In an age of diversity, the lingerie industry has seen a significant shift over the past few years. Gen-Z approved DTC brands have disrupted the space, gunning for market share from legacy players. Silhouettes have evolved with comfort at their core, accelerated further by the pandemic. “Nude” shades don’t just cover one skin tone and a greater emphasis is placed on catering to all genders and body types.
Like all categories experiencing an inclusive and sustainable overhaul, strides have been made, but there is still a long way to go. It's something brands competing in this space can no longer afford to ignore if they want to remain relevant.
Today, underwear makes up 6% of womenswear products currently retailing online across the US and UK markets combined. This may seem small, but on a global scale lingerie is expected to hit $250 billion by 2022 according to Allied Market Research, making that 6% worth owning.
Read on as we undress the current state of this lucrative market and its opportunities.
The EDITED Market Intelligence Platform can help businesses demystify this category, taking the guesswork out of planning, pricing and phasing assortments. Get in touch here to see EDITED in action for your category.
Comfort is king
For many years now, lingerie styles have pivoted away from the bust-emphasizing bra styles popularized in the '90s to reflect modern consumers' demand for comfort and functionality. Enter COVID-19, contributing further to the decline of the push-up bra. With sleepwear, activewear and loungewear emerging as the darlings of pandemic dressing, lingerie that straddles these categories have become the MVPs.
Charting new arrivals over the past two years showed push-up bras fluctuating and trending down. A spike in newness was noted this year ahead of Valentine's Day, backed primarily by Victoria’s Secret and Tezenis. However, over the past three months alone, investment has been outstripped 117% by the softer triangle bralette.
The market's penchant for going wireless has also led to a drop in push-up bras' advertised average price. In 2020, it averaged at $31.36. It’s now declined to $29.46, which is on average cheaper than the bralette at $38.75 - its less technical, but more popular rival..
Analyzing sell outs is further proof comfort and functionality are winning right now. Across the US and UK combined over the past three months, bralettes and sports bras eclipsed push-ups by 382% and 162%, respectively.
This doesn't mean the end to flirty and seductive silhouettes. Attributes associated with “comfort” (and the word itself) such as “seamless,” “wireless,” “stretch” and “soft” were included in the top performing lingerie styles over the past three months. However, “lace” and “padded” ranked as number one and six, suggesting there is still interest in pretty and feminine details to complement no-fuss functional shapes.
Push-up styles are the third most invested bra shape across the US and UK markets combined, beaten out by sports bras (the second most-stocked bra style right now) and bralettes (first). Even though this shape is declining, push-ups still have a significant market share, particularly in the US. Retailers need to be careful about investing too heavily as the number of styles in stock are down 38% across both markets compared to two years ago.
Recent top performing bralette styles:
Meanwhile, sports bras stocked in the UK market alone have increased by 42% with prices rising as retailers capitalize on the COVID activewear boom. T-shirt bras also saw a 17% lift, echoing the importance of comfort in this space.
For both markets combined, briefs make up the majority of the underwear category. Breaking it down further reveals each region is divided on its preferred panty style.
Less is more in the US, where thongs make up 39% of underwear compared to briefs at 37%. In the UK, briefs are 66% of the total assortment while thongs are 29%. However, across both markets, "big knickers" or "granny panties" à la Bridget Jones are in. Blame it on the pandemic, but comfort wins on the bottoms too - high waist, full coverage briefs outsold hipster styles by 225% over the past three months.
Recent successful brief styles:
Much like beauty, a greater variety of shades fall under “nude” as more brands work on setting a new precedent for inclusivity across skin tones.
Specializing in this market include Black-owned UK brand Nubian Skin - a favorite of Beyoncé and Lizzo. Based on foundation shades, the brand offers a carefully curated collection of lingerie, hosiery and activewear for women and men of color. Nude Barre was born from the frustration of not being able to find nude ballet tights for black skin, offering intimates and hosiery in 12 hues. From an ethical and sustainable standpoint, PROCLAIM's nude range is LA-made with TENCEL™ and REPREVE® with recycled packaging and hang tags.
This ideal is becoming more commonplace within mainstream brands. Further eschewing the notion of one nude suits all, Kim Kardashian West's Skims' Fits Everybody range is available in 13 skin-hued colors. Rihanna's Savage X Fenty empire was built with inclusivity at its heart and offers a range of flesh tones including Bare, Honey and Caviar to cater to a more diverse audience.
Missguided emerged as a new player in this space last year, launching its However You Nude campaign including loungewear, shapewear and underwear in eight shades, and with sizes ranging from four to 24.
Sex sells...if everyone’s included
Following the events of 2020, the fashion industry will be held to a higher standard for diversity and inclusion, making it paramount that retailers embed this in all aspects of their business and not just as a box-ticking exercise.
