Body-friendly apparel is powering a surge of innovation in the intimates industry.

Gone are the days of bras that resembled harnesses and were about as comfortable, thick support hose that cut off circulation and girdles that forbade a deep, cleansing breath. But the intimates industry isn’t resting on its laurels just yet. Companies’ research and development teams are now focusing on products that rise to a whole new level of consumer friendliness.

Over the past decade, there have been two key breakthroughs in the apparel field: the widespread use of featherlight microfibers and the rise of the Italian Santoni circular-knitting machines, developed in the early Eighties specifically for production of engineered knitted hosiery, and a few years later to manufacture underwear without seams, permitting a greater range of motion and a smoother silhouette.

The seamless revolution quickly expanded into the sock business and in the early Nineties began surfacing in daywear and foundations. With a wider range of smaller and larger high tech Santoni knitting machines in 2001, the seamless phenomenon began spreading into the children’s- and activewear arenas and is starting to make its way into ready-to-wear and men’s wear.

In the past few years, however, the innerwear industry has entered a period of even more rapid technological change, fueled by the twin pressures of global expansion and overseas competition. The competition is so fierce among fiber and textile corporations and major manufacturers that the introduction of a revolutionary product — or even a hint that a new product is under development — can dramatically boost a company’s global profile, if not its stock price.

Executives would not discuss the payoff, but the pressure to be the first on the market with a revolutionary product is all the greater, considering the competition posed by a number of companies in China, Taiwan and South Korea, which are able to spin out raw product faster and cheaper than their American and European counterparts. On top of that, consumers have become more discerning and better educated about the physical benefits a given product or even fabric can afford.

The melding of technology and textiles began to accelerate dramatically in the late Nineties, when titans of the fibers industry such as BASF, Bayer Dorlastan, Unifi, Nylstar, Nilit and DuPont aggressively began linking science and technology.In February, DuPont expanded its brand portfolio in its $6.5 billion DuPont Textiles & Interiors unit (DTI) to include Lycra, Antron, Tactel, CoolMax, Supplex, Thermolite, Teflon, Kevlar, Cordura, Dacron and Micromattique. The DTI operation will be investing over $300 million this year to grow its collective businesses, which extend to new generations of microfibers such as Lycra Soft, Prisma, Tactel Metallic and Lycra Black — all fabrics engineered for added durability, better fit and fashion appeal.

Encompassing more than these generalized functions is a range of products, with a particularly body-friendly focus. The industry has taken to referring to these as "smart clothes": apparel made from fabric that’s been specially engineered to keep a wearer warmer, cooler, drier or even better moisturized.

"Consumers are looking for fabrics and garments that meet and exceed their demands," says Heather H. Craig, category manager of bodywear at the American arm of Nylstar Inc., the Milan-based textile manufacturer of Meryl, a polyamide microfiber used in innerwear, activewear and hosiery. "And with a wide array of [engineered] garments on the market, consumers are becoming more aware of the fibers and yarns in clothing, as well as the benefits they have to offer."

Indeed, smart clothes pose a whole new horizon of opportunities that many apparel companies have only just begun to explore. "The consumer need for seamless products and microfiber is limited right now because the challenge is to get the word out to consumers," says Tristine Berry, merchandise manager for apparel at the U.S. unit of German yarns giant BASF, which produces the ultralight microfiber Ultra Micro Touch and Micro Touch. "Noisemakers — the products that draw the consumers’ attention — are what validate the science. If we can integrate a moisturizer into a yarn, we can put something else on it, too, and make it even better. One great idea bounces off another, and that’s what makes great technology."

Quite a few innovations have hit the market already. There are panties scented with rose, lavender or lilac (by French maker Neyret) and with lemon or lime (from Occhi Verdi, the young contemporary line produced by Italian luxury specialist La Perla). The Bali Shoulder Bra protects skin from telltale red streaks thanks to straps filled with a new cushioning gel, while the Donna Karan Body Collection’s panties made from Tactel-blend microfiber have moisture-wicking properties.Some products are better engineered to provide shaping without squeezing a woman’s body into submission. There’s the Body Zen bra by Playtex, a bra that’s a product of hot-glue fusion, among the newer innovations in seamless technology aimed at producing a more comfortable bra with fewer friction-producing components. Wacoal Touch, a group slated for a spring 2003 introduction and consisting of bras, panties and cami, is made from a lightweight Meryl microfiber that also provides a kinder, gentler shaping power.

And Chuck Nesbit, president and chief exeutive officer of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, notes that the company’s Champion Jogbra division has introduced products incorporating moisture- and odor-control properties. Sara Lee is also moving forward with its own molded-cup bras and glue fusion technology. Finally, state-of-the-art pattern design and grading technology and product specification management systems are being fine-tuned to "significantly enhance the product development process," Nesbit says.

