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Comfort still reigns in the UK lingerie market

Debenhams lingerie index

The market for comfortable lingerie is soaring, but other trends are emerging and brands are vying to meet the demand

From their footwear to their underwear, today’s shopper is demanding comfort. In the UK lingerie market, where niche brands are carving a spot for themselves alongside established retail giants, padded and push-up styles have been replaced by softer, sports-inspired shapes.

Although the demand for comfort is not new – Calvin Klein’s logo-heavy but simple, unwired designs, for example, have long attracted a mix of high street and online stockists,  including Asos, Urban Outfitters, Net-a-Porter, Matchesfashion, Debenhams and Next – it is becoming more prominent than ever.  

With demand for shapewear, the rise of high-waisted shapes, and a body-positive desire for sexy lingerie to suit all shapes, the market is growing. Customers are becoming more daring in their lingerie choices, and expect their purchases to follow both societal trends of greater body positivity and the latest fashion directions. Brands are emerging to fill these niches, and more established names are expanding their offers to keep up with shoppers’ demands.

As the comfort trend matures, brands and retailers are focusing on technical advances to offer a “second-skin” experience.

Comfort has become bigger than ever

Belinda Leca, Wacoal Europe

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“Comfort is so important,” explains Michele Poynter, owner of Cornish lingerie retailer Mish. “Brands are talking to us about the grade of the cotton and the modal they’re using, emphasising how super-soft it is.”

Belinda Leca, head of sales at Wacoal Europe, which operates brands including Freya, Fantasie and Elomi, agrees: “Comfort has become bigger than ever. It has always been a focus [at Wacoal], but we have changed many of our new Fantasie products to really focus on the comfort factor, as well as unparalleled fit and support. New hook-and-eye details are padded for everyday comfort, and there’s more stretch lace that moulds to the bust, as well as deeper wings and less stitching.”

Wider cultural trends are driving the demand for comfort and other shifts in the market. Emma Parker, founder of lingerie labels Playful Promises and Wolf & Whistle, tells Drapers that the body positivity movement has had contradictory effects.

“Non-wired styles and bralettes are more popular than ever, because women are feeling at ease with their bodies,” she says. “Comfort is more important. However, the body-positivity movement has also made it more socially acceptable for women to express their sexuality and, as such, we’re finding that there is also huge demand for racy lingerie.

“What women want is marketing that is more in line with how a broader section of society looks, and they want more innovatively designed products. Brands with a sexy edge, like Playful Promises and Bluebella, are experiencing incredible growth.”

Kate Crossey, design director of accessories and lingerie at Debenhams [Debenhams spring 19, lead image], agrees: “Cultural shifts such as the #MeToo movement, and the strength of mainstream feminism, have driven a softer form of empowered dressing. Femininity is making a comeback, with the idea of being sexy for yourself, not others.”

But despite these growth areas, the sector is not without its own unique challenges, and brands and retailers are battling for their slice of the lingerie pie.

“The lingerie market is dynamic, but the flip side is that people are being squeezed at every level,” Poynter explains. “The cost of living has gone up, rates and rents have gone up, and the cost of manufacturing has gone up. There is only one strong lingerie trade show [Birmingham’s Indx Intimate Apparel, 17-19 February], so independent retailers are at risk of all buying the same collections from the same brands. We’re having to look further afield for new labels.”

Lounge underwear triangle

Lounge Underwear

Social media has also made it easier for entrepreneurs to start lingerie labels, and has led to fierce competition, says Daniel Marsden, founder of Lounge Underwear: “We were able to start the brand with just £1,000 and used social media to get the word out there. That’s helped us hugely, but it also means there are more and more boutique brands in the market. There’s also competition from the likes of Primark, Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing, who are improving their lingerie offer.”

When it comes to product, high-waisted bikinis and knickers are sweeping the market. Social media stars posing in their smalls on Instagram helped spark the trend, but it has been widely adopted in the market. 

For example, lingerie giant Marks & Spencer unveiled its Miami knicker, a high-waisted style with a V-shaped dip in the front and back, for spring 19.

“When we first launched our Triangle [bra and knicker] Set, influencers wearing the brand were pulling them up to make them look higher waisted,” Marsden explains. “We sell considerably more high-waisted products then we do traditional briefs now.”

There’s been a swing back to thongs, particularly high-waisted styles

Emily Bendell, Bluebella

Co-founder Mel Paradise adds: “Our customer is usually aged between 18 and 26. Think about who those girls are looking at – it’s the influencers like Kim Kardashian. High-waisted styles give you a shape and a curve that you might not naturally have. They also sit nicely under high-waisted jeans, which are another trend.”

Emily Bendell, founder of Drapers Award-winning lingerie brand Bluebella, agrees: “There’s been a swing back to thongs, particularly high-waisted styles – customers are looking for that unusual shape. What used to be considered provocative has become much more mainstream – risqué buys like harnesses have become more of a fashion purchase.”

Leila Habibi, product and supply chain director at luxury lingerie label Myla London, says customers will favour simplicity while experimenting with colour: “A trend for spring 19 is soft hues. Styles are less structured, and customers want soft shapes to flatter and enhance the body. 

“We will see more of this trend moving into the autumn, but in richer, more opulent shades and pops of unexpected bright tones. There will be a move towards even simpler shapes and styling – fabric will be the main focus.”

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Myla London

Styles may be getting softer, but shapewear is a growing category for many lingerie retailers and brands. The number of new shapewear products sold by retailers rocketed by 143% in 2018 compared with the previous year, retail data  company Edited has found. High-waisted knickers, control slips, and long-sleeved tops are among the bestselling shapewear styles, and innovation is key. 

Disruptive lingerie brand Heist, known for its seamless tights, launched its first shapewear range in November last year. The label’s Outer Body line is made from an elastomer fabric that aims to cut down on squeezing and discomfort.

Wacoal is also seeking to capitalise on growing customer demand for shapewear, says Susan Bradley, Leca’s fellow head of sales: “Consumers are looking for easy-fit everyday styles. For autumn 19 we will introduce ‘Body Lift’ – a shapewear collection offering the consumer a whole new level of lift, and shaping of the legs and bottom, to transform their silhouette.”

Comfort may still reign, but the devil is in the design detail – customers want comfort and style without compromise. Lingerie brands – both established and new – will have to create exceptional product and retailers choose their stock carefully to stand out in a hugely competitive field.

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