Lingerie is a sector that has experienced a significant overhaul. Last year, Rihanna's Savage X Fenty 2 runway provided a tonic to the now-canceled Victoria's Secret Fashion shows, which long fueled outdated ideals of what sexy and empowerment looked like. Featuring live music acts, a lineup of LGBTQ+ models, alongside celebrities and dancers spanning all body shapes and sizes, Savage X Fenty was more than a runway. It was an event that set the bar high for the future of fashion shows.
2021 has kicked off with lingerie retailers making adjustments to their offerings to win back market share from younger, more inclusive brands. Agent Provocateur extended its bra and underwear sizes in a new inclusive collection called All Hours. Cup sizes range from A to G and bottoms in a UK 1 to 6. To court a younger audience, Cosabella has joined forces with Free People on a range of bralettes with cup sizes from DD to H and band sizes 30 to 40 with underwear from XS to XL.
There is still a long way to go for inclusive sizing within the masses. According to the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, the average American woman wears a size 16-18 and has a 38.7 inch waist. This would put her in the size XL - XXL bracket. Analyzing panties currently in stock in the US market (only counting items sized by S, M, L), reveals these sizes attributed to only 25% of the products available. Retailers are instead investing in sizes S and M, which have an equal weighting of 19%, making up the majority of the market at 38%.
Despite being underserved, there is appetite within the plus market for lingerie, making it a missed opportunity for retailers not investing. Our lingerie top word sell outs chart showed “plus” as one of the top 10 most popular words associated with best selling lingerie in the US over the past three months. Google searches continue to trend alongside genderless underwear - another market opportunity retailers should take advantage of and to tap into comfortable, lounging fits with "borrowed from my partner" appeal.
Diversity and inclusivity across size and gender within lingerie will continue to be of importance, especially with Gen-Z cohorts demanding a reassessment of the traditionally sexualized imagery of the industry. Retailers not sure about the pay off just need to look at Savage X Fenty, where its inclusive approach saw it reach $1 billion in equity. Or gender fluid label Les Girls Les Boys, which experienced a 400% YoY increase in underwear sales in 2020.
The times are a-changin’.
What happened to shapewear?
Towards the end of 2019, Kardashian West announced her foray into shapewear. Coupled with buzzy brands like Heist pioneering inclusion and disrupting the market, this mature category became appealing to younger consumers. However, COVID hasn't been kind to all products and those associated with occasionwear were hit the hardest.
Shapewear is not reliant on constant newness as retailers investing will back core styles and replenish them once they sell through. Still, the number of new styles arriving online in the US and UK in 2020 decreased by 9% compared to 2019 with currently 24% less styles in stock YoY.
In October, EDITED weighed in on Vogue Business' profile on Kardashian West that interest in shapewear waned, making the inclusion of stable categories like lingerie and loungewear in Skims pre-COVID a savior. The number of shapewear styles selling out online since March was down by 10% YoY. Discounting had also increased YoY, with 25% of products reduced at an average of 35%. This indicates that even though there were fewer styles available, retailers required deeper reductions to sell through inventory.
Has there been a bounceback since? Not quite, but there are some bright spots. While the average discount percentage still holds in the US, retailers have pulled back the proportion of products reduced to 17%. Additionally, control top briefs saw a 127% YoY uptick in sell outs in the US alone over the past three months - backing up the previous point that big knickers are cool again.
Demand for more traditional shapewear will return when events kick off again and interest in occasionwear is renewed, but since there is still so much uncertainty, the opportunity for shapewear brands lies in moving away from products advertised to “fix” or hide body parts. Instead, the future of this category will be providing comfort and innovation within fit technology that speaks to our current lifestyle.
As activewear continues to go from strength to strength, there's merit in experimenting with shapewear that offers sweat-wicking capabilities and can support your body during exercise. Towards the end of 2020, Stella McCartney tapped into this space with the Stellawear sustainable capsule collection - not exclusively shapewear, but body-sculpting swimwear that can also be worn as lingerie, yogawear or daywear. Multifunctional pieces create a seamless silhouette regardless of body shape, making it ideal for today's consumer whose life has seen work, home, exercise and social activities all blur together.
How sustainable is this market?
Lingerie will continue to be a category that comes under scrutiny for its environmental impact due to the disposable nature of cheap underwear, excessive dyes and the use of petroleum-based fabrics. As with most categories, sustainability will remain crucial with the mounting pressure from Gen-Z and millennial consumers, who are typically more vocal about these issues.