Similar body-friendly developments have turned up in hosiery, as in the aloe-infused legwear line Cosmetiq Hydrate Moisturizing by Sara Lee’s French-made brand DIM, currently available primarily in Europe, that moisturizes the wearer’s lower half. There’s also Oroblu’s Ex Cell Cellulite Control sheer pantyhose, designed with the rather specific intent of hiding cellulite-induced dimpling, and Shock Up Light Body Sculpture control pantyhose with engineered spot control that the company claims will flatten a tummy, tame bulging thighs and lift a derriere.

One industry giant that’s in hot pursuit of smart-clothes technology is Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont, which over the past year has upped budgets for both R&D and marketing to support such advances. Meg Burich, DuPont’s newly appointed global marketing director of intimate apparel, said DuPont will unveil a new marketing campaign at the Aug. 31-Sept. 2 edition of the Lyon, Mode City trade show in Lyon, France.

The Lyon presentation will introduce four new microfiber generations with corresponding collections, developed in accordance with information gleaned from market research the company conducted over the past year.

Two collections hinge more on aesthetics: Living Lights, featuring a two-tone, iridescent Tactel-blend fabric called Illuminae, which can be used for hosiery and innerwear, and Cotton Pleasures, made from Easy Set Lycra, which can be blended with cotton to make it softer and whiter.A new Soft Shaping Lycra will set the foundation for the Dynamic Curves theme, which serves as "a derriere lifter, but with the comfort [women] need," says Burich. The final grouping, called Fresh Balance, uses CoolMax, a microfiber that controls moisture.

In January 2002, DuPont began an ambitious multimillion-dollar marketing plan to support a new legwear venture with an annual R&D budget in excess of $2 million. As is the case with DuPont’s new innerwear grouping, the four hosiery concepts unveiled at January’s Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris included two cosmetically oriented groupings: a Tactel-based sheer yarn called Better Than Bare and Natural Selections, a deceptively natural looking man-made knit. But the remaining two concepts were unmistakably body-friendly: Dangerous Curves, a new generation of shaping hose that sculpts the body without constricting, and Positive Energy, sheer hosiery aimed at active women and made from Lycra LegCare, a microfiber that reacts with the wearer’s movements to produce a massaging effect.

The textile industry has still more body-friendly fabrics in store for vendors.

"The interest has been growing tremendously. Many makers of [intimates] brands are asking for performance product — what’s going to be the best in moisture management or antimicrobial," says Nylstar’s Craig. "Consumers are beginning to shop for intimate apparel items that give them similar performance benefits they already have in activewear."

This summer, Nylstar’s introductions include Meryl Actisystem, a breathable microfiber primarily meant for activewear that wicks moisture away and helps block harmful ultraviolet rays. Unifi, a yarn manufacturer based in Greensboro, N.C., will launch an antimicrobial yarn this month with applications in innerwear and hosiery.

Though they have yet to be seen on the market, products based on "textronics," — a term used by DuPont executives to describe the melding of textiles and electronics — represent the most exciting innovation in smart clothes technology. For example, there’s an application that can stimulate muscles to work harder and longer, or conversely, reduce a muscle’s stress load. Another fabric in the works will let consumers adjust the cooling or heating properties of underwear, legwear or other apparel. According to James A. Trainham, vice president of DuPont’s global technology, DuPont has already developed fabrics not yet on the market that can change color midwear (in addition to the obvious fashion applications, this could possibly be used by the U.S. Armed Forces for a chameleon-like camouflage print.)Scientists at DuPont are also developing concepts for sports bras that can measure heart rate, according to Iris LeBron, fashion director of intimate apparel, hosiery and activewear at DuPont.

For those who prefer their innerwear to smack of the spa and not the gym, take heart:Nilit Ltd, an Israeli nylon manufacturer, is exploring methods of integrating minerals from the Dead Sea into the yarn spinning process. Says Billy Lawson, vice president of sales for the Nilit America unit: "We are looking at the cosmetic benefits, the health benefits and how they can [emulate] a spa experience."

But no matter how advanced the innovation, there’s always a question of how much the consumer is willing to pay, said Jim Nolen, senior vice president of the Jockey brand at Jockey International, based in Kenosha, Wis., which is planning to release its own molded-cup bra in November.

"Sometimes technology requires a lot of funding. The challenge is to take the technology and make sure it stays within the financial parameters of what a consumer will spend," said Nolen.

Indeed, companies can’t afford not to throw substantial financial weight behind R&D. Says Molly Kremidas, merchandise manager of Nilit America: "People are constantly looking for something new, and this [smart clothes] is the new thing. There will always be a demand for advanced generations of innovation and technology that are newer and better."

Whatever the price tag, there’s no doubt R&D has galvanized the intimate apparel and hosiery industries and opened up new avenues for expansion. Watermelon-scented panties, anyone?

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