models in their scanties, however, the company was reduced to unsatisfactory alternatives like the 1976 “chorus line” theme that clad the dancers in top hat, vest, cuffs, and bra over leotards.
Maidenform then returned to relying on print ads. The campaign adopted in 1979 harkened back to the exhibitionist “dream” concept. Women were depicted parading in their underwear in public places such as a theater lobby, an antiques shop, and a basketball court—even descending from a helicopter with attaché case. One ad showed the model as a physician in a hospital, another in a train station with fully clothed men. The caption read: “The Maidenform woman. You never know where she’ll turn up.” Times had changed, however, and in 1981 and 1982 Women Against Pornography awarded the company a plastic pig for sexist advertising. Maidenform toned down the campaign in 1983, continuing to display models in the company’s intimate apparel, but doing their fantasizing at home, with no men present.
In 1987 Maidenform introduced a TV ad campaign that, instead of displaying women wearing the company’s products, featured leading men such as Omar Sharif, Michael York, Christopher Reeve, and Pierce Brosnan discussing lingerie. Feminists objected to what they regarded as the implication that women wear undergarments mainly for men, so in 1991 the company, to deplore sexism, showed images of a chick, tomato, fox, cat, and dog in one TV ad and stereotyped women like schoolmarms and strippers in another. But feminists said the campaign was actually promoting what it affected to deplore.
In 1997 Maidenform introduced an expensive new print-advertising campaign carrying the theme “Maidenform Unhooked” to promote a less-formal, more contemporary image for the company’s products. A number of women were to appear in brassieres, alongside copy such as “Most men don’t notice my eyes are hazel” and “No one lays a hand on them without loving me first.”
Maidenform in the 1990s
By 1989 Maidenform had dropped loungewear and sleep-wear but was making such lingerie items as slips, petticoats, and camisoles. Garter belts had made a comeback, too. “They are a very hot item,” Mrs. Coleman told a reporter. “I don’t know what people do with them, but they are considered very sexy.” The company also had introduced an Oscar de la Renta lingerie collection, consisting of about 30 daywear and foundation styles. In 1991 Maidenform acquired True Form Foundations Corp., a $40-million-a-year manufacturer of bodyshapers under the Flexees and Subtract names.
Mrs. Coleman died in 1990 and was succeeded as president and chief executive officer by son-in-law Robert Brawer. Maidenform’s main factory remained in Bayonne, but there were five others in Puerto Rico, two each in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, one each in Costa Rica and Jamaica, and a cut-and-sew plant in Florida. A 250,000-square-foot distribution center was opened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1992. Another distribution center was in Jacksonville, Florida. The company, which in 1985 also had opened a duty-free distribution and processing center in Shannon, Ireland, formed a European subsidiary in Hilden, Germany, in 1991. It closed a long-time production facility in Huntington, West Virginia, in 1992.
Maidenform began offering seamless bras in all its lines in 1994. That year it introduced a second Oscar de la Renta collection of bras and coordinated panties, aimed at younger customers. In 1995 the Maidenform name was added to a line of bras and coordinated panties under the Self Expressions label.
Brawer retired in 1995 and was succeeded by Elizabeth J. Coleman, an Atlanta lawyer and one of Beatrice Coleman’s two daughters. She had been serving as chairman of the board since her mother’s death. That year the company acquired 92 percent of NCC Industries, Inc. from NCC’s largest shareholder, German underwear manufacturer Triumph International Overseas Ltd., for $9.8 million in cash and 28.2 percent of Maidenform’s common stock. NCC manufactured the Lilyette full-figured bra, a licensed line of Bill Blass bras and panties, and merchandise under the Minimizer and Reflections names. “It was a strategic acquisition for Maidenform,” the new CEO told a reporter. “Our market is mostly for average to smaller sizes. And 35 percent of the bra market is full-figure.” The purchase also added $126 million to Maidenform’s annual sales, which were running close to $300 million. However, NCC’s sales came only to $99.8 million in 1996.
Coleman acknowledged in August 1996 that Maidenform had undergone “some cash-flow issues” earlier in the year. The company had, in 1995, entered into a revolving-credit facility for $120 million and had also taken out a $50-million term loan and issued $30 million in senior notes, pledging NCC’s assets and stocks as collateral. At the end of 1996 its bank borrowings came to $171.2 million. A new agreement signed in December 1996 raised the revolving-credit line to $150 million. Maiden-form lost money in 1996 and was reported to have defaulted from time to time on loan agreements during the year. It also sold inventory below cost during the year in order to raise cash. VF Corp., a $5-billion-a-year clothing manufacturer, signed a letter of intent in March 1997 to acquire Maidenform. Talks broke off, however, two weeks later.
Maidenform and NCC Industries announced in July 1997 that they were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as they restructured their operation. Maidenform said it expected to receive $50 million in loans from its primary lending group as it cut costs and reduced its seven divisions into two.
Baltera, Lorraine, “Maidenform Goes on Stage for Dream Theme Revival,” Advertising Age, April 26, 1976, p. 39.
Cook, Joan, “A Maidenform Dream Come True,” New York Times, December 9, 1965, p. 62.
Detman, Art, Jr., “Survival of the Fittest,” Sales Management, June 1, 1966, pp. 43-44, 46, 48.
Dougherty, Philip H., “Advertising: Years of Maidenform Dreams,” New York Times, September 10, 1967, Sec. 3, p. 16.
Elliott, Stuart, “Maidenform Aims for Soccer Moms and Just About Everyone Else,” New York Times, March 12, 1997, p. D2.
Ettorre, Barbara, “The Maidenform Woman Returns,” New York Times, June 1, 1980, Sec. 3, p. 3.
“Ida Rosenthal,” Time, October 24, 1960, p. 92.
“Ida Rosenthal, Co-Founder of Maidenform, Dies,” New York Times, March 30, 1973, p. 42.
Kanner, Bernice, “The Bra’s Not for Burning,” New York, December 12, 1983, pp. 26, 29-30.
_____, “Sending Up the Bra,” New York, December 17, 1990, p. 19.
King, Thomas R., “Maidenform Ads Focus on Stereotypes,” Wall Street Journal, December 10, 1990, p. B6.
“Maidenform’s Mrs. R.,” Fortune, July 1950, pp. 75-76, 130, 132.
Monget, Karen, “Coleman: Keeping Maidenform Fit,” WWD, August 5, 1996, pp. 14, 16.
_____, “Maidenform: Shaping Its Own Future,” Women’s Wear Daily, November 5, 1992, p. 8.
_____, “Maidenform Clinches Deal with Triumph for 92% of NCC,” WWD, April 27, 1995, p. 2.
Morris, Michele, “The Mother Figure of Maidenform,” Working Woman, April 1987, pp. 82, 86, 88.
Palumbo, Sandra, “Maidenform, Looking Back, Moving Forward,” Women’s Wear Daily, January 5, 1987, p. 14.
Sacco, Joe, “Dreams for Sale: How the One for Maidenform Came True,” Advertising Age, September 12, 1977, pp. 63-64.
Steinhauser, Jennifer, “Maidenform’s Problems Reflect Industry Pitfalls,” New York Times, July 24, 1997, pp. D1, D4.