MICROFIBER FOR THE MILLENNIUM
Byline: Karyn Monget
NEW YORK — Increasing demand for innerwear that is comfortable and has stretch is expected to make microfibers a boom category by 2000.
That’s the feeling of top executives at leading innerwear companies, fiber firms and major department stores and national chains, who said the feel-good properties of microfibers could revolutionize the innerwear industry.
Retailers — from upscale stores to mass channels — are beginning to build an arsenal of intimate apparel with microfibers, branded and private label. Foundations, particularly seamless shapers and bras, are the target areas for growth, they said.
Unlike traditional fiber blends, microfibers typically are made of high-filament multifiber nylon or polyester blends with Lycra spandex. The result is a lightweight fabric with a silky, soft hand.
Micro lingerie has been the rage in Europe and Japan for about five years, but it has had a slow start in the U.S. While executives acknowledged the potential for growth in the U.S. market is tremendous, many companies are just beginning to introduce microfiber products. A few firms have expanded assortments for fall based on strong reaction to tests this spring.
A primary reason for the slow acceptance of micro lingerie in the American market has been the price, which generally is 10 to 15 percent higher than the cost of standard nylon blends, said vendors and retailers. Among the most widely used microfiber blends tested at stores this spring were Tactel nylon and Lycra and Micromattique polyester and Lycra by DuPont, and Silky Touch and Micro Touch by BASF, merchants said.
Tactel was officially introduced to the U.S. market in 1997. BASF also puts out Ultra Touch, a multifilament nylon blend with spandex — which is referred to in-house as a “micro-wannabe.” Ultra Touch became a hit in March 1997, when a line of bras and panties and shapers by Skin to Skin by Vanity Fair was introduced.
Besides the demand for comfort, two factors have contributed to the popularity of microfibers: a focus on upscale merchandise, better brands and designer labels — many of which showcase microfiber foundations — and the growing importance of seamless undergarments that create a sleek silhouette beneath clothes.
Seamless products in the U.S. generally were not part of the mainstream mix until 1997, when The Warnaco Group got into the classification in a big way with its Olga Secret Shapers. The seamless shapers are of Tactel and Lycra.
“We did our Microfabulous by Vencelle launch in April,” said Dianne Paccione, general merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Sears, Roebuck & Co. “Consumer reaction has been absolutely phenomenal. We are experiencing high single-to-double-digit sell-throughs each week. It’s an Italian microfiber, and we’ve had rave reviews from consumers and sales associates.”
Vencelle is a private label intimate apparel brand at Sears.
Paccione said intimate apparel coordinates such as bras and panties and related control items were rolled out to 500 doors. She said hangtags identifying the items as Vencelle Microfabulous have “invited customers to touch the product.”
“It actually draws customers into the intimate apparel department,” she added. “The customer is becoming very savvy in understanding the comfort and affordability that microfibers can now offer.”
Sears’ first ad for Vencelle Microfabulous is in the July issue of Glamour magazine. It features a lace-trimmed bra for a suggested retail of $12.99 and a coordinating panty for $6.99.
Jan Nolan, product development manager for private label lingerie for the retail and catalog divisions of J.C. Penney Co., noted, “Microfibers are definitely a direction for us to take as a retailer, and consumers are understanding it. The customer is reacting positively to the whole comfort and soft-hand issue of microfibers.”
Nolan said Penney’s tested Skin to Skin in early 1998, and has since conducted “initial tests” with intimate apparel in microfiber blends by DuPont and BASF. Penney’s plans to expand micro assortments later this year, she said.
Commenting on why the U.S. market was late to embrace the micro trend, Nolan said, “It’s been a pricing issue. As a retailer, we are very sensitive to what price the consumer is willing to pay. But the consumer wants newness, and she’s ready to pay for it.”
Federated Department Stores introduced a line of micro foundations in April under its INC Intimates label at Macy’s, Burdines, Goldsmith’s, Lazarus, Rich’s and Bon Marche. Federated officials described the bras, panties and shapers of European micro blends and Tactel as “feel-good satins, laces, ribs and meshes.”
“We feel it’s an integral part of our [intimate apparel] business. We are pushing it, because we believe it makes us more distinctive from other classes of trade,” said a Federated spokeswoman.
“All of the major [U.S.] manufacturers and retailers are now introducing intimate apparel with microfiber,” said Ida Coraggio, market manager for nylon/intimate apparel and swimwear at DuPont. “I think they’ve finally realized the value of telling consumers it’s a value product; a product that’s soft and silky and can also have a name attached to it. Micro has become a buzzword.”
Coraggio said price has been an obstacle, but added, “I really think it was a general reluctance on the part of the industry to change. It’s an evolution. Once they saw it worked, they started to change.
“Microfibers have been extremely successful in Europe, and at Marks & Spencer in London, in particular. They have a tremendous amount of microfiber products, and they identify it with signage, color tags, hangtags and hanger tags.”
