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Why Upstart Intimates Brands Look Nothing like Victoria’s Secret

Months after Rihanna debuted her cosmetics brand with 40 shades of foundation, bloggers and editors wrote at length about the “Fenty Effect,” the sudden influx of new or expanded foundation shade ranges in other drugstore and prestige brands. While many of those brands had been developing more inclusive foundation shades, or even already selling them, the buzz around Fenty Beauty brought consumer insights to the forefront of the conversation.

This May will mark the one-year anniversary of the Savage x Fenty lingerie label launch, and the Fenty Effect has spread—into the realm of intimates. Direct-to-consumer brands, including the Fenty label, are redefining the way consumers shop for underwear, and established brands will have to follow suit.

The surge in the number of DTC brands comes as the former category leader fights to retain relevancy and profitability. Speaking about L Brands’ third quarter performance in November, EVP and COO Stuart Burgdoerfer was quoted as saying the “overall results are unacceptable, driven by declines in Victoria’s Secret Lingerie and PINK.” The company’s struggles are driven by the sexy designs and marketing that have felt particularly out of step with the zeitgeist in the #MeToo era. According to research by Edited, Victoria’s Secret is rapidly broadening its apparel and accessory offerings to compensate. Underwear now makes up 39 percent of the company’s assortment, as compared to 44 percent in 2016.

Meanwhile, American Eagle’s Aerie brand continues to soar on body positivity messaging, resulting in 16 straight quarters of double-digit comp sales gains, according to the company. The contrast between the two companies indicates it’s a new day—one that direct to consumer brands are eager to capitalize on.

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“[Savage x Fenty’s] runway show was praised for embracing diversity,” said Katharine Carter, retail analyst at Edited, noting that Savage x Fenty highlighted inclusivity and accessibility as one of the brand’s core values. To that point, Fenty lingerie has a different price range, with a slightly lower price ceiling, topping out at $74 compared to Victoria’s Secret, which reaches $79.95.

Georgina Pinou, content and digital manager at Curve Expo, said size inclusivity, as well as innovative designs and comfort-focused fabrications, are all aspects of the intimates market that direct-to-consumer brands excel in. “Direct-to-consumer companies are able to address those demand gaps more easily with their business models than other established brands,” Pinou said. “The ability to be flexible in the production is important, and since smaller [direct-to-consumer] companies do not operate with high inventory, they’re able to produce batch styles quickly when the consumer demand rises.” Sourcing, Pinou said, follows a similar line of logic; since many small DTC brands rely on smaller sourcing companies, they can pivot more easily to trendy fabrics or trims.

She added that the intimates market won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “The intimates market remains strong in relation to other fashion markets,” said Carter, “which is likely the reason direct-to-consumer companies are increasing.” The numbers hold up: the global lingerie market, valued at around $33.18 billion in 2015, is predicted to reach $55.83 billion by 2024, according to research by Edited.

These are the trends that will determine which companies see a cut of the profits.

Keeping it simple

The website for Jonesy NYC boasts the millennial minimalism of a certified “cool” brand. That simplicity is a hallmark of the brand’s offerings, too.

On the website, shoppers will only find two underwear styles and three bras, with no underwires, flashy lace or elaborate detailing. Instead, the brand focuses on soft, comfortable fabrics and a variety of colorways—exactly what Rachel Jones was looking for when she founded the brand.

“Five years ago, when I started, the landscape was bifurcated,” Jones said. “It was either luxe, premium lingerie, that portrayed women being very sexy, or it was basics that were just made to be durable.” Jones, who had no apparel industry experience, began designing a style to fit the very middle of that market.

In fact, she designed just one style each of bra and underwear, and initially had her heart set on never expanding the range of offerings. However, customer feedback changed that.

“I have that entrepreneurial mindset, that no advisor or peer is going to give you the information you need the way customers will,” Jones said.

Guided by customer feedback, Jones added just a few more fits, and expanded her sizing and colorways. “As a trend, brands are moving away from creating entirely new styles, because it’s so expensive to get it right the first time,” said Jones. “Instead, they’re offering options within those styles.”

