By  on January 27, 2014

It's time to shake things up.

For several years, the lack of newness in the innerwear arena has dampened sales and growth, so manufacturers are exploring strategies to woo and tempt consumers with innovative product that offers style, fit, function and comfort.

Most of the new concepts are expected to surface in late 2014. Companies are experimenting with fresh ideas that include technology and applications that cool or warm the body, fabric blends with Lycra Beauty fabric that add longevity and a luxurious quality to undergarments, exclusive knitting techniques and seamless items that smooth silhouettes without compression. There’s also a move toward ready-to-wear-inspired fabric and print combinations.

Another emerging trend: multitasking at-homewear and sleepwear that doubles as activewear, streetwear and casual sportswear. It’s being driven by the so-called nesting syndrome, created by factors such as lingering unemployment and the growing number of Millennials who are still living with their parents. It’s also a reflection of the desire for casual comfort as more people work from home.

Overall, the need for new ideas is imminent for brands to stay viable, say executives.

But for the most part, an in-depth look at the innerwear industry reveals a defensive approach rather than an offensive strategy to maintain market share and stimulate growth.

The intimates category — whether it’s bras, panties, daywear, shapewear, robes, loungewear or sleepwear — flourished for decades, even during the 2008 recession and a stagnant post-recessionary period, when commodities like basic underwear and socks kept fueling a prolific replenishment business.

By mid-2011, the replenishment cycle began to slow in a risk-averse retail environment that relied on markdown merchandise, promotions and a select number of best-selling items and classifications, such as tabletop panty programs, to generate business. The end result was sameness of product in recycled colors or prints. About that time, consumers had their fill of basic fare and the appetite for fashion began to surface. But as shoppers were finally ready to spend again on fashion merchandise, they couldn’t find it.

The absence of fresh ideas and product in the $11.05 billion innerwear market in 2013 took a toll on the industry’s dollar and unit sales, according to market research firm The NPD Group. But the outlook for 2014 is far more optimistic, with sleepwear and loungewear expected to lead the way.

From Dec. 1, 2012 through Nov. 1, 2013, overall intimate apparel sales at retail were basically flat. Sales of bras, panties and shapers increased a modest 0.5 percent to $10.6 billion, while units dipped 0.7 percent against the same year-ago period.

Sales of sleepwear and at-homewear, however, generated relatively robust dollar sales gains of 2.3 percent to $3.8 billion, and unit sales were bolstered by the same percentage increase to more than 263.8 million.

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The biggest loser was daywear — once a key classification with top-selling items like camisoles — which posted a 9.8 percent drop in dollar share and a 10.7 percent loss in units sold. Dollar sales of panties reflected a 1.1 percent gain, while bra sales — traditionally a key driver of the intimates business — inched up 0.8 percent. Shapewear, which continues to be anchored in basic control items in black, white and nude, remained flat.

So what are manufacturing executives doing to spur innovation?

Josie Natori, chief executive officer of Natori Co., said product development is a number-one priority.

“I’m always thinking about the performance aspects such as the Natori Power Yogi Bra of CoolMax and Lycra spandex, which generated double-digit increases ahead of last year. Most stores had good sleepwear business in 2013, and we certainly had a great Christmas,” said Natori. “We worked with a different variety of materials for robes by Natori — chinchilla, shearling and lynx effects with frosted tips — and the N Natori Nirvana brushed terry robe [of rayon and polyester] that is seasonless and has become a best-selling replenishment item.”

Natori said loungewear is “not jogwear anymore. I see it as going from dressy to casual and for different moods. The customer is certainly not sleeping in it.”

Fabric innovation is a hallmark of the upscale Hanro brand, said Jan Snodgrass, president of Hanro USA.

“We’ve introduced a lot of innovation in the last two years, especially a proprietary mercerization process we do in-house that gives us a lot more control of the fabric and product. In sleepwear, it gives a drape that wasn’t available before, and it gives daywear a softer hand,” explained Snodgrass. “We’re also working with a new, sheer Selvage fabric of polyamide and elastane that has a built-in fabric edge. You don’t need seams, you can tear it and it doesn’t fray.”

Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer for Calvin Klein Underwear, said the label consistently strives for innovation, in all aspects of the brand.

“A brief look at our product launches and advertising campaigns over the past few years reveals a few of the brand’s notable technical highlights,” he said. “With Seductive Comfort, we provide lift and support customized by size; Push Positive features new soft-wire technology that creates the sexiest maximum push with ultimate comfort, and Invisibles offers panties with raw-cut edge constructions that are comfortable and completely hidden under clothes.

“We also develop and use relevant materials and constructions that are constantly evolving, including bonding technology and foam cup innovation, as well as fabrics with superior design aesthetics and function,” said Mazzoli.

For the Cuddl Duds warmwear brand at Komar, high-tech fabrics are changing the perception of a traditional brand with multifunctional pieces.

