Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — The influence of shape and glamour in ready-to-wear fashion — teamed with the call for more prominent bosoms — is expanding the dimensions of the underwire bra business.
In the past several seasons, according to foundations firms, underwire constructions have moved into the lead spot in department and specialty store bra business, overtaking soft-cup styles. And as vendors target more specialized figure types — from smaller-than-average to full-figure — with underwires, they expect such constructions will continue to gain market share and give overall bra business a boost as well.
Lighter wires, Lycra spandex-blend fabrics and cotton knits for comfort, along with updated styling, are also credited for the growing popularity of underwire styles. The fashion catalyst came last year with the promotion surrounding the Super Up-Lift bra by Gossard and Wonderbra by Sara Lee Foundations, the padded, push-up bras that helped rekindle America’s love affair with the plumped-up bosom.
Executives at foundations firms say sales of underwire bras have doubled over the past year. They estimate that underwires now account for 55 percent of department and specialty store bra business, compared with 20 percent 10 years ago.
As makers target more growth for these styles, they say that whether a woman’s bra cup size is in the full-figure range of 34B to 48DDD, or smaller than average in a “nearly” 32A cup size, underwires are the solution for shape and support.
At the Playtex Apparel division of Sara Lee Intimates, Gloria Falla, vice president of design, said, “We feel there is a need for underwire styles in full-figure looks, as well as smaller sizes. Playtex was not known as an underwire resource, but we have added quite a few underwire styles over the past two years.”
In the full-figure underwire range, the newest ideas at Playtex that combine fashion with function are the Eighteen Hour Comfort Strap bra, which features cushioned shoulder straps to prevent “dig-in,” and an Eighteen Hour Comfort Stretch bra, both of nylon and Lycra.
For women who wear under B cups, Playtex will introduce an embossed basketweave-textured and lace underwire bra in plum wine color under the Thank Goodness It Fits label for fall.
Linda J. Wachner, president, chairman and chief executive officer of The Warnaco Group, stated, “The full-figure underwire bras we introduced for spring selling this year are sensational and have been selling extremely well.”
Among Warnaco’s new full-figure offerings are Guaranteed Comfort by Warner’s and Sensuous Solutions by Olga.
J. Thomson Wyatt, president of Vanity Fair Mills, said, “Our full-figure underwire business is expanding rapidly, and we have been carving out a niche with our Vanity Fair and Vassarette brands.
“We’ve been bringing in more embellishments and fresher fashion products, and the consumer has been responding very strongly,” said Wyatt.
Deborah Batcha, director of product development for body fashions and shapewear at Vanity Fair, said, “We used to think only older women wore full-figure bras, but a lot of younger women are wearing D and DD cup sizes.”
“Because of technological advances in fabrics and underwires, we are able to create lighter, better-performing bras for full-figure women,” said Batcha. “Before, the full-figure bras looked like harnesses.”
At Sara Lee Foundations, Mary Kay Edwards, vice president of merchandising, said that its Wonderbra has “definitely made a strong impact in the underwire bra business,” with effects being felt in other groups within the company.
“Our full-figure underwire business has been growing in our Satin Tracings and Beyond Beautiful groups by Bali,” said Edwards, adding that full-figure underwire styles are the firm’s “forte.”
Tobie Garfinkle, vice president of merchandising for the Lily of France and licensed Natori, Josie and Christian Dior labels at Bestform Foundations, said, “As we continue to develop new products, we are looking more at the 32A and 32B customer with underwire products.
“Even a little breast tissue sags, and that customer needs an underwire bra, too.”
At the same time, though, makers say the average bra cup size of American women has grown to 36C from 34B over the past five years. They generally predict the average bra cup size in the U.S. will grow to 38C in the next couple of years.
Also contributing to the need for more support, say makers, is simply the graying of America, with its aging baby boomers intent on resisting the law of gravity.