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The functionality of high-tech fabrics teamed with fashion colors and updated styling are driving the sports bra and active separates business for women this spring.

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Anti-wicking applications for moisture management as well as fabrics such as Invista’s CoolMax with Lycra spandex, blends of Tactel and Lycra, and new generations of microfibers and seamless treatments are technologies consumers are embracing. Executives said it’s just a matter of time before high-tech temperature-regulating applications that keep the wearer cool and comfortable will cross over from the men’s field. So far, Jockey International — which is staying mum about plans for its women’s division — is paving the way in advancements in temperature-regulating underwear with its Staycool men’s collection with technology by Outlast Technologies.

While technological breakthroughs continue to be in demand, fashion is playing an ever-stronger role in activewear, executives said.

Joanne Sessler, design director for Champion at Hanesbrands Inc., said that based on “phenomenal” sell-throughs of fashion colors and prints in Champion’s performance line, the number of fashion offerings will be increased by 125 percent for fall 2012.

“The consumer is very sophisticated…what has happened is we design sports bras to also be outerwear bras…there’s an expectation where an application like wicking is just a part of the consumer’s expectations. She expects there to be fashion as well, Now, the expectation is ‘You are going to give me performance but are you also going to give me style and fashion?’” said Sessler.

Don Burke, Champion’s director of marketing, said it’s become all about an active fashion lifestyle.

“An active lifestyle is so important now and active apparel is not just worn at the gym but to the gym,” said Burke.

The activewear business appears to be strong. Retail sales of women’s activewear including sports bras grew 2.6 percent to $30.54 billion from March 2010 to April 2011, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group. NPD categorizes active as tops, bottoms, fleecewear, outerwear and jackets, swimwear, and “all other,” which includes sports bras.

From a retailer’s perspective, Michael McGuinn, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of footwear, active apparel and outdoor apparel at The Sports Authority, said color is a key driver.

“As a performance apparel retailer, our key customer is looking for both function and fashion in her performance apparel. This season she is reacting to the abundance of color on the floor as a way to update her current performance wardrobe,” said McGuinn.

Bestsellers at Sports Authority include Under Armour’s Charged Cotton T-Shirt for $24.99 in bright, vivid shades and a team girl short for $34.99 that has a pop of color; Nike’s Pro Bra in all colors for $28 and a Tempo track short for $28 in bright spring colors; a Tennis Galaxy Skort by Adidas for $30, and three items from Champion — a Shape Full Support Underwire Bra for $44.99, a Shape T-back Sport Bra for $35.99, and a Lycra Bike Short for $21.99.

Dan Sakrowitz, vice president of marketing at, said the full-busted classification of sports bras is a fast-growing segment of the total sports bra business.

“One big story this spring is in full-busted sports bras, but they are by brands that manufacturers and consumers would not commonly associate with sports and activewear. They are key names like Natori, Le Mystere and Eveden, which are now creating great sports bras for the fuller busted woman, and in turn, fuller busted women are realizing that great athletic bras are now available to them,” said Sakrowitz.

Regarding top-selling fabrications, colors and prints, Maureen Stabnau, senior vice president of merchandising at, said, “Styles with moisture-wicking fabrications, such as CoolMax, are very successful. Women are gravitating towards colors that can be shown, such as black and gray and even brighter colors such as blue or red, as opposed to traditional bra colors like white and nude.…Customers are primarily looking to get maximum support in their size, but then women also want their bra to look more like a sporty top than a traditional bra. We have been successful at all price points, but the range of our best-selling sport bras has been in the $50 to $70 range.”

Michele Martins-Crawbuck, vice president and general brand manager of intimate apparel at, said assortments of sports bras will be expanded for fall 2011 due to growing demand for comfort and fit.

“Top-selling fabrications are moisture wicking in lightweight microfiber, breathable mesh, and blends of cotton and spandex.…The most important features for our customers are comfort and fit. Depending on the type of activity, there are different support levels — low, medium and high impact. If the customer has a good-fitting sports bra, she will feel confident and enjoy the activity.”

Martins-Crawback added that the most popular fit and comfort features include seamless molded cups that lift and separate and do not create a “bounce,” and comfort adjustable straps for added support. The average retail of several best-selling sports bras is between $19.99 and $39.99.

Meanwhile, Joy Haizen, vice president of the licensed Danskin division at SaraMax Apparel, said, “The Danskin Sports Bra and active intimates styles are getting great reception because of the compelling combination of feminine styling mixed with functionality and comfortable support. Our signature color combinations of classic core colors mixed with saturated pastels allow for a clean, fresh and modern feel.”

Among the top Danskin styles are a zip-front, racer-back number of Tactel nylon and spandex that has a solid moisture wicking mesh of nylon and spandex, and a padded fabric back for anti-chafing. It retails $44. There’s also a surplice sports bra of Tactel nylon that is fully reversible and has a back closure, for $32. Colors include combos of gray and black and gray and blue.

At upscale bra maker Wacoal America, Liz Smith, director of retail service, said a combination of technology and personalized service sets its sports bra business apart from the competition.

“Our Wacoal sports bra [style number] 855170 is known for being a great-fitting bra that really works. It is supportive for all women, works out well from low impact such as yoga to high-impact activities like running,” she said. “This style offers great shaping, plus encapsulation and containment, no flattening here. Plus it is supercomfortable during a workout. We launched this style in spring 2009 and it consistently ranks in our top 10 list.”

Wacoal’s sports bra, which is made of Naturexx, an advanced moisture management fabric, is available in cup sizes C to G, a 32- to 40-inch band, and retails for $62.

Addressing how service fits into the picture, Smith said, “Having a team of Wacoal fit consultants working in the field to fit women in this bra certainly helps. Many women purchase their sports bras from a sporting-goods store, where there is little or no service to help them determine the proper fit or best style for them. The styles offered are mostly compression driven silhouettes. We have the benefit of expert fitters who are determining a woman’s correct size and silhouette of bra.”


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