Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — There’s a horse race among foundations companies and textile specialists to come up with what many in the trade are calling the bra of the century.
The finished product will be a woman’s dream of comfort, function, fit and fashion. The concept is uniquely simple: an allover stretch seamless bra that is engineered to give the support and lift that traditional bras provide, but without a multitude of uncomfortable components such as unforgiving underwires, power padding and old-fashioned rigid lace.
It’s just a matter of time — perhaps as soon as the next several months or within a year — before research and development experts introduce a new breed of modernistic bras to an already booming business of seam-free undergarments.
So far, the hottest seamless categories are daywear items such as bodysuits and camis, underwear including bikinis and briefs, and some shapers. Key makers of seamless undergarments in Europe are Wolford, Scheisser and Wolff. Norman Katz, former chairman of I. Appel, introduced allover seamless underwear to the U.S. market in the early Nineties under the Formfit brand. Formfit now is part of Jockey International, which has expanded the line to include a variety of seamless tops.
A majority of manufacturers and retailers may believe they already have the millennium bra. But the majority of these sleek styles continue to possess as many as 10 or more components and only appear to be seam-free — with the technology of molded, contour cups that give a smooth silhouette underneath knits and T-shirts — or are little triangle-shaped daywear bras that are unconstructed and ideal for Twiggy types.
A variety of feather-light microfibers that fit like a second skin, such as DuPont’s Tactel and Lycra Soft and BASF’s Micro Touch, have also advanced the appetite for seamless goods, and a number of executives said casualwear, sportswear and ready-to-wear will be the next frontiers.
Kathy Smith, intimate apparel marketing manager for Lycra, said, “There’s an awful lot of R&D going on, and we are doing some at DuPont internally. When support becomes a possibility in allover seamless Santoni bras, the seamless category overall will become much more important.
“We are also seeing a lot of extensions into the sportswear and ready-to-wear fields, upgrades in [Santoni] equipment that will support that growth. A lot of machine technology is being developed to grow the seamless business.
“For example, I saw wider cylinder machines and double-knit machines that would be appropriate for ready-to-wear at the International Hosiery Exposition. And there were smaller cylinder machines for children’s wear.”
Dov Lautman, chairman of Delta Galil Industries Ltd., an Israeli textile specialist, observed, “I think there is an emerging technical revolution in the apparel industry. Until now, all apparel except for socks have been made up of pieces that are either sewn together or knitted.”
Lautman predicted that allover seamless knit shapewear that has engineered spot control “will take over the majority of the shapewear business this year.”
“Sportswear and leisurewear are definitely the next step, and we are already doing it in small quantities,” Lautman said.
Meanwhile, the push for no-seam bras has been so strong that the classification accounted for 50 percent of the $4.6 billion bra business at stores in the 12 months ending in February 2000, according to a consumer panel survey of The NPD Group. Distribution is broken down to $2.2 billion to department stores, $1.4 billion to mass merchants and $1 billion to specialty chains, mainly Victoria’s Secret. That’s quite a leap, considering the trend only began to gain momentum in the U.S. in 1998.
As reported, sales of Body by Victoria, a seamless bra program at Victoria’s Secret were projected to reach $200 million in 1999, according to Grace Nichols, president and chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores.
The ideal method of producing these sleek, light-as-a-feather items was pulled directly from the hosiery industry and through Italian technology, primarily Santoni circular knitting machines and an earlier model, Lanotti.
Because of its technical prowess, as well as its limited number of available units, there’s a gold rush among manufacturers to corner the market on Santoni machinery. Major U.S. corporations such as Sara Lee Corp., The Warnaco Group, VF Corp., and a host of international firms, including Israel-based Tefron Ltd. and Delta Galil, are making significant capital investments to satisfy the growing worldwide demand for seamless products.
Key examples in late 1999 include Warnaco’s acquisition of Izka, a French specialist in seamless underwear for men and women with Santoni-operated facilities near Lyon, France; and Tefron’s merger with Alba-Waldensian, which resulted in a combined fleet of 700 Santoni machines.
One deal in particular appears to give Sara Lee a big boost in the U.K. market: Sara Lee is a shareholder of Delta Galil, which does sizable seamless programs for Marks & Spencer. Manufacturing giant Courtaulds — which is being acquired by Sara Lee — produces huge seamless programs for Marks & Spencer.
David Palmieri, vice president and general manager of the department and specialty store division at Bali Co., a unit of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, said the company has spent $20 million in advertising its seamless initiative. A key seamless brand introduced in January is Comfort Shapers by Barely There.
