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The Lycra Company CEO Dave Trerotola on Innovation, Sustainability and Future Growth

While the fundamentals of fiber innovation and brand partnerships are as important as ever, this isn’t the Lycra of the past that was often seen but not heard.

“We know we have to make some noise,” Dave Trerotola, CEO of The Lycra Company, said.

Out from under the thumb of the conservative-natured Koch Industries, Lycra Co. is now an independent company owned by China’s Shandong Ruyi Investment Holding, with more creative freedom to market itself and its products.

Trerotola explained in an interview at Lycra’s sleek new headquarters in Wilmington, Del., that the past couple of years saw the company in somewhat of a holding pattern while the Invista division of Koch Industries completed the sale of its Apparel & Advanced Textiles business, of which Lycra was the flagship brand.

The transaction, completed in January, includes a portfolio of apparel-focused fibers, products and brands. They include Lycra, Coolmax, Thermolite, Elaspan, Supplex and Tactel, now featured in a giant brand wheel adorning the new offices.

A new freedom

“It’s really given us a chance to be totally independent and committed to the industry–to be faster, more nimble,” Trerotola, who was joined in the interview by Julien Born, president of the Lycra Co. Apparel division, said. “Our layers of decision-making are basically the two of us. So we can move more quickly as a company and we’re trying to establish our personality as a company. Koch is a very quiet company, very conservative, and we as a company want to be more leaning into the marketplace and to our customers, and a bit louder about how we talk about our products and innovations.”

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Key to that is getting the brand message out to the customer and consumer, he said.

“We need to be in front of our customers and making sure they know what opportunities there are to work with us and create more profitability for their company,” Trerotola said. “While our innovation platforms are usually the message, what you’re going to see more of is the collaborative opportunity to work with our company along the life cycle of their products, particularly at the trade level.”

He and Born said much time has been spent connecting with customers with renewed vigor on Lycra products and the company’s role in the market as a supply chain innovator and facilitator.

Specifically, Trerotola said, “We’ve been successfully growing our branded differentiated fiber business for 60 years, but we’ve had particular success in the last five years” in shifting from a mix of commodity and differentiated fiber business to nearly all differentiated or specialty fibers.

“We have an opportunity to continue to do that,” he said. “There’s a lot of growth left in our assets, a lot of capacity we can still use and upgrade to make Lycra fiber, as well as continue to grow our other brands, particularly Coolmax and Thermolite.”

Innovation

The executives stressed that product innovation, long at the core of the company and what set the Lycra brand apart from other spandex and elastane companies, is even more of a focus now.

“The commitment to innovation is in the DNA of our company and we have a very good pipeline right now of products in development,” Trerotola said. “If anything, we’re even more committed…to bringing out category-changing products that create premiums for our customers.”

He noted that Lycra was at the forefront of stretch denim and the athleisure trend that followed getting its name known through the intimate apparel and swimwear sectors.

“Our goal in working with brands is to understand what is the next consumer trend, what is the unmet need that you have and then take our resources in developing innovative products around it,” Trerotola said. “Innovation for us creates premiums for our customers and creates categories like a yoga pant or stretch denim.”

One of the newest innovations is Lycra Fitsense, which allows Lycra fiber technology to be screen-printed onto a fabric or garment for targeted support. Lycra Fitsense allows designers to create lighter weight, breathable, cooler fabrics that offer targeted compression and support.

Born noted that an early adopter of Fitsense was Maidenform, which introduced the new technology in its new Magic Slimming collection. The shapewear line offers a targeted, slimming profile without the need for bulky, sewn-in panels. Fabric with high Lycra fiber content delivers a sculpted look, while the printed Lycra FitSense pattern enhances the fabric’s strength.

Born also noted that to promote the launch, Maidenform and Lycra partnered with Refinery29, a media and entertainment company for women, to develop a co-branded marketing campaign. This model is one Lycra would like to continue, Born said, adding for example that social media is a key marketing tool in China.

Trerotola noted that the company is working on fit and shape using this technology in denim.

Mills and trade

Also vital to Lycra’s success, Trerotola noted, is the network of partner mills around the world that brings the fibers to life in fabrics and finished goods for brands and retailers, and ultimately, consumers.

“When someone is buying from that network, they know they are going to get quality and service, and they get to buy across multiple trade paths, depending on what happens with trade,” he said. “We don’t work with mills that aren’t ethical or compliant. What that leads to is [customers] getting products that fit the first time, that don’t have returns for quality problems and that don’t lead to markdowns. If we can get someone to work with us from development to grave of a product, they’re going to see a payoff that’s many times the few extra cents they’re paying on the front end.”

Discussing the issue of trade, Trerotola said companies are trying to figure out new supply chains to avoid potential tariffs and Lycra has been working with them to adjust manufacturing because it has mills and technology support around the world making its products.

Sustainability

In the area of sustainability, Trerotola said the Lycra manufacturing process has long been more energy efficient than other spandex product, though little has been done to promote that fact. The company also recently rolled out Eco Made products in T400 bi-component stretch using bottle resin in Coolmax and Thermolite.

“We want to be a voice at the table now in the area of sustainability that in the past we haven’t been,” he said.

Growth opportunities

The Lycra Co. now consists of 3,000 employees in 40 countries. In addition to the Delaware headquarters, it also maintains an office in Shanghai.

Trerotola, who noted that Lycra Co.’s annual revenue is $1.5 billion, said, “There’s opportunity for us to grow in the core business and there’s also opportunity in the personal care marketplace. In apparel, there’s opportunity for additional services to the market. We’re always on the lookout for differentiators, whether that’s a fiber or an apparel product line.”

He said Lycra’s relationship with Shandong Ruyi has proven beneficial for the sense of autonomy it has brought, while being able to call on its vast network and experience, particularly in China.

Trerotola also addressed reports that Lycra Co. could go public, either through an initial public offering or other financial vehicle, an approach he noted Shandong Ruyi has taken with other companies it has acquired.

“That would be cool,” he added. “It would help our brand and give our employees something exciting, to own shares of Lycra. But it’s not a goal I’m focused on. If we have an opportunity to go that route, we might do that, but it’s not an immediate goal of the company.”