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State of the Intimate Apparel Industry

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The $11.2 billion intimate apparel market is holding its own in the world of fashion.

Despite a severe winter of inclement weather throughout the U.S. that kept consumers at home and impacted sales at department stores, mass merchants and specialty boutiques, the intimates category maintained its foothold as a Teflon business. The category has long proven to be a barometer of consumer buying during recessions and economic uncertainty, mainly because it is a commodity business of necessities like socks, legwear, and most recently dual-purpose activewear and related active separates.

The proof is in the figures, according to The NPD Group Inc., which reported innerwear sales at brick-and-mortar stores were flat in the 12 months ended in March 2015, but gained momentum in the e-commerce arena as consumers turned to the Internet during tough weather—which hobbled other sectors like denim, sportswear and ready-to-wear. A number of innerwear industry executives whose products are sold at retail sites such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, or lingerie specialty sites like barenecessities.com or dedicated brand sites, say e-commerce business has spiked 12 percent or more over the past year.

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“When store business dropped off, the Internet gained the drop-off business, unlike other categories like jeans which dropped 8 to 12 percent, depending on the quarter,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. “Intimate apparel is one of the most vulnerable categories as are socks, legwear and underwear for men and women, which means it’s a replenishable commodity and it’s the first thing consumers have to buy. If intimate apparel business drops off, then you know there is something seriously wrong in the fashion industry.”

Dianne W. Lober, communications manager at Invista Inc., producer of Lycra, said the outlook for spring is promising.

“It’s been a tough winter but there’s been a lot of innovation in the market and everybody is being optimistic. They are listening to what consumers want: performance, quality and comfort.” Lober said. “We’ve done a lot of research and we know what consumers want. Our Lycra brand has 70 percent consumer awareness.”

A closer look at the performance of product classifications is an indicator of the direction the market is taking.

Robes and pajamas in cozy, plush fabrics of lightweight microfibers and Lycra-blend knits were a key classification last year. But the big winner is daywear, which increased 13 percent in dollar sales to $381.9 million. The category consists of a variety of dual-purpose tops, bottoms and jackets, key items that are meant to be layered or worn as statement pieces. A main factor driving daywear sales is the growing appetite for athleisure looks, a consumer-driven trend that has made activewear a star.

The athleisure trend is also transforming the bra business as more brands are delving into new and innovative sports bras that offer enhanced comfort and support and can be worn with active-related separates at the gym or as everyday wear.

A number of brands and manufacturers will be previewing spring-summer 2016 collections in May, many of which will be active-inspired, For retailers and wholesalers it will be a time to review marketing strategies and volume programs as executives prepare for the August market, which traditionally is one of the largest and most important venues for innerwear companies.

The focus of the May 4-8 market is foundations, which is comprised of bras, shapewear and corsetry. However, daywear, sleepwear and loungewear specialists will also be unveiling new ideas and concepts for buyers who want a jump-start on key colors, prints, silhouettes and fabrics for 2016.

Industry executives say they are generally optimistic about business for spring 2016, citing factors such as milder weather conditions and a growing demand for newness and fashion by consumers. As a result, May market is expected to be a melting pot of fresh, new ideas for the coming year.

Josie Natori, chief executive officer of Natori. Co., projects a “robust” spring market.

“We’ll be doing the same idea of key items for spring ’16 with core programs of soft cotton and MicroModal terry robes and cozy pajamas in fabrics like Tencel,” Natori said. “One of our big pushes last spring was cotton, and it’s a very promising business. A big focus for us for spring ’16 will be a lot of cotton.”

Niche businesses driven by innovation will be key to growing business next spring, said Guido Campello, ceo of Miami-based Cosabella.

“We are confident about business next spring, especially since our internet business has grown by 10-to-12 percent. We’ve also received interest from every retail perspective to our new maternity lingerie collection. We’ll be expanding maternity styles for the spring market,” Campello said. “We also see a lot of opportunity with distribution, whether it’s B-to-B, direct, drop ship or regional markets. And there’s definitely lots of opportunity to grow the specialty boutique business.”

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Carole Hochman, CEO of Naked, a Canadian men’s underwear brand, believes spring 2016 is the best time to launch women’s lingerie. Naked will unveil its first-ever line of bras, daywear and underwear for women in May.