“Sell-throughs at retail have averaged 6 to 7 percent a week since it hit the floor,” said Palmieri. “There seems to be a clear direction that this [seamless] thing is working. The mass market is really looking at it very aggressively too, especially Kmart, Wal-Mart and Target.”
He singled out Soft Essentials by Hanes Her Way as a top seamless daywear and underwear brand for discounters.
There’s also a small but burgeoning number of seamless bodyshapers emerging in the market. Key ideas by Wacoal America include a full brief and a long-leg brief that features engineered spot control that’s been knitted into a dainty jacquard pattern.
“We literally are trying to out-Santoni Santoni,” said Alan Fisher, Wacoal’s vice president of merchandising. “We’ve been working domestically with Liberty Fabrics [a U.S. division of Courtaulds] to develop seamless shapers of Tactel and Lycra Soft that offer three degrees of engineered control — and it’s all being done on warp knitting machines.”
Fisher then displayed what he called Wacoal’s “piece de resistance” — a seam-free, one piece, hook-to-eye bra that folds around the torso and features molded cups.The underwire frame is smaller than the casing itself, and there is no inside construction, no inner facings.
Tobie Garfinkle, vice president of merchandising for Lily of France and the licensed Natori and Josie foundations at Bestform Group, a unit of VF Corp., said a “revolutionary” seamless bra by Natori will be in stores for fall.
“There’s no metal on the straps and it has brushed micro backing on the back band. If we had used one-way quality of stretch it never would have performed as a true foundation garment that gives support and lift,” said Garfinkle. “The double-knit reinforced stretch keeps the bust forward and the straps give the lift.
“The soft cup style has welting around each cup. That’s one way you can take actual Santoni product and translate it into a true foundations garment. We just introduced the Natori No Show bra to stores for spring. It too is one piece of double-ply fabric and is a phenomenal success.”
Kathy Reynolds, vice president and general manager of the Vanity Fair brand at VF’s Vanity Fair Intimates division, noted, “The Vanity Fair brand is not currently offering Santoni seamless bras. We are, however, launching a daywear collection that includes three tops and two bottoms made from DuPont’s Tactel Strata yarn. The collection also includes Lycra in the entire body of the garments, offering better support and comfort.”
Regarding Santoni technology, Reynolds said: “The future for Santoni has to include bras with knitted-in support. I also think that pattern and novelty yarns will contribute to the evolution of the product.”
Manette Scheininger, senior vice president of marketing at Maidenform Worldwide, noted, “Maidenform’s most exciting news in seamless is in the shapewear category with the launch of our All The Time shapewear for early fall. The garments are unique in that they offer the fashion and seamless, smooth-under-clothes aspect, but have the real fit and function characteristics of traditional shapewear.”
Scheininger added that the line will be expanded to include seamless daywear bras and coordinating panties. She said seamless products account for the “largest growth area of Maidenform’s bra business. We are developing new seamless bras with new technology and expect that they will include underwires, printing and textures.”.
“Seamless has always been an important classification for Vogue Dessous, which has been doing its molding for many years,” said Robyn Beebe, merchandiser at Vogue Dessous, a Canadian bra specialist. “We own our own molding equipment and have recently invested in additional state-of-the-art molding machines.
“Selecting the fabric that molds correctly is the first critical decision. There are lots of beautiful, luxurious fabrics but many of them do not mold properly. We do extensive testing and research on fabrics up front to make sure it is right.”
Gianluca Flore, vice president of La Perla USA, an upscale Italian label, said a new allover seamless group of bras and matching panties of microfiber Meryl and Lycra called Skin, has been a “huge success.”
“We introduced our first seamless collection called Sculpture about six years ago, and The Cult Bra in ’98. Since then, seamless has grown to account for 35 to 40 percent of total business,” said Flore.
Monica Piereck, a sales executive at La Perla, said the Skin collection was shipped to Saks Fifth Avenue in late February, and approximately 1,100 units have sold since then. “It’s already on reorder,” she said.
The demand for seamless is also beginning to penetrate the sleepwear field.
Jeanette Cantone, executive vice president of merchandising at The Natori Co., said: “We’ve done very well with allover seamless sleepwear and daywear items that do not contain any Lycra. With Lycra, seamless sleepwear looks great, but they are not very roomy or comfortable, and very constricting. We are using yarns like cotton and nylon in long tanks and chemises.”
Lisa Leigh, director of sales and merchandising at August Silk Intimates, said, “We’ve received terrific reaction to cut-and-sewn silk and Lycra that looks seamless. We are doing it in daywear as well as sleepwear in luscious colors.
“It feels like a smooth luxury layer of silk on the body, and women love it.”