America's definition of sexy has completely changed, and retailers are toning it down

Abercrombie 2014Facebook/AbercrombieBefore it switched gears, Abercrombie was known for its sexual imagery.

What’s sexy has changed.

Think about it.

Just over a decade ago, consumers were inundated with overtly sexual imagery.

Abercrombie & Fitch was known for its extremely carnal imagery. The advertising frequently featured nearly-naked models in provocative positions.

Abercrombie has recently toned down its image to be practically lukewarm. And retailers that have continued to stay overtly sexy — like Victoria’s Secret — have received criticism for bordering on the pornographic.

One brand — though not a retailer — that appears to have evolved is Playboy. The company has discontinued nudity from its publications, arguably as a response to the widespread availability of naked bodies these days. It’s cheap and free for many people, thanks to the Internet.

“That battle has been fought and won … you’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told The New York Times at the time.

But Playboy is a brand built on selling sex. So in order to maintain is status as the beacon of all things sexy, it needs to adapt to the newly established pillars of temptation.

As a result of the digital revolution, women are becoming more empowered to own their sexiness. Now retailers just have to adapt, Ruth Bernstein, chief strategic officer of image-making agency YARD, told Business Insider.

Bernstein pointed to the cover of Playboy’s first edition without fully nude women, which demonstrated a woman taking a Snapchat of herself. Because she’s choosing to take the photo and its through her view, it’s sexy, Bernstein said.

Bernstein compared this to Maxim’s recent cover featuring plus size Ashley Graham — which, while progressive in its own way — looked “dated.”

The difference? “[Playboy is] serving up women to men, but through a more empowered lens versus a more traditional lens,” she said.

And that lens is what retailers need to grasp.

Victoria's Secret Facebook PhotoFacebook/Victoria’s SecretThis photo on Victoria’s Secret Facebook page received lots of criticism.

The move away from traditional ideas about sex means that sexiness needs to be more than just a naked body.

Young people — like the teen Generation Z  —  are specifically having a growing influence on the way retailers position sexiness; they demand a message. Vapid sexuality falls flat on them.

“They don’t respond to traditional notions of beauty or even sexuality,” Bernstein said. “There is a reason that the Aerie campaigns that are not retouched are doing well. They are making a statement, changing an industry, and are still aspirational.”

Another variant on the “new sexy” is self-acceptance.

“It’s not about your shape, it’s about the way you feel,” Bernstein said. 

Abercrombie & Fitch men's spring 2016Zackery Michael/Abercrombie & FitchIs Abercrombie & Fitch’s latest campaign sexy to consumers?

But entirely foregoing sexiness isn’t the answer to winning over consumers.

For instance, Abercrombie’s latest campaign (featuring the bearded Alex Libby) was met with mixed reviews from consumers. The ad does prove that Abercrombie is certainly changing as it attempts to revive itself.

American Apparel ditched its trademark sexiness, but sales have plunged since the shift. American Apparel has stated that it plans to debut a revised version of itself in order to reflect the changing landscape of fashion and sexuality.

“You know, marketing is fluid, everything evolves, and fashion has evolved over the past 10 years,” American Apparel’s Senior Vice President of marketing Cynthia Erland said in a recent interview with Adweek. “It’s definitely going to be gritty, real, independent and revolutionary, with young artists. It may be sexual; it may not. It will be how they freely express themselves.”

Bernstein noted that these stark fluctuations are something of a “pendulum” — going to another extreme as a brand attempts to find who it truly is. “I think what we [generally] find is that they will find a middle ground,” she said.

All of that could be a good start — as sexuality still sells. Bernstein pointed to Reformation and Nasty Gal as two brands that have captured the sort of sexiness that resonates with millennials. 

“What is truly sexy is the key, and shifts along with the culture and every generation,” Bernstein said in the fall. “When you get it right, it still absolutely works and sells. The trick is to understanding that sexy has evolved.”

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