NEW YORK — Comfort, fashion and feel-good fabrics are contributing to strong lingerie sales at stores around the nation.
Following a tough, post-Sept. 11 climate at retail, intimate apparel business at major stores, as well as smaller specialty operations, began to pick up in December and has continued to gain momentum, merchants said. While business still has not reached the second-quarter figures generated a year ago, the mood generally is optimistic about the second half.
In a spot survey, a majority of retailers said consumers had a going-back-to-basics attitude, stocking up on necessities such as seamless, molded bras to wear every day, thongs and boy-cut briefs, and camis and chemises. Although basic in function, the items that are bestsellers have a fashion twist, whether it’s a sheer microfiber, an embellished treatment or a fashion color.
Retailers agreed that soft-hand fabrics, including silks, satins, Lycra-blend microfibers and an assortment of cottons, ranging from fluffy brushed knits to woven pima cottons, were key in driving business.
Daywear continues to be the number-one category, followed by foundations, pajamas and casual at-homewear pieces that have a sportswear spin, such as pull-on knit pants and cropped and drawstring pants with mix or match cami tops.
While shoppers continue to watch their pocketbooks, retailers said there generally is no resistance to price if a product is special-looking and delivers comfort, particularly if the item coordinates with a ready-to-wear trend through color, fabric or silhouette.
Mary Krug, vice president and general merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Neiman Marcus, said: “We are actually having a decent season, and I’m very pleased coming off a tough fall. Daywear, especially novelty items like boy-leg pants and thongs, are very strong.”
Krug said seamless bras that have contoured, molded cups are the top-selling classification. Shapewear also continues to be a key area, she said.
Regarding sleepwear, Krug said contemporary-looking pajamas and at-homewear pieces are the number-one selling items.
“It’s a little more casual, and it’s very much a comfort thing,” she said. “Women put these items on when they come home instead of putting on sweats.”
Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, said, “Our daywear classification is up 72 percent season-to-date. Our Calvin Klein sleepwear business has totally turned around with sell-throughs of 21 percent a week. On Gossamer, Chantelle and Wacoal are our big [bra] winners.”
Wolff noted that a return to jacket dressing and layered ready-to-wear items is spurring interest in fashion daywear from upscale brands such as Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana, as well as whimsical whale- or monkey-print sleepwear by Paul Frank.
“Our DKNY sleepwear business also is doing very well,” Wolff said. “We just can’t get enough of it.”
Wolff added that “anything that is yoga-inspired is turning out to be a big seller,” citing Champion Jogbra’s new relaxed-fit yoga pants, bike shorts and workout pants.
Linda LoRe, president and chief executive officer of Frederick’s of Hollywood, said: “First and foremost, our best-selling bra is our Smooth Sensations satin bra, with the exception of Christmas and Valentine’s Day.”
The second-best item at Frederick’s is the jacquard-pattern Dream Corset, which features a hook-and-eye treatment on the bodice and laces up the back.
“Daywear has been exceptionally strong, especially items like our deep-plunge embroidered teddy, mesh and lace chemises, and our Amazing Lace boy shorts,” said LoRe.
Jack Clor, buyer of foundations at Carson Pirie Scott, said: “Comfort has been key across the board, the exact opposite of a year ago, when everything was push-up. Now, push-up styles are suffering terribly.”
Clor said his department’s top-selling bra is One Fabulous Fit by Maidenform, followed by a full-figure, demi-cup bra called Seductive Curves by Bali and a gel-strap bra by Bali.
“Body Zen by Playtex also has been very good for us,” Clor said.
Paula McManus, foundations buyer at Jacobson’s, said: “My foundations business has been up and down, but it’s been fairly good recently. What’s happening now is it’s really an extension of fall, with an interest in anything new. Consumers have to have a reason to buy. If it strikes their fancy, they are buying it.”
McManus added the Jacobson’s shopper is buying basics, but “is buying one or two items at a time rather than multiples.”
Barbara Graves, owner of the boutique that bears her name in Little Rock, Ark., said, “I expected interest in pajamas to taper off, but pajamas are selling extremely well in every category, from cottons to silks and satins.”
Other top ideas include low-rise thongs, camis and matching thong sets by Cosabella and On Gossamer, and shapers by BodyWraps by Christina, as well as Spanx, which features light-control footless leggings and power panties, said Graves.
“Daywear is keeping the show on the road,” said Pam Williams, owner of Night Gallery, a lingerie and rtw shop in Chapel Hill, N.C. “Comfort is the bottom line with younger and older customers. A T-shirt bra by On Gossamer has been very good because it’s very soft and natural looking.”
Williams singled out full-figure bras and two brands as bestsellers: Prima Donna and Chantelle. She added that sexy-looking bras by Aubade have been favorites of young women and new divorcees.
Chris Legatsi, owner of Allure, an intimate apparel boutique in Santa Fe, N.M., said: “My customer will pay anything for a bra if the fabric is soft and comfortable.”
The two top-selling brands are the Touch Feeling bra by Hanro and the Satin Deluxe bra by Wolford, each retailing at $60.
She also noted Cosabella camis with spaghetti straps and built-in shelf bra in a supersoft viscose have become a staple.
“A lot of younger gals wear the camis as ready-to-wear,” Legatsi said. “We keep bringing in new colors and they keep coming back for more.”
Polly Berg, owner of the Polly Berg boutique in Edina, Minn., said her best-selling item is pajamas of Peruvian pima cotton by a brand called Cotn.
“The pajamas are lovely and especially soft on the skin,” said Berg. “Customers are also really responding well to Carole Hochman knits because of the soft feel of her cotton knits.”
Penny Cohen, owner of a two-unit lingerie chain called Lavender Lace in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Deal, N.J., said, “Comfort is important, but it’s got to have some beauty to it and something with a little more oomph to it if it’s going to sell.”
Cohen said sleepwear by BedHead is selling well because it’s “soft cotton, stylish and funky looking.” Other top brands include Italian label Anna, which does cotton knit sleepwear, and Maria Scotto.
“Sleepwear by Maria Scotto does very well because it’s very soft cotton in knits and wovens, is not crazy-expensive and it washes very well,” Cohen added.
Barbara Cook, owner of Joovay, an intimate apparel shop in New York, said: “I have this store for 18 years and I’ve never seen a time like this. It’s definitely the year of the basic: the basic bra, thong and panty.”
However, Cook said, the bright spots in the fashion daywear arena included sexy T-shirt tops by LaCosa and Cosabella, whose numbers are frequently worn in the TV series “Sex and the City.” Another big seller is a V-shaped lace thong by Hanky Panky.
She added that daywear and sleepwear by Hoboken, N.J.-based designer Lola has been strong because it’s “fresh looking,” while a full range of innerwear by New York designer Leigh Bantivoglio is popular because of its “hanger and window dressing appeal, and is bought by both women and men as gifts.”
“Even in this tight money situation, all of the La Perla groups are selling, including Malitzia, Marvel and Occhi Verde,” Cook added.”