“We are focusing on comfort and fit and we try to keep it uncomplicated. It’s about what a woman wants and needs with wonderful, small details like logoed elastics and soft lace edges,” Hochman explained. “We’ve given a lot of thought to fit and lighterweight support that’s all figure flattering, and it all harkens back to the men’s underwear essentials.” She added that cotton will be an important classification.

Joel Primus, founder of Naked, said reaction was strong after a couple of women’s underwear styles were previewed on thenakedshop.com. “The women’s line is scheduled to officially launch at department and specialty stores as well as e-commerce sites beginning in January,” he said.

Meanwhile, Debby Gedney, president of the intimate apparel division of Komar, the industry’s largest independent company, said she and Jessica Pfister, vice president of Le Mystere at Komar, are adding the final touches to Le Mystere bras for spring.

“We will be showing January 25 through March 25 deliveries at May market. We are still tweaking our samples for fitness and support because sometimes you need to look at something one more time to make sure it’s right. It’s not a Curve [trade show] market, but we have all of our major department stores coming in for market…We are also very deep into product development for August market,” said Gedney, who oversees Komar’s intimates businesses for On Gossamer and the licensed Betsey Johnson and Ellen Tracy brands. She described the sports bra category in particular as “explosive.”

Pfister noted that strong reaction is anticipated for two new bra styles by Le Mystere: A new underwire T-Shirt bra called the Transformative Tisha Bra that features molded cups, lace details at the center core, wings and straps that have “comfort beads” embedded within the strap’s interior, as well as an expansion of of an Active Balance group of sports bras in fashion colors that have a seamless look with hidden bonding. The Transformative style goes up to an H cup and Active Balance is sized up to a G cup.

Wacoal America has several new bra introductions for spring, including a new lightweight “spacer” bra of dual-layer foam fabric with double-ply cups, soft, encased underwire, and a strap adjuster at the front of the bra. There’s also a shapewear collection rendered in four different degrees of engineered power control in one garment, said Gwen Widell, senior vice president of merchandising and design.

komar“We had a big call-out from our consultants at stores for bra straps that can be adjusted at the front of a bra,” Widell explained. “The new shapewear collection is exciting because it gives women specific control in problem areas. We are also launching a soft-cup bra in Chantilly lace with no wire, because we are seeing more requests for non-wire bras.”

Curvy Couture, an up-and-coming brand in the full-figure arena, will introduce two “solution-driven” bra styles in the Flawless Group, said founder and CEO Dora Lau. One style has heat-bonded lace cups that look seamless and is back smoothing and provides underarm coverage; a second style is wire-free with a contemporary look. The bras are sized up to 44H and 40H, respectively.

“The bonded lace cup bra gives the kind of coverage so many women want, so if you are wearing a tank top you don’t have to worry about  underarm flab because the bra is sculpted a little higher at the side wings. The contemporary bra is for women who don’t like wires but still want the support of an underwire bra,” Lau said.

Lau further noted the company will soon sign a licensing deal with actress Vivica A. Fox and launch a sub-brand called Curvy Studio with Target in late May.

Gale Epstein, creative director and designer of Hanky Panky lingerie, singled out the full-figure and bridal categories as the brand’s fastest growing segments.

“We explored full-figure a few season’s ago and it’s now driving our business,” Epstein said. “For spring, we’ve expanded the collection with more color and styles. We are also adding more novelty items—sexy stuff—to the After Midnight collection. That’s a line of business that really took off when the 50 Shades of Grey movie dropped, and we now feature some of those sexy looking styles in our bridal group.”

Regarding new fiber innovation in the intimates field, Ria Stern, global brand and marketing director at Korean fiber company Hyosung, said, “Creora color and dyeable spandex is being used in lace and fabrics and is excellent for molded bra cups for deeper, darker colors without spandex grin, especially for large sizes. Other new innovations include MIPAN super microdenier nylon for supersoft, wonderful feeling fabrics next to the skin, and MIPAN Aqua X cooling nylon for cool comfort in shapewear, bras and even men’s underwear.”

Patti Ficorilli, senior accounts manager of Intimates for Invista, said master Lycra brand and its four platforms—Lycra Beauty, Lycra Energize, Lycra Sport and Lycra XtraLife—each offer a different criteria of performance suited for the intimates, active and swimwear sectors.

“Brands should look to us as a resource to certify them with global mills,” Ficorilli said. “We can talk to them about different marketing platforms, have them consider co-branding ideas, and we’ll show them how to differentiate their products for the consumer.”

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