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Intimates Sport a Casual, Comfortable and Cute New Vibe

Today’s intimates market is racing to keep pace with athleisure trends—and in some cases, the two categories could be considered teammates rather than competitors.

Driven by consumer expectations that their underwear transitions seamlessly from downward dog to date night, the industry is emphasizing both comfort and performance. And the combination is producing technical innovations as well as brand new product categories.

“Athleisure is here to stay”

When speaking about unmentionables, talk quickly turns to one silhouette in particular: the bralette. For the last year, this unstructured garment has been a go-to, especially among young women.

“Millennials are gravitating to the bralette,” said Pilar Quintana, vice president of merchandising at ecommerce site Yandy. “They’re easy to wear, a lower price and more comfortable. And they wear them peekabooing out of their tops.”

Pattie Ficorilli, senior account manager, intimate apparel and swim, North America for Invista, said the appeal is easy to recognize. “They’re pretty and lacy and meant to be seen. It’s a different way to think about your intimate apparel that we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s a return to femininity.”

Indeed, calling these items undergarments would be a misnomer. No doubt you’ve spotted more than a few winking out of keyholes, armholes, scoop necks and racerbacks lately.

The style, which is a natural extension of our increasingly casual culture, is cute and—most importantly—comfortable. Without molded cups or, in some cases, even hooks, there’s nothing to pinch, gouge or chafe.

Guido Campello of CEO Cosabella says comfort is key but it’s only part of the story. To him, bralettes represent a more fundamental change in body image. “When you look at the millennial girl, I guarantee seven years ago, they would have padding and pushups,” he said, comparing her to today’s shopper. “There’s a big difference in the idea of what fit is supposed to be. It’s a big shift.”

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And the surge in interest in bralettes doesn’t seem to be waning, at least if the steep increase in searches for the term on the Cosabella site over the last eight months is any indication.

So, if you’re waiting for bralettes to lose steam, keep waiting.

Rather than waning, Ficorilli says bralettes are fueling a larger “casual bra” market, which includes sports bras. These comfortable, less structured garments are taking a cue from the ease we all crave thanks to our activewear-infused closets. In fact, Ficorilli compares athleisure’s influence on intimates to the way in which the foam cup revolutionized the bra market decades ago. “It’s interesting to me in intimates to see how long foam cups impacted the market,” she said. “And now, there’s a lot of insight that athleisure is here to stay for the next 10 years.”

“There’s tons of new fabrications”

Whether it’s seamless, lace, microfiber or nylon, fiber companies are finding new ways to appeal to this crossover crowd by pilling on the performance characteristics. Take Invista’s Lycra fibers which, when blended with nylon, offer moisture management, support and odor control. Similarly, Hyosung’s Creora Fresh is an odor neutralizing spandex, while its Mipan AquaX nylon features cooling and moisture management.

Ria Stern, global marketing director for Hyosung Textiles, says the influence between intimates and performance wear goes both ways. “You have sports brands using technology originally developed by intimate apparel—around sizing, molding, stretch and recovery—in sports bras and underwear categories that are performance oriented,” she says. “At the same time, intimate apparel is going after sports-inspired collections, taking advantage of consumers’ interest in something comfortable and functional they can wear all day.”

Whether she’s headed to the gym or her job—or one right after the other—Nilit’s Breeze fiber combines performance attributes with a cooling effect while the company’s BodyFresh ups nylon’s natural odor controlling properties with silver ions.

Beyond these attributes, Molly Kremidas, Nilit America’s marketing manager, says the focus is now on weights—specifically the lighter the better. “Whether it’s in shaping or loungewear, we’ve had a lot of development within super microfibers that provide a hand that is really quite luxurious,” she said, adding this has been the direction for about two years. “And it’s not just about the fiber being lighter weight, but even the construction like in a seamless garment where there’s bonding to give it a sleeker look or lighter weight look.”

Stern credits these lightweight materials to mills, which are constantly innovating. “They’re investing in finer gauge equipment, which is linked to the trend of super lightweight types of fabric. So, we’re engineering products that work better on that equipment.”

Campello says the resurgence in microfibers, a fabrication that’s come back around after its peak a decade ago, is also due to a trend toward cleaner looks. The company expects texture rather than prints to be the big story for 2017. Ready-to-wear fabrications like velvet and cashmere are also emerging, especially on bodysuits, which have popped back up thanks to fashion’s current love affair with all things 90s related.

Bodysuits are also driving sales at Yandy, where designers are offering sexy high-cut legs, really deep Vs and halter styles. The brand is also borrowing from the choker trend that’s driving higher necklines in sportswear, Quintana says. These garments, along with bralettes, are producing more interest in variations of mesh and lace, she says. “Everyone has seen lace and uses mesh, but mesh prints give it a different look but completely sheer,” she said, pointing to dots and florals as hot patterns for 2017. “There’s tons of new fabrications that have been coming alive from it.”

Stretch knits are also on the rise in this category. Quintana says shoppers like it because it gives loungewear, in particular “a cozy, sexy sweater look.”

Kremidas confirms, knits are happening. “Every show I’ve been to, knits have been the topic,” she says. “They’re being applied in a seamless application, circular knits and there’s a lot more development in flat bed–even in items that aren’t necessarily the venue for flat knit.”

“She’ll pay more”

There’s a wide variety of fibers and fabrics at play in the market now, and everyone agrees this variety is a must.

Since Campello joined the company, Cosabella has diversified from two fabrics to more than he can count. “We [realized] we’d lose our customer through her life because there were different times in her life when Cosabella didn’t fit in,” he says. “We can’t fit in for only one time during the day or one phase of her life. We have to think about her daily schedule and life schedule.”

Cosabella approaches product development with four main consumer profiles in mind, and offers product specifically for occasions like maternity and bridal. Hitting these major milestones allows Cosabella to be a sentimental choice, which makes consumers more willing to spend. Six years ago, Campello said, price trumped everything else. Today, that’s not the case. “It’s not price. It’s emotion and what they can show off on social media,” he says.

In addition to that intangible tie, Stern says today’s consumer is smart and they understand enhanced product characteristics aren’t cheap. “Pricing is an issue but what we’ve seen is if you bring some value, the consumer is willing to pay a premium,” she says.

And for the customer for whom price might be a dealbreaker, Stern says keeping an eye on costs works best when all parties—fiber developer, mill and brands—work together. For instance, if the fiber cost is higher, maybe the construction can be simpler or the manufacturing could be streamlined.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ficorilli says the same silhouette that’s driving sales up is also driving prices down. Part of Invista’s role, as she sees it, is to help brands squeeze more dollars out of bralettes. “Since Q4, I’ve been reading articles specifically speaking to brands not delivery on sales results because consumers are trading down,” she says, giving the example of a $40 bra versus a $20 bralette. “We want to add some more technology to the casual bra category to give some more support and shape that can drive the retail price up to compete with traditional bra pricing.”

And the shift will help customers too. Ficorilli says the current bralettes are letting women down in the shape and support departments. “If you’re not making the right fabric selection, they aren’t going to perform to consumer standards. But if it fits right and provides the right functionality, she’ll pay more,” she says. “We don’t wear things anymore unless we love them.”