WILMINGTON, Del. — It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Invista’s marketing of its powerhouse Lycra brand touches on the magical.
That’s because Invista’s 57-year-old Lycra spandex fiber is nearly invisible as a thin white filament, but emerges as a key ingredient in a fabric and its special characteristics — movement, shape and comfort — come alive when transformed into a garment.
Lycra was created by scientists in a laboratory and is constantly updated by the experts and technicians in a facility devoted to its development. The fiber isn’t cheap, but its value-added attributes continue to make it one of the most successful and well-known branded ingredient products in the fashion world.
In addition, Invista, one of the world’s largest producers of fibers and polymers, and its Lycra brand have gone global in every aspect of their operation, but maintain local roots and production in the same neighborhood where it was first founded and produced.
In an interview at Invista headquarters in Wilmington, Del., Dave Trerotola, president of Invista Apparel & Advanced Textiles, explained the company’s strategy, product mix and overall approach, and its mission in the new marketing campaign for its flagship Lycra brand. Trerotola said the goal of the Lycra “relaunch” is to raise awareness at the trade and consumer level for the Lycra brand.
“We want to gain consistency across the globe on how the product is perceived and demonstrated, and used in the marketplace,” he said. “We also really want to connect with a younger generation, along with our existing base. Social media and digital marketing are newer tools we’re using to reach a new audience.”
Trerotola said Lycra as a brand is meant to be an “and,” or an additive for its customers, not to replace their brands.
“As we do this Lycra brand relaunch, part of our intent is to get the message out to our brands and retailers that we’re here to support you, we’re here to create value for you and we want you to use the hangtags,” he said. “We’re looking for strategic partners. We typically lock in with brands and work with them over multiple years. We have generations of products that we work on with them, and we’re keen to continue to do that because we think we can create a lot of value for them. The better the relationship we have, the better the trust that we have with them. It gives us an opportunity to bring more innovation to that particular segment.”
While there are other stretch fibers in the global market, especially commodity-based spandex, Trerotola said part of the brand relaunch is to get consumers to know the difference.
“In my mind it’s kind of like ‘the real thing’ with Coke — just because something stretches doesn’t mean it has Lycra in it,” he said. “And so the intent here is to let people know that if you want the best quality fabrics, it should say Lycra on it.”
Denise Sakuma, global brand and communication director for the Lycra Moves You campaign, said, “The campaign process began two years ago when we invested in trying to qualitatively and quantitatively understand what consumers around the globe were thinking about the Lycra fiber and brand. When we did the consumer research we found out that consumers had very good and positive feelings about the attributes of the Lycra brand — that it was comfortable and provided freedom of movement, but they really didn’t understand what Lycra was.”
She said it wasn’t clear to consumers if Lycra was a fiber, a fabric or a finish. She said when Lycra was invented by DuPont, it was the first spandex fiber, but then after a while, almost all garment categories contained some stretch. In 1935, nylon was invented by DuPont chemist Wallace Hume Carothers as the world’s first true synthetic fiber. DuPont built a full-scale nylon plant in Seaford, Del., and began commercial production in late 1939. Imperial Chemical Industries had patented Terylene polyester, to which DuPont purchased the U.S. rights in 1945 for further development. In 1950, a pilot plant at the Seaford facility produced Dacron fiber with modified nylon technology.
Like these forerunner synthetic fibers, it has always been important to let consumers know what they bring to a garment.
“It became very important to us to let consumers know that there is stretch, but then there is Lycra that provides stretch with recovery, freedom of movement and other qualities,” Sakuma said. “That is the reason why we are having a new brand positioning, a new brand architecture, a new campaign, a new imagery that can best articulate to consumers our brand message.”
The new brand architecture has five subbrands that are meant to clearly communicate consumer benefits. They are the core Lycra brand for comfort, freedom and movement; Lycra Beauty for control and shaping; Lycra Sport for physical activity and sports; Lycra Xtra Life for garment resilience and durability, and Lycra Energize for well-being.
Trerotola said Lycra has historically blended best with cotton and nylon, whereas polyester has problems with dyeing due to heat setting issues. So, Lycra developed a product that was specifically for polyester compatibility, and another Lycra fiber that goes with naturals such as viscose called Easy Set Lycra. Similarly, Lycra’s T400 fiber was developed for applications such as denim and shirtings that require low to moderate stretch.
As for areas with most growth potential, Trerotola cited denim, shapewear and activewear, while continuing to expand its market share in innerwear and swimwear.
