Good-bye granny girdle.
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The $812.5 billion shapewear business has been thrust into the role of image maker. Whether it’s a tank top with a layer of support lining, a long-leg bike pant with heat-sealed control panels or a brief with engineered stomach control, shapers are being worn every day by women and men of all ages and sizes.
The growing demand is being generated in large part by a celebrity culture that flaunts idealized bodies — often constructed — on the red carpet and in movies and music videos. In addition, an increasing number of product options, high-tech fabrics and applications make shapers pliable, lightweight and comfortable.
“Everybody I work with, from movie stars to models, wears shapewear and about 99 percent of them are a size 0 or 2.…It just gives a feeling of security and physically makes a person stand straight and be more conscious of their posture,” said stylist Phillip Bloch, who has worked with Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry, Salma Hayek and Michael Jackson.
“Shapewear is so hot now because it fits like a second skin as opposed to armor or a chastity belt…it’s also not an insult anymore if I ask, ‘Should I bring shapewear?’ [They used to say] ‘are you saying, I’m fat?’ Now they say, ‘Oh, yeah, bring the shapewear,’” added Bloch, who last month signed on with ABC as a contributing correspondent for a series of interviews with celebrities about their favorite charities called “Cause Celeb with Phillip Bloch.”
“I think many people live their lives vicariously through celebrities and the public knows they wear shapers because the celebrities say they do all the time,” Bloch said. “People want that movie-star look. It’s affordable and there isn’t the stigma of cosmetic surgery and the paranoia. It’s like, ‘I put on my lipstick, my perfume and my shaper, and I can take it off whenever I want.’”
The shapewear segment is especially popular in two age groups: women 40 and older who have purchased basic pieces in the past and are now buying a variety of specialty products, and teens and young women who are learning about the options and benefits of shapers that they wear as fashion items, such as camis with built-in support.
The appetite for pretty, more upscale shapewear in fashion colors and high-tech fabrics and applications is reflected in part by the migration of shoppers who buy basic product at mass merchants and brand-conscious consumers who shop at department stores, according to The NPD Group, a research consultancy. From June 2010 to May 2011, the biggest increase was generated by department stores, which posted a 3.5 percent gain in shapewear sales, claiming an 18.3 percent dollar share of the market. On the other hand, mass merchants posted a 0.7 percent decline with a 24.4 share. The average price across all retail channels is $15.89 compared to $14.36 in the same year-ago period.
Meanwhile, women who are small, medium or plus-size are all wearing shapers for the same reasons: to look better and feel better about themselves.
And to get trimmer-looking abs, more men are wearing control tops by brands such as Rip’t by Yummie Tummie, Under Armour, Spanx for Men, Equus-Men and Ardyss International.
Just as beauty products are used to enhance skin and hair, shapers are worn to help smooth the silhouette and make clothes fit better for a younger look.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Latifah have spoken publicly about wearing Spanx shapers at the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards. Shapers and related corsetry are also worn on stage by Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, which also helps eliminate the stigma once attached to wearing what used to be called a “granny girdle.”
“Body image is an issue and it needs to be addressed, no matter what the size,” said Randall Christensen, costume designer for “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC. “If we can get away with it, we’ll just use a Spanx shaper, but the fantastic advantage we have is we can customize the shapers, which give the figure and the dancers a bit of an edge…about 50 percent of the dancers need shapewear. The biggest challenge was Marie Osmond, who lost 40 pounds at such a rapid pace that her figure would change from one week to the next. But interestingly, it’s the men who are more particular about shapers.”
The latest generation of microfibers, which offer fashion and function in ultrasheer or matte and shine opaques in lighter weight deniers, have also helped turn shapewear into a fashion star. New featherlight microfibers from companies such as Invista, Meryl, Creora and Radici enable designers to produce shapewear with a delicate lingerie look while retaining the control and support of old-fashioned power net.
Among the most recent developments are shapewear pieces that are microencapsulated with caffeine in an effort to reduce cellulite, including the iPant by Wacoal. Lytesse, a French brand, features shapers microencapsulated with aloe vera to moisturize the skin. But even Lycra spandex, which has been marketed since the late Seventies, is still in the mix in the modernization of shapewear with its Lycra beauty fabric certification program.
Key shapewear brands include Spanx, Playtex, Bali, Flexees by Maidenform, Sassybax, Cass, Rago, Va Bien, Body Wrap, Yummie Tummie, Slimpressions, Shatobu, Squeem, Cupid, Shapeez, Grenier, Dr. Rey, Nearly Nude, Cosabella Breathe, Julie France Shapewear and Wacoal, a bra specialist for which shapers is the fastest-growing product segment.
