Bra Illustration by Chris Slabber for WWD

Women are making the move from va-va-va voom to a more natural look, taking off their push-up bras and switching to the bralette.

This story first appeared in the July 13, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The shift is part of a Millennial-driven move toward a more discreet version of sexy that is opening new opportunities as well as vexing established innerwear brands.

There’s plenty of opportunity to be had. Research firm Just-Style projected the global lingerie market will hit $30.65 billion in retail value by 2020, reflecting growth of 3.8 percent from 2015. Within that, the bra market is projected to hit $16.96 billion, with unit growth adding up to 27 million extra bras, 15 million of which are expected to be sold in Asia.

Bra styles have changed repeatedly — from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy to Anna Nicole — but industry experts say the current move to the bralette has come with particular speed and plays into a trend of lingerie that’s meant to be seen in public.

Bralettes, little wisps of fabric that are characterized by their lacy looks, are meant to be seen under cutout dresses and tops and are not intended as functional support.

“Underwear trends are constantly changing, but its been a long time since we’ve seen a shift this dramatic,” said Kristen Anderson, the brassiere designer at online lingerie retailer Adore Me. “Push-up and contour bras with round, smooth cups have been dominating the bra market for nearly the past 25 years and it’s just recently, maybe in the past two or three years, that we’ve started to move to a softer, more natural look.”

She suggested that the transition from body-conscious looks to oversized, drapey tops, has sped the move away from bras that push up the bosom.

“The bralette is definitely a contributor to this look because it’s so fresh and easy,” she said. “You don’t have to struggle to figure out your size, and the fit is easier, too.”

Cheryl Abel-Hodges, president of underwear at PVH Corp., agreed.

“The biggest shift is the bralette and the Millennial is driving it,” Abel-Hodges said, noting that many young Millennial women have no idea what their bra size is because they only buy untailored bras. “Everyone is in this category. Nordstrom even set up a bralette display at the front of its intimates department. We’re seeing the impact right away.”

Abel-Hodges stressed that the bralettes are just a small part of the business  and that push-up bras are still an important category for the company in Asia. She conceded that PVH has never really been in the “super-lift” category. Further supporting the move to the natural look, bras from the company’s Calvin Klein brand are unpadded and rank as the number-five style in the area for department stores, according to PVH’s most recent quarterly report.

The push-up has held sway for some time.

In the Fifties, bras were characterized by their cone shapes and called bullet bras. Marilyn Monroe wore fitted tops and earned the nickname “sweater girl.” The Sixties brought feminist activism and bra burnings, which led to a less structured, seamless style. Models with small bustlines like Twiggy ruled the day. The Eighties ushered in wealthy satin looks and bustiers. Anna Nicole and her ample bosom became the most desired look.

Victoria’s Secret had ideal timing for this shift. It came on the scene in 1977 — largely appealing to men buying lingerie — and was seen as more burlesque than main street. Retail legend and L Brands chief executive officer Leslie H. Wexner changed that in 1983, when he focused instead on the female customer; In 2000, former VS ceo Sharen Turney came on board and tamped down the bordello looks, although the brand retained the high-gloss, supersexy look with its “Angels.”

For decades, the Victoria’s Secret customer has been sold a hypersexy, busty image and it’s an open question as to how readily customers will turn to the brand for bralettes. The company declined to comment.

Victoria’s Secret core lingerie bras declined in May, although the company did not go into detail as to which bra styles declined, and a review of the best-selling bras on the brand’s web site shows that push-up bras are still a big favorite.

Last month, Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Lorraine Hutchinson downgraded L Brands’ stock to “underperform,” noting that challenges at Victoria’s Secret — including the shift by customers to the less-expensive bralette — as well as the decision to exit swim and direct apparel would hurt the company.

Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst, said today’s bra customer wants comfort.

“The push-up wasn’t about comfort, it’s about function,” he said. “Comfort is beating out function.” He said bra innovation is coming from sports, and that innovation is driving growth in the bralette category as well. “Bra makers have to get in and elevate their game.”

Adrienne Tennant, analyst at Wolfe Research said that one of L Brand’s biggest risks could be its inability to capitalize on new fashion trends. “Forecasting future trends can be difficult and competition is fierce,” she said.

The brand is in the bralette business as well, prominently touting the look on its web site. Victoria’s Secret is also actively promoting the T-shirt bra.

But it can be hard to cool down a hot-and-heavy relationship with the consumer.

Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. has been struggling as it seeks to dial down the sexy after years of near-constant and hypersexualized advertising. Last year, the company officially said its racier marketing approach would no longer be used. Its stock is down 51 percent for the past 2 years and off 70 percent for the past five years, closing at $19.13 on July 11.

The bralette could have staying power, with brands expanding the look for various body types in certain circumstances.

Soma, which is owned by Chico’s FAS Inc. and is known for including large sizes, is getting into the bralette game and will introduce lacy versions this fall. “Bralettes do not provide the shaping and support that most woman want and need every day, but they’re an easy, relaxed option for casualwear that’s often meant to be seen,” said Laurie Van Brunt, brand president at Soma Intimates.

In another nod to a more understated look, the brand just introduced the Enticing Lift bra that was created without padding because the customers didn’t want to add volume. It even sells itself as having “None of the Push, All of the Up.”

The body-positive movement is leading women to be happy with what they’ve got. Breast enhancements surgeries have declined from 2014 to 2015 and breast implant removals are up for the same time period according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. There doesn’t seem to be the same desire to add size and volume.

And that bodes well for more sedate bras for the future.