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NEW YORK — Innovation and breakthrough ideas continue to elevate lingerie to a higher level of aesthetics, comfort and well-being.

Basic cotton bras and undies began losing popularity in the early Nineties, when Lycra spandex began its ambitious campaign of giving underwear and daywear a new luster with its soft, synthetic stretch properties. Santoni seamless engineered knit technology, which originated in the hosiery field in 1986, revolutionized lingerie in the mid-Nineties, lending enhanced comfort as well as dual-purpose fashion looks to a category that was once regarded a commodity business.

The explosion of seamless technology teamed with new layers of multifunctional microfibers such as Invista’s Tactel and Lycra, Lycra Soft, Micromattique and CoolMax, as well as proprietary micro blends from mills and fiber specialists, including Bayer, Nylstar, Nilit, RadiciSpandex and Unifi, has helped double sales in the $12.4 billion intimate apparel industry over the past decade, according to industry experts.

These man-made blends have properties that wick away moisture from the body, provide shape retention that gently moves with the body and have engineered knit-in control for problem areas such as the waist, stomach and thighs.

No company has produced the ultimate Millennium Bra — a featherlight allover seamless bra with no underwire and no knit-in support, especially for full figures. One project that comes close is Body by Victoria, a seamless program of bras and panties in fashion colors that has become one of the most successful multimillion-dollar programs at Victoria’s Secret. Since 2001, the sleek, sexy bra collection was expanded to include underwire and nonwire styles with knit-in support. It’s considered by a majority of industry executives as the closest thing to the Millennium Bra.

Now, fabric and fiber specialists and manufacturers are seeking to enhance the quality and benefits of underwear, daywear, active-related separates and sleepwear with a number of innovative applications.

Benefits include:

This story first appeared in the October 25, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

  • Microincapsulation of moisturizing agents such as aloe vera, vitamin E and sea kelp in fibers or fabrics that sooth and scent the skin. This idea is prominent in the Lycra Body Care program in which Invista is partnering with International Flavors & Fragrances to cross-promote beauty and bath-related products.
  • The freshness factor — applications engineered into the yarn that inhibit the growth of odor-causing bacteria, and others that create a cooling sensation on the skin.

  • Tagless heat-sealed technology.
  • Breakthrough processes that mold stretchy wovens for components such as bra cups.
  • Spandex applications that are heat resistant up to 265 degrees Fahrenheit, and still retain stretch and recovery. So far, the standard has been up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Products that offer moisture management that retains the same temperature on a hot day or while exercising.
  • Body imaging for precise measurements of bustline, chest, back, waist, hips and derriere to insure the proper comfort when wearing undergarments.
  • A huge interest in yarns that offer rich, gem-like hues and lusters that have a luxurious, subtle shine.

Kim Scheffler, North America Intimate Apparel Business manager at Invista, said two new Tactels called Estrella and Hyperbright introduced at the Lyon, Mode City show in Lyon, France, in September have received “rave results.” Estrella is a complex, cross-section yarn, which gives a star bright luster to warp knit satins, yet has an ultrasmooth hand. Hyperbright can be rendered in rich jewel tones because of ultrafine filaments and a modified delta-shaped cross section, she said.

Bob Kirkwood, Invista’s global technology director, said a patent has just been granted for Estrella that “has micro channels that wick moisture along a unique cross section.” He further noted: “At the Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris in January, we’ll be featuring new fabric and fiber applications, and be looking at more circular, seamless knits. Our R&D strategy is to introduce one new Tactel product a year. We have a commitment to finding and delivering innovation in Tactel and circular seamless knits for intimate apparel. As we continue to develop unique types off Tactel, the quality of the spandex is critical.”

Regarding product launches this fall, Scheffler cited two innovative examples: Benefit, a Canadian hosiery line that will introduce an aloe vera moisturizing and fresh cooling sensation collection, and Sara Lee’s Bali brand, which is launching Easy On shapewear made with Soft Comfort Lycra.

Bill Girrier, vice president of marketing and sales at the RadiciSpandex Corp., said the competitive edge in a marketplace saturated with Santoni seamless technology is developing a specialty niche.

“Seamless technology is a big thing to look into now because it all relates to the mass merchandising of intimate apparel we’ve never seen before, and this is possible through global sourcing and technology,” said Girrier. “Our challenge if we want to remain a U.S. manufacturer of spandex is we have to be more of a specialty fabrics user. What can we do to innovate what’s not in the mass market right now?”