“We recently came out with a platform where we’ve taken our Lycra Beauty fabric, which is a certified program, and moved it into swimwear and into denim,” he said. “Activewear’s been a great market for us, partly because of the balance of products we bring — Lycra Sport, where we’re combining Lycra with Coolmax, and our thermo-regulation product offering — to do very well in the segment.”
For Lycra fiber, close-to-the-body applications and segments such as innerwear, swimwear and shapewear are the most important, but the brand has also made inroads in denim and other sportswear and ready-to-wear sectors.
“When I think about who our competitors are, I think about other things that differentiate somebody’s garments,” he said, dressed casually in a large conference room surrounded by images from the new Lycra campaign. “So in the active outdoor market, you look at somebody like Gore-Tex and say they differentiate jackets. In ready-to-wear, it’s fibers such as Tencel and modal that are used to differentiate products. Teflon, Polartec, Primaloft — they are differentiators that call out the performance or a quality of a product or garment, a functionality that adds to the value of the brand.”
Invista also studiously tracks the sourcing patterns of the industry and its customers.
“We’ve moved as the industry has moved,” Trerotola said. “We cover Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, any place where migration has happened for sourcing. What we offer to our customer base essentially is if they’re buying a Lycra fabric, they can be comfortable it’s coming from a quality mill, it’s coming from a quality dyeing facility, and cut-and-sew, right up their doorstep, that it’s a good product. We have people that follow value-chain management. They call on the mill, brands, retailers, to make sure that our products make it all the way through the value-chain…we track it all the way through to make sure that when the consumer gets a product with our tag on it that it’s high-quality goods and meets their expectations.”
One of the key challenges of that comprehensive approach is that it’s expensive, so Invista has to make sure that where it’s spending money is creating value, that can translate into sales.
Another major commitment and what Invista considers a key to its success is consumer research.
“Every segment we have is always looking to upgrade their consumer research, not just for the United States, but around the world,” he said. “That costs money, but it brings insights back to our customers, it drives our innovation base. Today, with the number of fabric development labs we have around the world, and different capabilities that we’ve brought into the businesses, we have the ability to develop fabrics, and several of our key marketing platforms like Lycra Beauty and Lycra Sport are fabric-based, so we actually have a certification around the fabric that has to do with the construction and performance aspects of the fabrics.
“We have also patented several designs that do certain things in functionality, shapewear products, for example, hosiery,” he continued. “So we’re working through from the polymers that go into the fibers to garment design. So when we think about innovation, we want to take the consumer insights and use a whole toolbox to solve consumer needs.”
Sakuma, who noted that the re-branding campaign started in July at the trade level and in the new year will move through the supply chain to fabric mills, brands, retailer and consumers, said that approach is at the heart of the Lycra re-branding.
“The Lycra Moves You theme came about because consumers associate Lycra with freedom of movement, along with comfort and quality,” she said. “At the trade level, the Lycra brand can move business, can move design, can move fashion and can move innovation. At the consumer level, we want to be very personal and say Lycra Moves Me, Lycra Moves You.”
While in the U.S., still-life images drive the marketing, there are TV commercials in the growing markets of Brazil and China. The 3-D effect of the photography and commercials have a theme of a “trail of the fiber,” meant to convey that “Lycra is the fiber that moves with you throughout your lifestyle, from activewear, to your office wardrobe, to when you go to sleep, that Lycra frees you, liberates you, moves like your second skin, gives you freedom to express.”
“The commercial’s emotional message is that what is inside is what moves you, what motivates a person, just like Lycra fiber is inside the fabric and it can move you,” she added.
The campaign was created and produced by the SapientNitro agency and shot by acclaimed photographer Rankin, with the commercials created by film director Philippe André. The campaign has already received a British Arrows Craft Award for best computer-generated imagery and a Cyclops award for best 3-D animation.
Starting this month, the business-to-consumer Web site, lycra.com, has been relaunched to focus on the new campaign, while the business-to-business site, connect.lycra.com, services mills, brands and retailers.
“I like to think that Lycra is a fiber that’s invisible to the eye, but becomes visible when you wear it and when you move,” Sakuma said.
From the second quarter through the end of the year, Lycra Moves You and the subbrand marketing will roll out at retail starting with legwear and innerwear, then moving through to all apparel categories.