Currently 7% of underwear in the US is described with sustainable attributes. Considering underwear is worn daily, the lack of sustainable and eco-friendly options are both an oversight and an opportunity. Brands with sustainability as part of their ethos cater to this, but even then underwear is only a small part of their business. This category only makes up 2.4% and 0.7% of products currently retailing at Stella McCartney and Reformation, respectively. Free People also offers a collection of thongs made from Dupont™ Sorona®, an eco-friendly fabric made from corn sugar.
This leaves the market open for new entrants and innovation. A slew of Insta-cool brands are leaving their mark while keeping people and the planet in mind. Fruity Booty offers limited runs to prevent overproduction and HARA uses eco-friendly bamboo fabric and plant-based natural dyes made from turmeric, indigo and madder root. Organic Basics offer undergarments made from high-quality natural materials, as well as products using SilverTech. This consists of silver woven into organic cotton, which makes these pieces antibacterial and heat regulating, requiring fewer washes.
Recently, Gen-Z favorite Parade launched its Universal collection, the world’s first carbon neutral underwear. By using sustainable recycled yarns, the range saves up to 8.5% of energy, 84% of water waste and 77% of gas generation. Girlfriend Collective designed an exclusive range of sports bras for Net-a-Porter, composed of stretch fabric from recycled plastic bottles and eco-friendly dyes. Hush, Reiss and Marks & Spencer all introduced sustainable sports bras in January too. Men’s underwear can’t be overlooked either. Australian legacy brand Bonds gave its signature Chesty styles an organic update, while Levi’s Underwear for Living offers sustainable style for Gen-Z men.
Thinking of launching an underwear collection? Consider pricing
Like most product categories, lingerie is pressured by fast fashion brands claiming a stake in the market and undercutting legacy players' prices. In October, Zara entered the game with its first lingerie and sleepwear collection. Currently, boohoo has increased this category by 23% YoY.
Combined with the growing frugality from the pandemic economy, many major brands would be tempted to slash prices to be more competitive. On the contrary, brands have elevated their advertised price points, protecting their margins and reflecting the lingerie market's strength in this challenging climate. Bras at ThirdLove have risen from an average of $67.36 in 2020 to $70.26, and underwear from $14.99 to $17.93. LIVELY's bras currently sit at $43.62, up from an average of $35, with panties up from $10 to $11.79. Panties at Savage X Fenty dropped from $20.75 to $18.86 YoY, but bras have absorbed the cost, rising from $43.87 to $46.33.
Given the company's struggle, Victoria's Secret stands out as an anomaly. Prices are cheaper with bras down from $54.88 in 2020 to $50.94, while the Pink brand has maintained average prices YoY. Underwear prices have also fallen from $17.45 to $16.76.
Businesses need to embrace data instead of blindly sacrificing margins to be more competitive with pricing. Using the EDITED Market Intelligence Platform, retailers can understand the way each region merchandises by price and the price points selling out, highlighting opportunities to plan smarter.
Both the US and UK place the most emphasis in retailing underwear at between $/£10-20. The US market could push harder into its upper price brackets, given that the popularity of underwear at the $30-40 price point outstrips the weighting given to options. The £10 and under mark is favored by UK consumers. However, there is also the opportunity for elevated products within the £60-70 bracket, which is currently under-invested.
The Chinese brands to know
According to the Business of Fashion, China's $61 billion underwear market has been disrupted by a wave of digitally-native domestic brands, challenging the region's beauty standards and winning market share over international entrants.
Brands wanting to compete in this space and capture the Chinese consumer's sought-after spending power need to take a localized approach, learning from the brands leading the way. Neiwai, Bananain, Toffee and Livary Mio have been hailed as the ones to watch, specializing in high-tech fabrics, non-scratch tags, gender-neutral styles and expertly leveraging social shopping.
Digital's continued takeover
The loose statistic that 70% to 100% of women are wearing the wrong size bra has haunted the industry for some time. Whether true or not, fit is one of the cornerstones of a successful lingerie business and is more crucial to get right now as the retail landscape becomes digitized.
Pre-pandemic, brands were already placing an invested interest in online fitting services through guides or an algorithm quiz to advise on the best size. Cuup offers personal video conference fittings, while ThirdLove's new interactive Fitting Room allows customers to accurately measure bras with a slider to avoid cups gaping or bands and straps digging in.
Looking again to China, the brand Ubras includes a QR code in the packaging of every product sold, allowing consumers to connect with a customer service rep on WeChat. This representative can then add customers to Ubras private traffic WeChat groups where they can see updates on new products or livestream sales.
With in-person, high-touch services halted and the sun setting on brick-and-mortar, lingerie brands need to throw their weight behind digital technology to bolster their ecommerce offering.
Multiple product styles at various price points and so many factors to consider make lingerie a tricky area to unpack. Luckily, the EDITED Market Intelligence Platform can help simplify this category, giving you the power to make the best decisions for your brand using real-time data.
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