“The newest news for us is Type S-45, a spandex that’s heat resistant up to 265 degrees Fahrenheit,’’ Girrier said. Traditional spandex can’t retain stretch and recovery at that temperature, and it’s not possible with microfiber or polyester in order to get really rich colors, and at the same time, be cost effective.

Henry Warshow, chief executive officer of H. Warshow & Sons, said his mill has a new process to use wovens in a moldable form in intimate apparel.

“It’s not proprietary, but it’s like the formula for Coca-Cola,’’ he said. “If you only have a part of it, it won’t help you out. We separate the formula out to separate plants so we won’t have any spies. What it does is it gives a lighter-weight fabric that won’t bind you and gives the support of a heavier fabric.”

Warshow said the new moldable woven is ideal for swimwear because the Lycra spandex is covered by nylon, but noted: “The process has to be right or it won’t weave properly and have the right stretch or recovery.”

Carol Gross, vice president of sales at Warshow, said the firm is pursuing yarns for lingerie that traditionally are rendered for swimwear. “We’re working with a unique textured nylon yarn from Unifi, Novva, which has a very sophisticated luster.” She added that Warshow is looking at new nylon yarns that “have the feel of cotton,” as well as yarns such as Skinlife by Nylstar that manages moisture and is antimicrobial.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, Anne DiGiovanna, vice president of marketing at The Warnaco Group, said a new collection by Olga called Smooth Benefits will be the first U.S. lingerie manufacturer to use the Lycra Body Care Moisturize system with aloe vera. Slated for Jan. 25 deliveries, the compact line of one cami and three undies will feature a heat-sealed label and a silver heat-sealed logo, and has a wash durability of as much as six months with regular wear, she said. Colors are pale shades of powder pink, ambrosia green, toasted almond and black and white.

Donna Hunter, vice president of women’s merchandising at Jockey International, said Jockey is relaunching the Jockey Bra Collection for spring 2005 based on an imaging research study conducted over the past two years with Size USA at TC2, a consumer research firm. The research analyzed “10,000 bodies, half of which were women, and captured about 200 different body measurements,” she said.

As a result, the line, which consists of eight styles — four padded and underwire styles and four lace numbers — features special detailing such as a cup shape designed in tandem with the underwire for a better-fitting frame and greater capacity, side taping under the arms to keep the bra shape from changing and bra straps anchored on the bottom — rather than the top — of the back wing to eliminate pulling.

Ellen Rohde, president of department, chains and specialty store brands at the VF Intimates Division at VF Corp., observed, “We are seeing a lot of exciting technology in the [bra] pad market and innovation in the weight of fabrics as well as applications of microincapsulation. We continue to conduct research in those areas, because it’s really what the consumer is looking for — benefits she believes she can get. We’re really focused on lighter fabric technology. It’s really about invisible fabrics, not from a sheer perspective, but from a weightless perspective with no lines and the elimination of seams and stitching.”

Josie Natori, ceo of Natori Co., said she is considering testing fabrics with two unique applications from Japan in her licensed line of bras with Dana-Co.: a fabric that “uses eggshell membrane protein that supposedly stimulates skin elasticity and skin absorption, and another made with corn for additional softness on the skin.”

Tobie Garfinkle, senior vice president of merchandising at the Liz Claiborne Intimates unit of Chelsea Design Group, said, “We are definitely looking for fabrics that provide function other than stretch and fit, especially fabrics that can be appropriate for full-figure as well as regular sizes. At the same time, special trims and strap treatments and elastics have a different potential, particularly soft finishes and moisture management.”

Jim Mogan, president of the Intimate Apparel Division of Kellwood Co., said, “Fashion treatments and trims is the newest thing for us. We are using tagless technology for fall ’05, while Izod bras will feature micro Modal and Izod sleepwear will feature sueded woven twills and knits, knit piqué with spandex and Modal blends with cotton knits and French terry. We’ll also be doing phosphorescent and metallic plastic yarns in our L.A. Intimates Group.”

Tom Ward, chairman and ceo of Maidenform Inc., singled out two new ideas that have been “extremely” successful: Maidenform’s One Fabulous Fit Bra, which uses new crush-resistant foam technology for the bra cups that has been added to a Full Figure Support group, and a line of control bottoms by Flexees called So Free, which is stitch-free and features no-edge technology around the waist and thighs.