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Sports Bras Could Mean Big Business for Intimate Apparel Brands

“Most of the products we see in athleisure are dominated by activewear brands and their sports-inspired products. We believe intimate apparel brands have a huge opportunity here to participate in this market and participate in that growth, by bringing to market their expertise and products that are more stylish and more feminine,” said Bob Kirkwood, executive vice president of marketing and technology at Invista, owner of the Lycra fiber brand.

Speaking in New York City Tuesday at an event promoting Lycra’s range of fiber technologies, Kirkwood and Invista’s senior marketing manager for intimate apparel and swim, Pattie Ficorilli, explained how and why their brand and mill partners should expand their collections to capture this opportunity.

“Athleisure is a trend that’s really evolved over the last few years, from being embraced by a niche part of the market to one that’s really widely adopted and actually desired by all sorts of consumer demographics in all sorts of garment categories,” Kirkwood continued.

He also revealed that Invista’s R&D teams are working on brand-new fibers and fabric concepts to respond to athleisure, some of which will be available for sampling in early 2017.

“We believe that by working together we can create new fabric and garment concepts that can deliver whole new levels of comfort, fit and performance in response to this trend,” he said.

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To put it bluntly, intimate apparel brands can’t afford to ignore it. Sales of traditional bras have flat-lined and there’s been little to no innovation. At the same time, sports and comfort bras as well as bralettes have soared at retail, helping athleisure to become a $270 billion business—and growing.

Intimate apparel brands aren’t the only ones struggling to compete. According to data compiled by The NPD Group, non-active apparel is about 79 percent of the total volume in the U.S. today, but it’s down 3 percent. Active apparel, on the other hand, comprises 21 percent and is up 14 percent. That means that without activewear, the apparel market would be in decline. On the women’s side of things, active apparel is up 15.3% and has experienced four years of double-digit growth.

Read: Sports Bras are Staple Piece of Millennial Women’s Wardrobes

“The athleisure market is an opportunity for intimate apparel brands and mills to grow again and to expand their business beyond traditional intimate apparel products,” Ficorilli said, noting that new categories have emerged, including multi-purpose leggings and versatile innerwear and outerwear tops. “The beauty of it is that we’re talking about new product categories without cannibalizing existing ranges. That’s very exciting news for the industry.”

Also exciting: Consumers who never exercise still wear activewear. NPD discovered that 28 percent of consumers wear workout clothes in public every day when not working out. Furthermore, 61 percent of women who say they never exercise said they wear active apparel 48 percent of the time.

“This is really a lifestyle shift and not a trend,” said Todd Mick, a director in NPD’s apparel practice, adding that sales of active bottoms are up 21 percent, active knit shirts have increased 26 percent and sports bras are up 20 percent.

Nicole Goldbaum, account specialist for fashion apparel at NPD, noted that sports bras have grown from $0.8 billion to $1.5 billion in sales over the last five years, with the strongest growth occurring in the last two years. Today the category represents 22 percent of the total bra market.

“That growth rate has actually outpaced non-sports bras each of the past five years and it’s also outpaced total women’s active apparel four out of those five years,” Goldbaum said. “This is really great news for the intimate apparel world because we don’t see this trend ending anytime soon.”

There’s also been a big shift in how people perceive sports bras—NPD found that 31 percent of women will wear one without a shirt, as a crop top. In fact, there’s been such a blurring of the lines that fashion and function have come together in both categories, with sports bras starting to feature strappy backs and lace details and regular bras incorporating more breathability and stretch.

“While compression is always going to be an important factor of sports bras, and something a lot of women need in their sports bras, we’re seeing consumers really react more to comfortable benefits like wicking and temperature regulation in her sports bra,” Goldbaum added.

That’s where intimate apparel brands come in.

“You can bring your expertise to the market, and develop sports fashion and comfort leisure to fill the gaps in this category and give the consumer what she’s looking for. Like exceptional fit from bras versus sports bras, performance benefits like we have in shapewear versus shaping leggings, performance with feminine fabrics and a soft lingerie-like hand, and fabrics that have a nylon content versus a polyester content,” Ficorilli said.

She added, “The athleisure customer wants multi-purpose versatile garments designed to transition her between active and leisure times. She wants comfort and stylish, chic apparel. And she wants performance benefits, things that keep her fresh and energized throughout her day. Intimate apparel brands have the expertise to fulfill these needs of the athleisure consumer.”