Iris LeBron, fashion director of intimate apparel at DuPont, observed, “Women no longer have to wear an undergarment they find annoying and uncomfortable. The whole concept of comfort and seamless is what’s driving the interest in microfibers right now. “
“The expectation is it’s going to feel wonderful on the body,” said Tristine Berry, merchandise manager of intimate apparel and swimwear for BASF Corp.’s fiber products division. “Microfibers tell a woman it’s a product that feels so good, something she hasn’t had before. Once a woman touches it, she’s gotta have it.”
Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America, the U.S. unit of Wacoal Japan, agreed. “Microfibers, especially our Body Suede collection, has not been the hardest sell in the world. At this point, I don’t think anyone in the U.S. market is underestimating the power of microfibers. And the demand surely has not leveled off.”
Murray noted microfiber blends will be a key component of the newly licensed DKNY collection of intimate apparel, which will be unveiled in August. Seamless shapers and bras and coordinating panties with microfiber will be expanded in the Wacoal and licensed Donna Karan Intimates in August, he said.
“The demand for microfibers is continuing to grow for us,” said Tobie Garfinkle, vice president of merchandising and design for the Lily of France division of Bestform Group, a unit of VF Corp. “I believe the customer has become more knowledgeable about what microfibers are, because it’s now featured prominently in everything from raincoats and shirts to hosiery.”
Garfinkle said a microfiber from Japan that was sourced by Josie Natori six years ago has helped make the licensed Natori foundations an ongoing success. Josie Natori is co-chair of Natori Co., a designer sleepwear concern here.
Berna Goldstein, a vice president of merchandising for Bali, Wonderbra, Hanes Her Way and Just My Size brands at Bali Co., part of Sara Lee Intimates, said a “test” this spring of microfiber panties and tops called Softsensations by Hanes Her Way has been well received. Distribution was aimed at Target and Kmart. Suggested retail is $3.99 for the panties and $5.99 for a crop top.
“The whole success of our Barely There by Bali [seamless panties] program was why we introduced Softsensations,” Goldstein said. Barely There was introduced in 1997.
Nancy Ganz, president of the Bodyslimmers by Nancy Ganz division of The Warnaco Group, said, “I introduced a group of Micromattique shapers for spring, and it’s been doing extremely well at retail. I plan to expand styles and colors for the August market.
“Not everybody wants firm control,” continued Ganz. “Microfibers are silky and smooth, and they also make great layering pieces that can be worn out. Women just love the feel of it, and color really pops on microfiber.”
A top-selling color in the Micromattique group for spring has been Piccadilly Pink, she said.
Commenting on the growing demand for micro lingerie, Ganz said, “I think more women are coming into intimate apparel departments these days because of the fashion exposure lingerie has received. I don’t think women knew to go there for cool-looking lingerie before. And it will only get stronger for microfibers, because anything that feels that good won’t go away too quickly.”
Carola Di Iorio, managing director of Lingerie de France, a unit of VF Corp., said a new bra of nylon microfiber under the Lou brand, called Sensations, is one of the best-booking items for holiday.
“It’s our version of eau de cleavage. The bra features a tiny manmade stone that is stitched into a lace nest between the bra cups. Just spray a few drops of your favorite perfume on the little stone, and it retains the fragrance,” said Di Iorio.
“It makes a great gift item. And the idea that it’s rendered in a soft microfiber makes it even more salable,” she added. Sizes are 32 B, C and D to 38B. Colors are pale yellow, purple and a deep shade of brown.
Joyce Baran, vice president of merchandising and design for Smoothie shapers at Strouse, Adler Co., noted, “We began using Tactel this spring in our least expensive line of shapers called Slim Look. We will add a third body briefer style for spring ’99.
“Our approach is that everyone is being fed off of the same fashion satellite. The woman who shops for value pricing is the same woman who shops upscale stores for upscale merchandise. We want to give her the same value, no matter where she buys,” Baran said.
Patricia Hantke, senior vice president of sales and merchandising at Vogue Dessous International, a Toronto foundations maker, said she believes “microfibers are replacing basic fabrics that have a harsher hand, even though they may not be the main styling feature of the garment.”
Hantke said a new lace-trimmed collection of microfiber bras and shapers by Vogue Dessous II will be introduced in August. The company introduced its first microfiber collection in 1996 under its primary label, Vogue Dessous.
Ballet Makers Inc., maker of Capezio dancewear, is launching a line of microfiber layering pieces for fall called Overs & Unders, said Peter Marrone, vice president of design, product development and advertising.
“There is a premium price on it, but it’s not much more than our designs in CoolMax,” said Marrone. “We decided to get into microfibers because when the public hears a magic word like micro, they recognize it instantly and they buy it.”
There are bodysuits, a thong-back brief and an unconstructed tank bra and a cami bra with adjustable straps. Colors are black, burgundy, navy and hunter green. Suggested retails are $7 for a brief and $12 for a bodysuit.