Kama Sutra Slipping Into Something More Upscale

Times Staff Writer

Kama Sutra is sort of a Frederick’s of Thousand Oaks.

The company says the lingerie it makes is for “sophisticated, creative and romantically inclined females.” Not quite like some of the blatantly sexual stuff sold by the better-known Frederick’s of Hollywood, but sleek and seductive nonetheless.

Kama Sutra describes its other business as selling “romantic toiletries,” a catchy euphemism for scented oils, creams, soaps and powders designed to perk up sex lives.

“We’re on the edge of respectability,” conceded Joe Bolstad, a Kama Sutra partner.


Sold at Nordstrom, Macys

Kama Sutra soon hopes to move from that edge toward the middle of the road of respectability. After having built its business selling oils and creams to stores with names like “The Pleasure Chest,” the company is now pushing a line of lingerie respectable enough to be sold in stores like Nordstrom and Macys.

Part of the reason for the shift, Bolstad said, is a leveling off of demand for its oils, creams and powders. Kama Sutra sold $2 million worth of the products last year and company officials believe that’s close to the market’s limit.

Articulating Kama Sutra’s change of strategy is the responsibility of Bolstad’s partner, Hal Hauser, a former advertising copywriter and part-time screenwriter. He is called Kama Sutra’s in-house “philosopher,” a man who describes his job glibly as “going to meetings.”

Hauser believes that the sexual revolution is history and that relationships have become “more spiritual.” Kama Sutra’s lingerie, he said, will fit into what he sees as a larger trend by people to move from a clinical view toward sex to one with more emphasis on romance and love.

“We want to dignify the female form,” Hauser said. “We don’t have peek-a-boo outfits.”

Analysts expect growth in the upscale lingerie market Kama Sutra is after, in part because of the large number of working women. They say, however, that the business has become increasingly competitive, especially with the boom in mail-order lingerie firms.

“The whole area of the better-quality lingerie is becoming more crowded because it is growing so fast,” said David S. Liebowitz, senior vice president with American Securities in New York.

Kama Sutra, whose name comes from the manual that was 8th-century India’s equivalent of “The Joy of Sex, “ takes its mission rather seriously.

The company gushes profusely when describing its products in language that seems straight out of the late 1960s, when it was founded. One tag on a piece of lingerie reads: “Woman is now pursuing her ascent to the sun, and Kama Sutra presents in her honor a collection of garments to complement her quest.”

Conventional Designs

With the exception of one risque style of underpants, Kama Sutra’s line is fairly conventional: intimate lounge wear and lingerie that includes kimonos, camisoles and slinky gowns that typically retail for $40 to $125.

Pam Crandall, a Nordstrom sleepwear buyer, praised the Kama Sutra lingerie, known as “Lotus Wear.” Crandall said she believes it appeals to the store’s upscale customers.

“I like the detail work and it’s very well-designed. It’s very consistent with the type of person I want to capture,” she said.

Kama Sutra’s chief designer, Stephanie Buffington, said she often designs the lounge wear and lingerie by imagining something an elegant actress like Jean Harlow would have worn in the 1930s. Indeed, some of the company’s lingerie is worn by actresses on soap operas.

Before Hauser and Bolstad hired her, Buffington’s career included chaperoning for the “Dating Game.” She turned that experience into a book called “Three on a Date,” which was made into a television movie by ABC in 1978 that one critic called “ ‘A Love Boat’ carbon, set ashore.”

Offices in Industrial Park

Kama Sutra is far from the glitzy fashion world. Its offices, where 15 people work, are in an industrial park in the Westlake Village area of Thousand Oaks. In the back of the building is an area where patterns are cut and lingerie is stored. All manufacturing, of the oils and lingerie, is done by contractors.

Hauser and Bolstad were advertising executives when they came up with the idea of marketing a massage oil they believed would appeal to the kind of people involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

“There was a need at the time for people to touch each other on all levels, this being the most obvious level approaching it,” Hauser said.

Bolstad said his reason for getting into the business was “to make $500 a week and live in Mexico.” To launch the company, Bolstad and Hauser each invested $1,000.

The initial result of their efforts was “Oil of Love,” an almond-cinnamon balm that originally sold for $4.50 a bottle. The oil, now $7.50 a bottle, still is the company’s top-selling product.

The two took the product to trade shows, where, to get attention, they set up a tent, piped in sitar music and hired models dressed in clothes from India. They later advertised the oil in magazines such as Esquire and Cosmopolitan.

Bolstad and Hauser have built the privately held company into a business with $3.5 million in sales last year, up about 30% from 1984. Nearly all of that increase came from lingerie sales, which doubled to about $1.5 million.

Not Yet Profitable

The lingerie business isn’t profitable yet, although Kama Sutra expects it to be this year. Bolstad said the oils, creams and powders typically earn about 10% after taxes, or about $200,000 last year.

Retailers and lingerie manufacturers say they expect the upscale lingerie market to grow, in part because the business was comparatively staid until a few years ago, offering a limited number of designs in basic colors like pink, blue, white and black.

“It’s been very, very basic and very, very boring,” said Harald Jonassen, chairman of Flora Kung, a New York-based sportswear and dress firm that began selling designer lingerie products in May.

In the past, Jonassen said, women typically bought lingerie only a few times a year or received it as gifts for Mother’s Day or other holidays. Now, he said, companies are introducing bolder styles every few weeks to maintain a brisk market.

Jonassen said he believes credit for the new emphasis on designer lingerie and lounge wear goes to prime-time soap operas, such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” that show women lounging in elegant, intimate fashions.

“Instead of putting on a pair of jeans when they come home,” he said, “women want to look and feel special.”