Simpler styles are key, and the basics Jonesy NYC offers are in-demand, too. Sports bras and triangle bras/bralettes have seen significant growth since 2016, overtaking push-up styles to become the two most popular styles across the U.S. intimates market.

Inclusion at every size

Tomboy Exchange, or TomboyX, dubs its intimates “gender-neutral underwear,” and the brand’s extensive range of designs encapsulates its premise. The brand offers seven styles of underwear and three styles of bras in every solid color of the rainbow and five different tones of “nude,” as well as prints including plaids, rainbows, octopi and unicorns.

“We release new designs and colors every month,” said COO Naomi Gonzalez. “New styles take much longer, and the timeline can vary greatly.” Gonzalez estimates that new underwear fabrics take six to nine months of research and development, and actual garment design and manufacture can take up to a year to perfect. New prints and trims are crucial to satisfying the company’s customer base, an outlook also in line with Jonesy NYC’s view.

Scrolling through the TomboyX Instagram might bring to mind the Savage x Fenty runway show, with a broad range of body types and skin tones sporting the pieces. Some of those shots are TomboyX’s models, but the company also shares plenty of snaps from its customer base.

“Our core customers aren’t used to being seen in fashion,” said CEO Fran Dunaway. “They can see themselves in our brand.” Dunaway said the brand relies on customers to keep their styles in check, even though the company also does rigorous testing with fit models throughout their XS through 4X size range. The pieces are also designed to fit androgynously, a common attribute of some styles like boxer briefs, but unique to the company’s thongs, longer boxers and bikinis, which are designed to fit all body types.

The company’s biggest challenge is convincing customers that the fit is worth the investment.

“Our customers are used to lower costs and the fast fashion model, but that isn’t who we are,” Dunaway said. “The biggest challenge we’ve faced is pushback from customers who want our prices to be cheaper.” Not that TomboyX’s pricing is as high a barrier to entry as some other brands: TomboyX bras range from $32 to $39, and underwear from $18 to $36.

The conversation around gender-neutral intimates, and particularly around fit and sizing, is one that Curve’s Georgina Pinou agrees will determine the success of newer direct-to-consumer and established brands alike. “Direct-to-consumer brands will continue to flourish in the intimate apparel industry due to their ability to offer a wide range of trendy styles in a wide range of sizes, but the focus always needs to be quality at the end of the day,” Pinou said.

Restructuring through tech

Another female founder without a fashion background, Sophia Berman had worked in industrial engineering before founding Trusst Lingerie in 2014. It might be the least conventional of the rising stars in the DTC intimates market. Trusst’s neo-futurist bras are meant to be a complete redesign of the traditional garment, 3-D-printed in plastic, then carved away to create a bra designed to be supportive and comfortable with no underwire, and with less weight held in the shoulder straps.

“We tested close to 300 prototypes, over and over, on real women,” Berman said. Despite the technology involved, the bras are still well within the range of others on the market. Trusst’s bras range in price from $56 to $72, and the brand also offers a selection of underwear for $15 each.

“The bra has very specific requirements for washability and wearability,” Berman said. She went to countless trade shows and performed extensive research to find plastic and fabrics built to maintain their structural integrity through regular wear and washing, while being comfortable against the skin.

Trusst’s CEO, Bill Besselman, notes that the company is only able to meet customer demand thanks to its use of data and sales analytics to predict what styles will need restocking next.

“The ramp-up has been incredibly fast, and production is not an overnight activity,” Besselman said. “We’ve gotten a lot smarter about understanding our selling patterns and working with our manufacturers to shorten that six-month building process to four.”

Berman understands that not all brands will bring an architecture background to their product design, but she sees tech as an integral part of the future of intimates. She believes it is a way to provide a wider range of fit options, as well as other aspects like moisture-wicking and leak-proof materials.

“Our customer wants technology integrated into every aspect of her lifestyle,” Berman said. “When people realize larger companies aren’t serving them, they’ll ask, ‘What about me?’”