Sheer Hosiery’s Woes More Than a Snag

U.S. sheer sales decreased 16.3 percent last year, from $1.2 billion to $993 million, according to NPD Group.

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The sheer hosiery market has developed some holes.

This story first appeared in the March 1, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A shift in generational tastes and cultural changes have fed a decline that began in the mid-Nineties. U.S. sheer sales decreased 16.3 percent last year, from $1.2 billion to $993 million, according to market research firm NPD Group.

When Hanesbrands Inc., the largest U.S. marketer of sheer hosiery, posted a fourth-quarter loss and reduced full-year profits in January, year-end sales in the sheer sector slid 14.6 percent to $185.7 million from $217.4 million the previous year.

Legwear executives said the decline began around 1995, when trends in apparel and footwear and more leniency in workplace dress codes encouraged women to abandon sheer hosiery or “nylons” and embrace a bare-legged look or one featuring opaque tights and pants. The result: Female consumers have relied less and less on hosiery as a necessity.

“There are very few consumers wearing hosiery as a staple, perhaps the older generation, but our culture has changed,” said Barry Tartarkin, sales director at Anew legwear. “It’s like the suit for men. Legwear is truly an accessory now, not a necessity. It’s like putting on jewelry or shoes. Women wake up and think, ‘How can I accessorize my look with legwear today?’”

Hanesbrands is relying on other categories to generate growth.

“Every year there’s been a decline for well over 10 years in the [sheer] category,” said Angela Hawkins, director and general merchandise manager for hosiery at Hanesbrands. “However, we’ve seen increases in tights, shapewear and in knee-highs, and those are helping to [offset] the decline.”

Hawkins pointed to initiatives the firm is launching this year to help curb the decreases, noting that 2009’s hosiery losses at Hanebrands were less than in 2008.

The company is embarking on a major marketing campaign that includes outreach to fashion books, as well as a potential TV spot touting its mass hosiery brand, L’eggs. Hawkins said the goal is to educate consumers about hosiery in conjunction with key retail partnerships to maintain “productive retail space.”

Although Hawkins said the sheer hosiery decline would eventually bottom out, Andrew Jassin, managing director at market research firm, Jassin Consulting Group, predicted the slide won’t soon subside.

“The casual workplace and fashion offering more opaques and patterned looks has really made the sheer business somewhat of a dinosaur in today’s market,” he said. “It may not be forever, but for this moment in time it certainly has been compromised. And I don’t see anything happening to turn that around. Where it bottoms out is almost anyone’s guess.”

Executives at legwear firms across the country are decreasing their hosiery offerings and bulking up on production of opaque tights and trend items, such as layering pieces and patterns.

John Flynn, vice president of sales at New York-based legwear manufacturer Levante USA, said the line’s sheer business has dropped 5 to 6 percent a year for the last 10 years and now constitutes 15 percent of the brand’s total business.

“We used to say we were in the hosiery business, not anymore,” Flynn said. “Now we’re in the legwear business. In the Fifties, even into the Seventies and Eighties, women would not leave the house without nylons. In 80-degree weather, they didn’t leave without hose on. Now women are bare legged or they’re in pants or tights.”

Hanesbrands sees a positive in sheer hosiery’s future as baby boomers age and require more coverage for a smooth leg effect. The brand is also relying on holidays and celebratory occasions to help boost sales in the sector.

“We don’t think the category is going away,” Hawkins said. “From a seasonality standpoint, from September through May, with peak seasons being back-to-school, Christmas and Easter, women will continue to wear sheer hosiery for special occasions. Through consumer engagement and investment, and through speaking to consumers, we can reignite our sales.”

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