The company updated its products in spring 2013 with its FlexFit program that combines wicking power for stay-dry comfort, 360-degree stretch fabric for movability and hollow polyester technology to trap warmth.

“Most fabrics that contain spandex have vertical stretch, horizontal stretch or both. Our FlexFit fabric is uniquely constructed to stretch in all directions. This adds tremendously to the wearer’s comfort as it moves with the body,” explained Mark Sandler, Komar’s layering president. “In the case of FlexFit, the fabric contains hollow poly yarns that allow for the transport of moisture, or wicking.”

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, described the movement toward stylish comfort this way: “There’s a lot of cohabitation going on, and people don’t want to walk around at home in their bathrobes all the time. This is not the consumer of 10 or 20 years ago. Thirty-six percent of Millennials who graduated from college are living at home with their parents. They want new prints, trend-right products, street-oriented products.…But the industry has been slow to offer newness.”

Cohen further noted that cultural influences as well as the innovative use of fabrics will continue to transform a once-dormant sleepwear and loungewear industry.

“It’s perfectly acceptable for the younger sector to walk around in pajama pants, boots and a hoodie jacket in the street.…We’re seeing Victoria’s Secret do this with Pink,” said Cohen.

Regarding fashion sleepwear, Flora Nikrooz, designer of her namesake label at Age Group, said reaction has been strong to fabric and texture mixes.

“Using different fabrics and textures has been extremely important for my sleepwear business,” said Nikrooz. “I’m mixing microfiber knits with polyester charmeuse and chiffon, or pairing prints with knits and a variety of trims and laces to create texture and dimension.…Before, it was just floral prints, nothing that created the illusion of texture.”

Pretty Polly, a U.K. hosiery specialist, will launch its first line of sleepwear that incorporates high-tech fabric blends for spring.

David Hinchliffe, Pretty Polly’s brand director, said the company decided to use ProModal, a blend of Modal and Tencel, for sleepwear because of its supersoft hand.

“It drapes well, is very soft, and the smooth fiber construction helps avoid skin irritations,” said Hinchliffe.

Executives in the foundations industry are also examining ways to add performance and fashion to freshen undergarments.

Bob Vitale, president of Wacoal America, cited a new-generation “spacer bra” as its top-selling item.

“Spacer [one-ply] fabrics are very lightweight and have a lot more depth and give the opaqueness and density of a bra pad. It has a lot of air, and if you squish it, it pops right back. This is probably the biggest-selling style in our entire bra business,” said Vitale.

He added that Wacoal is aggressively pursuing the performance sports bra business at department stores.

“The innovation for Wacoal is the development of the sports bra category at department stores, which were once filled with sports bra brands.…We are working with exclusive fabrics that keep the wearer cool in sizes up to an H cup,” said Vitale.

Erin Lynn, vice president of marketing for Warner’s and Olga at PVH Corp., said both bra brands are targeting a specific figure problem for spring: underarm bulge.

“We found a name for the problem — sleevage. We felt this was the right time to launch Warner’s No Side Effects and Olga On Your Side bras.…Most people think this is a fuller woman’s and older woman’s issue, but this is relevant for women across all ages and figure types,” said Lynn. “Our bras feature an extra coverage panel that provides containment in a unique area that we know through research bothers many women.”

Jockey International’s latest innovation combines technology, fabric and fashion in a best-selling item called Skimmies Slipshort.

Dustin Cohn, Jockey’s chief marketing officer, described the smooth, seam-free item of nylon and spandex as “similar to a long-leg boyshort.”

“What makes this unique is it’s a modern-day slip born from the need to prevent thigh chafing, and it provides light smoothing. Jockey sees this as the breakthrough innovation for the brand since it introduced men’s briefs in 1934,” said Cohn. “Because this product is selling so well, we’re introducing two additional styles in 2014: an antistatic style with panels around the buttocks and a moisture-wicking style that women can wear from gym to office.”

The Skimmies Slipshort will be featured in a major print and digital advertising campaign in April with Rachel Zoe. The message will read: “Smooth Like a Slip, Covers Like Shorts.”

Heather Thomson, founder and chief creative officer of the Yummie by Heather Thomson lifestyle brand, said an advanced fabric called Outlast will transform her shapewear business.

“I’ve been using Outlast for the past six months, and it’s been fantastic because it keeps consumers warm when they’re cool, and cool when they’re warm,” she said.

In the full-figure realm, Curvy Couture will introduce its Cool Smoothies shapers made of Cool Yarn nylon and spandex. The blend “creates a sense of coolness and comfort upon contact with skin,” explained Dora Lau, ceo, president and founder of Dora L International.

“We strive to leverage the latest fiber technologies and have developed a collection that enhances a woman’s curves with a beautiful, smooth shape that is cool and comfortable on the skin,’’ said Lau.

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