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How Tween Lingerie and Teen Brands are Finding Growth in Intimates

Boring training bras and basic underwear for young girls? That is so passé these days when lingerie has been having a retail moment for years.

These days, young adults have more fashionable options–colors, fits, or cuts–that they can drool over, as well as retail shopping environments such as American Eagle’s Aerie, where friends can hang out and shop as if they’re having a private party.

Moreover, the options today are supposed to provide a confidence boost, helping some young women feel more like their older sisters. That’s even if sometimes a mom might just wonder about the appropriateness of a style choice, such as options from the edgy boutique Dolls Kill. And while tweens and teens represent different age groups, there’s a decent bit of overlap among the fashion brands due to size options and each girl’s personal development stage.

Growth of lingerie sales online

Although lingerie has been in the retail spotlight for decades thanks to Victoria’s Secret, the shift in attention for fashionable lingerie in the teen and tween world appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. That’s in part a reflection of what’s been happening in the intimates market in general and in the movement toward online shopping.

Simeon Siegel, a Wall Street retail and apparel expert, said that “Victoria’s Secret is still the dominant player in the intimate apparel market,” aided by contributions from its Pink brand, which targets young adults largely in the high school and college demographics. While Victoria’s Secret’s market share has slipped a bit, that has “emboldened others to jump in,” Siegel said.

As for timing, he noted that as companies learned how to sell heavy commoditization of easily manufactured goods online, it was only natural that they would begin to search for the next big thing. Companies have now moved on to footwear, eyewear and bras.

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“We’re starting to see the introduction of slightly more difficult-to-produce goods making their way onto the online channel,” he said, noting that the trend has helped with the rise of direct-to-consumer start-ups in the intimates category, such as ThirdLove or HarperWilde for adults and the rise of Dolls Kill and Yellowberry for the younger crowd.

According to Matthew Tingler, a managing director in Baird’s Consumer and Retail Investment Banking practice, “Every area of apparel has been penetrated by DTC brands. The ability for someone to start a company by completely selling the products online has leveled the playing field. Whereas a start-up brand had to fight an incumbent brand for shelf space in the past, that no longer exists. Accordingly, there has been a proliferation of brands across the apparel spectrum.”

For the investment banker, the intimates space offers investors three key criteria that aren’t always present in other categories, and certainly not in apparel. “Intimates or essentials are a highly desired category by investors. They are needed or necessary [as] most everyone wears underwear. They are consumable [because] people replace their underwear more frequently than any other product category, except maybe socks. They are also recurring purchases by nature–once someone adopts a brand, they typically stay with it. Fashion brands do not exhibit these factors,” Tingler explained.

ThirdLove in February garnered $55 million in funding even though it actually wasn’t looking to raise money. And another example of recent investor interest, this time in the teen and tween lingerie space, is Dolls Kill.

Dolls Kill, which secured $5 million in funding from venture capital firm Maveron in 2014, calls itself an extreme fashion brand. The now seven-year-old firm, founded in 2012, is best known for what the company describes as an edgy sensibility for “misfits.”

That sensibility, however, is risqué enough that many moms might consider some style options–think thongs, pasties and see through lace nightgowns that leave little to the imagination–as too over the top for young girls.

But the company seems to be connecting with its customers, much in the same way that Hot Topic is synonymous with counterculture and—in the specialty chain’s more recent history—Goth fashion. In fact, Dolls Kill is resonating so well with shoppers that it was able to secure $10 million in a Series B round from investors in December.

Tingler noted that as a digitally native brand, Dolls Kill sells through its own website, which allows it to control its consumer marketing message. “This results in a strong consumer following that can be leveraged via numerous marketing initiatives. Further, Dolls Kill has created an enthusiastic consumer base that are huge promoters of the brand and strong users of social media,” the investment banker said, noting that strong social media usage helps with marketing the brand while also providing it with authenticity.

For the younger crowd, social media obviously plays a vital role in building brand awareness, but it can even help with crowdfunding campaigns, too.

A direct opposite of the fashion sensibility of Dolls Kill—think more sweet and innocent than tart—is Yellowberry.

The brand offers colorful bras for its Berries, the affectionate nickname that Yellowberry gives its tween customers. The company was founded by Megan Grassel in 2014, when she was 17. She has raised more than $40,000 in funding through Kickstarter.

In her campaign for the crowdfunding platform, Grassel said she launched the startup after a “failed shopping trip with my younger sister, Mary Margaret, to buy her first bras.” She also noted that the choices for her and girls her age between 11 to 15 were “padded, push-up and sexual,” and did not fit her sister’s body properly.

When established brands look to the youth for expansion

Established adult brands and retailers looking to add private-label lines are also adding teen and tween lingerie to their offerings. One difference from start-ups is that they don’t need to raise funding awareness in the investment community.

Newer offerings include those from Jockey, an underwear brand that now offers age-appropriate racerback crop bras for girls in the “in-between” stage. Anyone shopping with mom at Target can find some options through the discounter’s Xhilaration brand, the one that’s more appropriate for juniors, or Colsie, also for young adults but more for the slightly older teen. And older teens can look to Victoria’s Secret’s successful Pink line for an array of lingerie options that include bras and panties, as well as loungewear silhouettes in tops and bottoms.

Even brands across the pond are bringing out their own mini-me versions of lingerie lines for tweens and teens.

One example is Boden, the high-street brand from the U.K. that started a mini-Boden line for girls up to age 16. It currently offer two crop tops for “those in-between years.” One product description said, “The elasticated fabric and adjustable straps make them easy to wear, while the lace trim makes them feel properly grown-up.” The company sells in the U.S. through an online site and a periodic catalog mailer.

And as branding evolves, there’s now an even closer connection to how brands foster customer affinity. What’s different now from even 10 or 20 years ago is the recognition that women have a voice that demands to be heard. And brands targeting teens and tweens—in an era where individuality and self-expression have come into focus—are making sure they find ways to remind young women to remember their inner beauty.

Tween specialty retailer Justice has its own branded line of lingerie. Panties, for example, range in style from the bikini to the shortie and even the hipster. Bikini options also feature phrases such as GRL Power, Strong is Beautiful, Make Every Day Awesome, Stay Magical, and Sparkle Like a Unicorn.

Perhaps the brand that has best resonated with consumers is American Eagle’s Aerie, which has been at the forefront—since 2014—of empowering its customers in the body-positivity movement. While American Eagle has made a bigger push on the inclusivity front, telling its customers to be who they are and express their personality, its Aerie that has made substantial gains in store traffic and conversion rate at its standalone stores. One strategic growth category for the brand is the range of its bralette offerings.

Another brand on the way up is the resurrected Gilly Hicks line from Abercrombie & Fitch’s Hollister, the younger sibling of the core Abercrombie & Fitch brand.

Gilly is still in the early stages of redevelopment. Hollister has focused on promoting inclusivity and raising awareness of antibullying. Last year, it partnered with Sit With Us, an app that helps students find lunch buddies at school. Those kinds of social media efforts have resonated well for the brand, and could create a halo effect for the growing Gilly Hicks line.

The tween lingerie brand is just at the start of its retail expansion strategy. It will first open small pop-ups that will allow it to test-and-learn what girls want in their customer experience before taking its refined store concept to formats that include side-by-side spaces and carveouts in several Hollister stores.