Today’s hosiery, socks and leggings makers have made strides to distance themselves from the often uncomfortable, impractical and unfashionable options of yore. The legwear market is running with new technical and fabric innovations that keep pace with consumer demand for on-trend, performance-driven pieces that draw inspiration from every segment of the fashion industry, from apparel to footwear.
“Over the years, the fashion world has often had a love/hate relationship with legwear,” said Cathleen Moxham, lead design director for Hanes and L’eggs Hosiery. “At times, this category is described as ‘pantyhose’ and something that your grandmother or mother made you wear. However, today this concept is defying history.” For proof, she said, you need look no further than the Fall ’16 runway shows, where legwear was featured by brands like Prada, Gucci, Burberry and Chanel. Moxham cited Hanes Hosiery’s recent collaboration with designer Bibhu Mohapatra for New York Fashion Week as an example of the company’s own foray into the high-end arena.
Invista, one of the world’s largest integrated producers of fibers and polymers and owner of the Lycra brand, recently teamed with trend-forecasting agency Stijlinstituut Amsterdam to predict some of the must-have legwear trends for 2017/18.
“Legwear has undergone major changes over the years and all for the better,” said Jennifer Strong, marketing account manager, legwear, for Invista. “As with other segments in apparel, consumers are demanding fashionable products that meet the needs of their lifestyle. But for legwear, it’s important that they look their best without compromising on comfort.”
She added that category changes, such as better fit and comfort in the panty and waistband; fiber advancement for both socks and hosiery; improved durability for hosiery via run-resistance fibers; and a wider range of sheer and opaque fabrications is allowing today’s legwear to emerge as a true fashion accessory.
Form and function
Although legwear is taking major cues from the runway, consumers’ comfort-first directive places garment functionality at the forefront. Waistbands must be secure yet non-binding; socks should be moisture-wicking; and compression legwear is quickly becoming de rigueur. Innovative yarns and technology are helping to drive advances in performance, while knitting machines are becoming more technical, offering greater capacity for intricate designs.
“Consumers have continued to focus on the athleisure trend of comfort and performance, and we see the same trends in the legwear category,” said Jay Hertwig, vice president of global brand sales, marketing and product development for Unifi. “Whether it’s nylons that don’t run and have a non-rolling waistband, or socks with superior moisture wicking, consumers want all of their clothing to perform.”
Tim Manson, president of Meridian Specialty Yarn Group, agreed that shoppers’ expectations are high: “Consumers are more educated on the performance offerings in the legwear market. They value legwear products that wick sweat when needed, provide warmth when needed, and in some cases, offer antimicrobial characteristics.”
As consumers become more educated, more demanding, and more performance-conscious than ever before, producers must remain inventive to keep the category hot.
Manson says Meridian recognizes the difference is in the yarn itself. “For example, wash and color fastness is key for color block designs. Rarely do you see solid color socks anymore,” he said. ”Comfort, compression, and multiple substrates in one product are now common. It is important to know how to process these socks without compromising performance.”
According to Hanes’ Moxham, the latest fiber developments driving the legwear segment are cosmetic-inspired super sheers made with Run Resist Technology.
“In addition to super sheer yarns, yarns that provide compression are [also on trend]. Compression legwear can be used for contouring and help shape or sculpt the silhouette,” she said. “In addition to shaping—due to the overarching macro trend of wellness—compression provides support, which helps to increase circulation for healthier beautiful legs. In terms of the future, we continue to see the importance of fibers infused with smart technology.”
HanesBrands manufactures core legwear products in its Clarksville, Arkansas plant. In addition to the U.S., Moxham and other producers cite Italy and China as major players in hosiery production. For socks, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey and the U.S. remain key manufacturing destinations.
“We can look toward the future for continued growth in U.S.A.-made product delivering many technologies,” Manson said, noting that Meridian Specialty Yarn Group is constructing a state-of-the-art dyeing facility. “MSYG will be offering dyed yarns made with improved usage of resources, creative applications of color, and a nimble operation with a customer-focused mindset. All of these contribute to the efficient movement of product through the production pipeline.”
For Greensboro, N.C.-based Unifi, technical advances such as automatic toe-closing machinery; finishing and steam boarding; and sublimation, ink, and circular printing are streamlining the production process, as well as keeping water and energy usage more efficient. “3-D printing is also being evaluated as an alternative to conventional methods for producing legwear,” Hertwig added.
The name game
As with most fashion markets, brand awareness plays a critical role in the legwear hierarchy. However, producers agree that product attributes are paramount when it comes to the final purchasing decision.
At Unifi, Hertwig says the brand name speaks to his company’s quality product. “As consumers turn away from fast-fashion and look to established brands for high-quality garments and legwear, Unifi is able to provide our customers with transparency and guaranteed quality,” he said. The company’s U Trust Verification system ensures its Repreve fibers are made traceable, transparent and certifiably sustainable, “giving customers and consumers confidence in the brand.”
All of this innovation and transparency does come at a price, however.
Manson said managing sourced yarns, dyes and chemicals can be a challenge in keeping price points low. But while cost is significant factor, ultimately, customers now seek value.
“A brand name is important, but of more importance to the consumer of today is that the brand must provide products that perform as they say they do,” Manson said, by fulfilling that promise, MSYG’s customers are able to build customer loyalty. “We are an ingredient to many top brands in this category. It is our goal to help them continue to build their brand.”