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A serious plan to make a go of lingerie sales

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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Today’s lingerie styles can sound like car design: racer backs, convertibles, steam-punk corsets. In fact, a good bra is based heavily on engineering, said Rachel Wentworth, an owner of Forty Winks in Harvard Square.

“Technology helps provide both support and comfort,’’ said Wentworth, who opened the lingerie boutique a year ago with her partner, Meredith Donaldson.

With no two bodies created exactly the same, Forty Winks carries a range of sizes and styles, starting at 30A specialty bras and ending at an H cup size. “Sizes can go as high as M, but that’s not our customer,’’ said Wentworth.

The store was launched with a decidedly unromantic business plan that included 12 pages of cash flow analysis. Lenders were skeptical about a store specializing in intimate wear; they just didn’t take underwear seriously, Wentworth said. But Wentworth and Donaldson pushed ahead, sensing an opportunity to expand a market that has long been centered in Europe.

“American women are starting to understand the importance of wearing good lingerie as an important part of their appearance and a part of a complete outfit,’’ said Wentworth.

There is a trend toward “green’’ lingerie. What does that mean?

Sustainability has been the force behind intimate wear made of organic cotton, recycled polyester and nylon, hemp, bamboo, and other fabrics. We also try to carry products that have stories behind them, such as those started by single moms or made in cooperatives in India.

What goes into this business that you didn’t expect?

The wide range of sizes and shapes that we encounter. You need to be able to figure out what styles work best for different anatomies, and this can get very technical. We’ve also been surprised by the amount of therapy some women want. We end up consoling and encouraging women about their body image and giving emotional support. The fitting room can be a very personal place.

What’s new for the fall?

A lot of navy as well as silk and lace mix. Garments that have a little more structure yet are still very delicate. Look for pieces that are very feminine but have the infusion of a harder edge.

What are the lingerie trade shows like?

Twice a year, we attend the Curve Lingerie show in New York. We do all our major buying during these three days. It’s a bit mind-numbing writing out the orders, but we enjoy seeing the new lines.

Has Lady Gaga’s attire influenced the offerings in your store?

I don’t think our customers are necessarily buying more lingerie because of Lady Gaga, but there’s definitely a trend toward wearing lingerie as outerwear. Of course, they don’t shoot sparks.