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‘Fifty Shades’ Is Selling More Than Just Sex Toys

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The nearly $1 billion franchise is coming to an end, and with it, its halo effect on designer fashion.

The Fifty Shades Freed movie poster, featuring Dakota Johnson’s Ana in her Monique Lhuillier wedding gown.
The Fifty Shades Freed movie poster, featuring Dakota Johnson’s Ana in her Monique Lhuillier wedding gown.
Photo: Universal Pictures

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Fifty Shades Freed, the climactic (pun intended) installment in the blockbuster screen trilogy based on E.L. James’s BDSM-themed book series, hits theaters today. As you might expect, it’s already getting scathing reviews from critics; it’s currently sitting at a 14-percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. From a financial standpoint, however, it doesn’t matter one bit: Following the $950 million worldwide gross of 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey and 2016’s Fifty Shades Darker, Freed will easily push the film trifecta past the billion-dollar mark, making it an unequivocal success. Problematic as the franchise may feel in our post-Weinstein world, consider it further proof that targeting female moviegoers — a demographic that’s somehow still underserved by Hollywood — is never a bad idea.

Lingerie from Coco de Mer’s official Fifty Shades collaboration.
Lingerie from Coco de Mer’s official Fifty Shades collaboration.
Photo: Coco de Mer

Of course, the lust-turned-love story of bondage-obsessed billionaire Christian Grey and shy bookworm Anastasia Steele is also making big money beyond the box office. More than 125 million copies of the notoriously poorly written erotic books have been sold worldwide — and over the past several years, licensing deals for Fifty Shades-branded products, ranging from the predictable (lingerie, sex toys) to the perplexing (nail polish, teddy bears), have turned the franchise into a multimillion-dollar marketing bonanza.

Which makes it particularly odd, as AdWeek pointed out in 2015, that there’s so little product placement within the actual films themselves. For a series so preoccupied with wealth and all that it affords, it’s shocking that — short of Audis aplenty — precious few of the many luxurious trappings of the central couple’s lifestyle are clearly branded. Many companies, it seems, are (somewhat understandably) scared off by the movies’ subject matter — but for those willing to take the gamble, there can be major payoff.

Take Glossier, for example. Ana (Dakota Johnson) wears the buzzy beauty brand’s Generation G Lipstick in Jam throughout much of Darker; in one scene, she even whips out the sleek white tube to reapply. And while the brand’s PR declined to share sales data with Racked, multiple media outlets (including this one) covered the lip color’s placement in the sequel. Glossier shoppers both new and returning weighed in on social media, too.

And for proof that Fifty Shades has helped sell luxury fashion in addition to lipstick, look no further than Monique Lhuillier, who’s designed two of the trilogy’s most memorable looks: Ana’s masquerade dress in Darker and her wedding gown in Freed. Costume designer Shay Cunliffe reached out to Lhuillier about creating a look for the masked ball early on in production; star Dakota Johnson was a fan of her designs. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, Lhuillier tells Racked: “Maybe eight months before that happened, I’d said that the next thing I wanted to do was something on screen.”

Dakota Johnson wears Monique Lhuillier’s masquerade design for Fifty Shades Darker.
Dakota Johnson wears Monique Lhuillier’s masquerade design for Fifty Shades Darker.
Photo: Universal Pictures

The designer, who says she’s never read the Fifty Shades books and instead relied on “pure imagination” to come up with the perfect dress for the scene, immediately began sketching options and presenting possible fabrics. Beyond explaining that they wanted something “sensual, cut closer to the body” that Christian Grey could’ve believably picked out for Ana on his own, the film’s costume team left most of the creative choices up to Lhuillier. “The one important design detail they asked for — the key point — was that the dress be easy to remove,” she says. “It had to be one pull and the whole thing could come down.”

When it comes to celebrity placement, “I don’t get too into the question of, ‘Is this going to translate into sales?’” the designer explains. “That said, the masquerade dress garnered so much attention.” In fact, so many customers called and emailed about the silver gown that Lhuillier wound up adding it to her e-commerce site; currently, the $3,295 look is sold out in almost every size. “There’s definitely a halo effect in addition to the direct sales of that dress,” she adds.

Dakota Johnson wears a Monique Lhuillier-designed wedding dress in Fifty Shades Freed.
Dakota Johnson wears a Monique Lhuillier-designed wedding dress in Fifty Shades Freed.
Photo: Universal Pictures

Freed’s off-the-shoulder, button-backed wedding gown, teased in both posters and trailers for the movie as well as on Lhuillier’s Instagram, has understandably inspired even more buzz. “We’re getting a lot of calls,” the designer confirms. “People are dying to see the head-to-toe dress.” And for those eager for their own Grey wedding, fear not: Lhuillier will be producing and selling “something similar” once the movie’s out.

Lhuillier’s coup of a Fifty Shades spotlight — placement in two out of three installments of a film trilogy, plus an elusive screen mention — has particularly paid off overseas, where the franchise is even more popular than it is in the US. “I was blown away by the exposure,” she says. “I travel a lot internationally, and people are always like, ‘You did the dress in Fifty Shades!’ It’s that type of reaction. I didn’t expect it.”