Janie Bryant, costume designer for the AMC series “Mad Men,” which is set in the Sixties, said shapewear is key to her creative choices.
“It’s one of the reasons I love designing for ‘Mad Men.’ Shapewear offers so many possibilities,” she said. “I use both vintage and modern shapers…most of the time I use a brand called Rago because they still make [vintage-looking] girdles and longline bras.
“What’s interesting is there’s been a whole resurgence of buying shapewear because of media exposure and more product options,” she added. “Older women are buying shapewear pieces again, and younger women are learning which pieces are right for them.”
Novelty shapers are particularly popular, said Maureen Stabnau, senior vice president of merchandising at barenecessities.com, citing her best-selling brands like Spanx, Body Wrap and Dr. Rey.
“Shapewear thongs are selling very well online to younger customers,” she said. “No matter how young the customer, she wants a smooth line and is really aware of panty lines.”
All of this has had a positive impact on business. For instance, Bob Vitale, executive vice president of Wacoal America, is forecasting a 34 percent increase in shapewear volume this year.
While women who are already thin might turn to shapers for some enhancement, the strides in shapewear technology and broadened product choices have been a real boon for the plus-size market.
“The demand for shapewear increased total intimate apparel business in 2010 by 80 percent, and it’s all new business for us,” said Meredith Mastropolo, lingerie and shapewear buyer at plus-size retailer Ashley Stewart. “The customer sees value in shapewear. She comes in and says, ‘I need that item.’ If it makes her look better, she feels better and she’ll buy it.”
Michele Martins-Crawbuck, vice president and general brand manager for intimates at OneStopPlus Group, a plus-size division of Redcats USA, which also operates Avenue stores, said, “In the past, [plus-size] women did not want to wear clingy dresses or skinny jeans, but technology and new lightweight fabrics in shapewear have changed that…shapewear now really is for everybody, every day.”
The feel-good factor has become a psychological selling point, said Catherine Shannon, director of shapewear design at Maidenform Brands.
“You get used to the feeling of Lycra,” she said. “It’s kind of like the feeling of a hug: reassuring. You can feel better wearing a waist nipper and have that feeling that you’re all put together…it also helps support the skin and muscles.”
Heather Thomson-Schindler, founder of the three-year-old Yummie Tummie brand, said she created the line because she was unable to find shapewear that was comfortable and contemporary looking.
“I could only find traditional shapewear and just the thought of wearing it deflated my confidence,” she said. “Feeling good about yourself is as important as looking good. It just gives you that much more pop in your step. There are tons of product options now because of technology…not something out of a torture chamber.
“Shapewear is still selling, even during the economic downturn, because it’s affordable,” Thomson-Schindler added. “The media is constantly selling the perfect face, hair and figure, and shapewear is an entry point to that arena without the plastic surgery.”
Women of all ages and sizes are wearing shapers as a fashion accessory, too.
“Women want it all — they want shaping, slimming and smoothing with a touch of femininity and fashion,” said Kathy Van Ness, president of Body Wrap and chief marketing officer and division president of parent company Trimera Group. She singled out bestsellers: The Slenderizer, a strapless bra slip with underwire bra; Sheer Iridesscent Must Slip, a multiway bra slip; The All Inclusive, a long-leg bodysuit with underwire bra; The Catwalk High-Waist long-leg panty; The Superior Derriere High-Waist panty, and The Pinup bodysuit with underwire bra.
Van Ness said shapewear has become such an important category that Body Wrap is “preparing to launch a social media campaign that will include a blog and newsroom, a Facebook ad campaign and an improved presence on Twitter and YouTube, with search engine optimization.”
Addressing body image and the role shapewear plays, image consultant Kelly Machbitz said “Body image affects how you feel about yourself. It’s an important factor in self-esteem for women and men…when you have a better attitude about your body, you just naturally have more confidence. Enhancement undergarments that help to reduce your dress or suit size, smooth your bulges, lift what sags and straighten your posture can most definitely have a positive effect.
“Shapewear certainly plays a part in my wardrobe recommendations for all my clients, but more for fit issues — although looking younger and slimmer is a great side benefit,” she continued. “And just as there has been an increase in the sale of men’s grooming products and plastic surgery procedures in recent years, there are more men turning to undergarments to make their bodies appear sleeker and firmer.”
A caveat, though: Jennifer Baumgartner, a psychologist who specializes in mood, anxiety and eating disorders, said relying on shapewear to look good and feel good can have drawbacks.
“When people have extra weight on, they don’t like the feeling of their flesh jiggling and shapewear often eliminates that,” she said. “Shapewear can offer a sense of security, but it’s a crutch and a quick fix. It can actually become addicting.”