In a broader sense, Trerotola said the state of the apparel industry today is such that the growth rate in developing countries is still fairly substantial, but in the Western world — Western Europe and North America — the growth rate average is fairly low.
“So there’s a need to differentiate products and call out better products, allowing them to achieve price points they hadn’t thought about before,” he said.
Deciding where to manufacture Invista fibers and fabrics is also a complex endeavor.
“A lot of it has to do with where we have the technical capability,” Trerotola said. “For example, we have some very technically capable assets in Ireland and Waynesboro, Va. Those plants have become highly specialized and they make high-end, new, innovative products. We’re also able to protect the intellectual property we develop there. Waynesboro happens to be our primary polymer and fiber development center and we have some 26 Ph.D.s that are working on developments there.”
The Waynesboro plant was actually where Lycra was invented. In 1944, DuPont’s Acetate Research Section had taken over development of a product called “Fiber A.” It took a while, but demand for the product marketed as Orlon soared and an additional plant was built, allowing Waynesboro to produce 40 million pounds annually after 1958.
By 1960, as acetate demand waned, a replacement was in the wings. DuPont had been developing a new fiber and decided to use Waynesboro’s Orlon spinning cells for the manufacture of Lycra elastane. By 1962, production was in full scale.
That developmental approach remains at the DNA of Invista.
Trerotola said, “In Asia, we have a number of very capable assets that as we grow the Lycra business there, we’re upgrading those assets with greater technical capabilities. We have found a way to convert the Western assets to higher-tech goods, higher-value goods and use some of our newer Assets in Asia to help us with cost position. We do have a balance. But we also just recently invested in a lab in Shanghai to be able to have the same fiber and fabric product development capabilities there, primarily to develop the local market.”
“We’re global, operating with plants all over the world that make spandex products, polyester-based bicomponent products and our Coolmax product line, which is a wicking fiber used primarily in sportswear,” he continued. “We’re all over the world. We’re engaged in essentially the entire value chain of apparel and what I think our place is in that world is that we’re able to create value for the consumer and for brands and retailers, and to the degree that we create value, obviously we’re going to be able to create value ourselves.”
With major fiber and fabric brands including Lycra, Coolmax, Cordura, Stainmaster and Antron, Invista operates in more than 20 countries and has about 10,000 employees.
Trerotola, who has helmed Invista for more than six years, said he was always told that all aspects of the industry body were driven by price point.
“Then the successful companies started shattering the price points — the Lululemons, the Under Armours — people that have brought innovation products to the consumer that basically delighted the consumer and took care of a need they had,” he said. “For us, innovation really comes to pennies per garment to utilize the relationship with Invista. The payoff can be many multiples of that.”
Trerotola said Invista’s place in the market is driven by its special product mix, history and its ownership by Koch Industries, based in Witchita, Kan. According to Forbes, Koch is the second-largest privately held company in the U.S. with annual sales of $120 billion.
“As the leader of this business, I think about long-term value creation and to continue to improve the earnings coming from this business,” Trerotola said. “Like anybody else in the Koch Industries group, that’s the objective. I try to put things in a long-term perspective, so if I’m making an investment in a brand, I’m doing it with the idea that it’s going to create value for me over the next 10 years. We want to gain market share globally, and we have been doing that over the last couple of years. We want to expand the product offering and the reach that we have. Last year, we bought Advansa in Europe, which made our Coolmax business global, but also brought in some new technology and capability. So we don’t just want to grow internally, but are also seeking acquisitions that will build on our offering.”
Trerotola said Invista represents about 10 percent of Koch’s business, putting its annual sales at about $12 billion. But he feels Invista’s contribution to Koch is more significant than that.
Chemical giant DuPont changed the name of its Textiles & Interiors unit to Invista in 2003. In 2004, DuPont sold Invista to Koch for $4.4 billion in cash and merged it with its KoSa polyester unit, creating what at the time was an $8.4 billion synthetic fiber company.
“Koch reinvests 90 cents of every dollar back into the businesses or into acquisitions, and they’ve been very successful using their market-based management business philosophy,” he said. “Compared to where we were 10 years ago, the people that I work with are better business people. They learned a lot from Koch Industries and the way Koch does things.
“But on the flip side, I think the Lycra business brought to Koch Industries an appreciation for branding and consumer research,” Trerotola added. “We’ve done a lot of cross work with Georgia Pacific [owner of such consumer brands as Brawny, Dixie and Quilted Northern], which is part of Koch Industries. It’s been a real change. We’ve both learned from each other.”