MEDELLIN — Colombia’s innerwear market is booming as strong economic growth encourages women to purchase higher-priced lingerie. At the same time, top brands such as Leonisa and Punto Blanco are expanding across Latin America, challenging foreign rivals.
In 2014, the sector is expected to grow 10 percent to $12.7 billion, matching similar gains in recent years, fueled by buoyant sales in the aspirational market segment.
“Lingerie doesn’t encounter a lot of price resistance,” said Fabian Garcia, an analyst at apparel market research firm Raddar in Bogota. “It gets a higher pocket share from women.”
Jose Vicente Calad, vice president of Punto Blanco-owner Grupo Crystal, said things are about to get better.
“The next few years are going to be very dynamic in Latin America but especially in Colombia,” he said. “A robust middle class and growing incomes are generating very strong demand.
“Latam is also witnessing a very good moment for growth and stability,” Calad added. “Consumer tastes have changed to favor apparel that’s both fashionable and well-made.”
Latinas are enthusiastic lingerie shoppers.
“Latin women are very sensual by nature,” Calad said. “They like to look and feel good and seek bold and highly detailed silhouettes.”
Underpinned by the burgeoning market, Punto Blanco is growing at double-digit rates and is engaged in an ambitious South and Central American expansion, Calad said.
With sales forecast to reach $450 million this year, Grupo Crystal is present in 10 countries. Apart from its own brand portfolio, which also includes GEF and Galax, it makes underwear for Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Bloomingdale’s and Urban Outfitters, among others.
Carlos Eduardo Botero, president of top trade lobby Inexmoda, also forecasts a bright outlook. He said international lingerie sales have soared in recent years, making Colombian trademarks the region’s top exporters.
“Colombian brands are moving abroad, opening new distribution channels and stores,” he said, adding that export volumes sometimes exceed those of Brazilian rivals. “Brazilian brands are very focused on the internal market,” Botero added.
Apart from Leonisa, he cited Touché, Chamela and Bésame as other strong brands.
Calad said Colombian brands’ forays — coupled with strong innovation — have earned them a “privileged spot” in the region.
Camilo Herrera, co-owner of Raddar, said Colombian labels stand out from big American, French or Brazilian rivals in three key ways: Their lingerie is often sensual yet minimal without too much lace; colors are brighter (with neon a favorite), and styles are designed to be provocative. In basic underwear and control apparel, plainer earth and pastel colors are heavily used.
Another differentiator, garments are made to fit typically curvier and bustier women in a region where breast enhancements are fairly common.
“Let’s just say they are made for a Sofia Vergara or Kim Kardashian,” Herrera said. “In that sense, we are similar to the Brazilians. However, we have a bolder and more innovative color palette.”
Colombian firms also earmark roughly 10 percent of sales to research and development, topping the regional average, observers said.
At Leonisa, marketing director Juan Manuel Perez said the firm is working to improve design and innovation to stand out in an increasingly competitive field.
Medellin-based Leonisa sells lingerie and control underwear through 150 stores, catalogue and wholesale channels. It recently launched a series of bras with memory-foam cups as well as strapless and balconette push-up bras priced at $40 to $45, he said.
Using an in-house design team, Leonisa develops 10 to 12 collections a year. In the U.S., it markets control and shapewear products through an Atlanta flagship and its Web site.
According to Perez, Leonisa’s sales have doubled to $400 million in the past five years, helped by expansion in Peru, Chile and Colombia. The firm hopes to grow at a similar rhythm in coming years. In 2014, it will roll out 15 stores, deepen its U.S. foothold and expand e-commerce.
Not to stay behind, Punto Blanco is moving to introduce new functional lines and grow in the “light control” segment. It is also working to more closely tailor products for sale outside Colombia. For example, it ships larger volumes of “more daring” and colorful items and accessories to Mexico.
Start-up Purpuratta also wants to grow abroad.
The firm, together with rival French Vanilla, is part of a growing number of rapidly expanding, design-driven brands.
“We want to give women two wearable moments with the same item,” said Purpuratta’s co-owner Sarita Trujillo, adding that her garments are more fashion-forward. “Our products are comfortable enough to wear all day but have that design, sensual and romantic element that also makes them appropriate for that special occasion with a partner.”
Launched five years ago by former law school students, Trujillo and partner Katherine Siegert, Purpuratta’s sales have grown 52 percent a year. The brand now sells in Spain, Latin America and the U.S., where it hopes to focus much of its future growth.
Trujillo said Medellin’s government helped the partners develop the business by offering training and workshops, as sponsored by Inexmoda. The city’s start-up incubator, Creame, also encouraged the two women to launch Purpuratta.
Her comments, which echo other entrepreneurs, come as Medellin is working to position itself as Colombia and Latin America’s fashion-business hub.
“They are doing a good job,” Trujillo said. However, she noted “paisas” (as citizens of the Medellin and Antioquia region are called), are highly enterprising to begin with.
“It’s in our DNA,” she added. “The paisa culture is very entrepreneurial, very hard working.”
That spirit has fueled the growth of Medellin’s flagship textiles and apparel industry. It now employs 200,000 people, accounting for one fourth of Antioquia’s economy and a rising percentage of Colombia’s GDP. Currently, textiles and apparel comprise 15 percent of the economy.
Medellin, which has won international innovation awards, is home to textile majors Fabricato and Coltejer as well a the Colombiatex and Colombiamoda sourcing and fashion fairs, the latter of which has doubled in size in five years. In October, it will host the 30th IAF World Fashion Council.
Inexmoda recently launched a fashion incubator to help support emerging designers and promote them through several platforms including a string of runway shows in Colombiamoda, where promoting new talent was a key mission this year.
Medellin’s City Hall, or “alcaldia,” also teams with private firms to develop young designers and innovative companies.
“They increase the budget for these things every year,” Calad said, adding that Grupo Crystal has participated in the city’s entrepreneur development schemes.