Mrs Mainland thinks slinky as fashion lingerie loses its taboo Ms Chen had her chance in the Victoria's Secret section of a Beijing department store, but she hesitated and lost it. She was prepared to hand over 600 yuan for a set of silk pyjamas but by the time she had made her choice, they had sold out. 'I couldn't decide which model I liked better and now I have to wait a long time for more to come in,' she said. Ms Chen, a thirtysomething working at the upscale China World Trade Centre, is one of an increasing number of women shaking off the taboos of the past and embracing underwear as a fashion statement. The increased interest in overseas lingerie brands in particular represents a major shift in social and economic conditions and is a change companies are trying to capitalise on. The Victoria's Secret stand takes up little space at the department store but generates a substantial amount of conversation among white-collar women on their lunch breaks. At the recent International Underwear Expo in Beijing, Ricky Luan, senior sales manager at D'Max International, which distributes Victoria's Secret, said the move into China required a shift in perception. 'They have deep-rooted stereotypes of China as an underdeveloped and extremely conservative country, but the consumption capacity, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, amazed them and they decided to take action,' Mr Luan said. Surrounded at the expo by buyers from high-end mainland department stores, he said the company had to work hard to keep shelves stocked. 'Since the launch of our first counter in April in the China World Trade Centre, several items have been sold out and still lots of customers came to ask when they'll be in stock,' Mr Luan said. 'Our biggest challenge now is how to improve the supply channel and launch new products at the same time as in the US.' Most of the products on display at the expo were priced at 200 to 600 yuan, but one retailer was asking as much as 3,859 yuan for a stylish black silk set. The purchases are a substantial outlay in a country where an estimated 2.6 million people still live in absolute poverty, earning less than 670 yuan a year. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, almost 5 million people are low-income earners, with average annual earnings of 924 yuan. But Ms Chen's job in a financial institution means lingerie is an affordable pleasure. 'They are not at all expensive if you make close to 10,000 yuan a month,' said Ms Chen, 'I think they are well worth the price.' Many others also seem to think underwear is worth a premium price tag. According to a 2003 report by Global Consulting, annual sales of high-priced underwear totalled 800 million yuan. For Lu Yi, a sales representative for British underwear manufacturer Calton, the booming business is a far cry from a decade ago when underwear was still a sensitive subject. 'As far as I remember, we didn't use real models for underwear display until 1993. Since then, underwear has emerged as the new fashion,' Ms Lu said. 'TV and fashion magazines exposed women in China to fashion shows and enhanced their taste in stylish underwear.' But 29-year-old Zhuang Jing believes expensive underwear is not just about fashion. As she pampered herself by buying a 400 yuan bra for her birthday, she said: 'Good quality underwear is important for my health and, of course, it makes me sexier. These are the two wishes I have for my 30s.' Analysts describe high-end underwear as one of the last really profitable sectors in the clothing industry, but Fu Guoqun, a marketing professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, thinks competition could heat up. 'As long as the economy is booming and more people are getting rich, other foreign brands, usually luxury products will follow suit in the Chinese market,' Professor Fu said.