By  on April 6, 2006

NEW YORK — Nike is moving to fill a hole in its women's apparel business with the launch of a new generation of high-tech support bras and performance innerwear.

The Beaverton, Ore.-based athletic giant is becoming more active in a sector long dominated by such brands as Hanes, Champion, Jockey and Fruit of the Loom, and one where Under Armour most recently has generated most of the buzz.

“We are looking to dominate this category,” Mindy Grossman, Nike's global vice president of apparel, said in an interview. “We are planning this to be a substantial business globally and we see this as a great opportunity for Nike.”

Grossman said the company has spent years developing the collection, which comprises nine pieces: six sports bras and three panty styles.

The crown of the collection is the Revolutionary Support Bra style that is designed to encapsulate each breast and has customization features such as adjustable straps and back closures. The bra is seamless to reduce chaffing and is made of Dri-Fit, Nike's proprietary fabric that has moisture-management features.

“It has support elements that minimize breast motion, but not through compression,” Grossman said.

She said all of the bras in the collection have molded cups and are created to simulate the body's natural aesthetic. The six styles are designed for different levels of physical activity, with some created for all-day wear and casual activities and others for moderate or high-impact sports. Some go up to size 40E to accommodate women of larger sizes.

The initial offerings are available in three colors: nude, white and black, and the bras retail for $35 to $70.

The Revolutionary Support Bra began reaching Niketown and other stores this month, while the rest of the collection will roll out globally in July.

Nike has had sports bras for some time, but this collection represents a new approach that came about after extensive research, factoring in women of different ages and sizes. The company did wear-testing on Olympic athletes and others to develop the products, Grossman said.

“We realized that we needed to create not just a bra, but a complete system of support that functions for our athletes, as well as for a broader scope of women,” she said. “We have served women athletes for years, and we sought to redefine this category as a critical piece of equipment for her.”Grossman declined to reveal sales projections for innerwear, but said the category is planned to be a multimillion-dollar endeavor. Nike had sales of $10.9 billion in the nine-month period ended Feb. 28.

Women's sports bras are a steady and strong business, since they are worn by almost all women competing in athletic activities. Last year, the category had sales of $321.1 million, an 11.1 percent increase over 2004, according to the NPD Group research firm. Nike is the fifth-largest seller of sports bras by unit.

Under Armour has heated up the market for performance innerwear in the last few years with its tight-fitting compression tops designed to wick away moisture. While Under Armour's products initially targeted men, the company now has a growing women's business that includes innerwear support items and sportswear.

Grossman said Nike's interest in the category is unrelated to Under Armour's success in the area.

“We have been looking at this category for some time,” she said. “This is not a random project. This is not a response to anything except to what consumers have said they wanted.”

She said the bras and support products will be accompanied by special signage, new fixtures at all points of sale, fit guides and fit specialists on-site to help explain the system to consumers. Distribution initially is planned for Nike retail outlets, as well as sporting goods stores and Nordstrom, which has a sizable women's activewear department.

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