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Shaping up the lingerie market

heist index

Shapewear us stepping into the lingerie spotlight, and comfort is still key for Britain’s underwear drawers – but not at the expense of style.

Good underwear is the foundation of a good wardrobe. The underwear market is estimated to grow 1.4% in 2020, against the predicted 2.1% for womenswear. The difference is “likely due to lack of innovation and slow digital development from the larger lingerie players,” says Nina Marston, beauty and fashion analyst at Euromonitor International. In comparison, there was a 0.3% fall in the UK underwear market in 2018/19. Against this backdrop, smaller digital brands are carving a niche, and larger players are having to innovate. 

Industry experts tell Drapers that the notable trends for upcoming seasons are an increased priority of comfort and pretty, feminine styles that reflect what women want to wear, rather than catering to the “male gaze”. On top of this, shapewear is predicted to be a growth area – for both men and women.

Influencer Kim Kardashian West launched her shapewear brand, Skims, in September 2019. The collection offers new designs such as asymmetric sculpting shorts, which can be worn under high-slit skirts. Most of the brand’s pieces, which all retail for under $100 (£76), sold out within minutes of going live.

While the brand was at first only available online at, it was announced last month that it will be stocked across 25 branches of department store Nordstrom in the US from 5 February. Skims is still only available to UK customers through its website, though with a large delivery fee of at least £17. It has no current plans for a UK-based distributor.

Skims’ popularity provides a potential gap in the market for existing lingerie brands, and is another way to give customers a full offering, preventing them from looking elsewhere

“Shapewear is up 40% for us year-on-year, with Spanx the key brand which perform year in, year out. We have seen good growth on the everyday shaping pieces and leggings, especially the fake leather style, which can be worn as outerwear,” says Emma Cooke, junior buyer at Figleaves.

There is definitely an increase in demand for shapewear as a whole

Zoe Price-Smith, Boux Avenue

Marks & Spencer is an underwear market leader, and one in three UK women own a bra from the retailer. Though its shapewear offering is more traditional than Skims, Soozie Jenkinson, its head of design for lingerie, swim and activewear says it is constantly building on this department: “Shapewear and solutions have always been an important part of our range and we have innovated into this space, bringing arm wear and wear-your-own-bra solutions to the category, alongside shaping bodies and knickers.”

The trend for form-fitting cycling shorts often worn by the Kardashians as outerwear has affected even the M&S shopper.

Jenkinson continues: “Thigh-slimming cycle pant shapes have been trending recently, as women have chosen this shape to wear under dresses and skirts.” 

It was the Christmas party season, rather than the Kardashians, which boosted shapewear sales at Boux Avenue.

“There is definitely an increase in demand for shapewear as a whole – we are currently working on a new collection to launch in autumn 20,”  reports brand and product director Zoe Price-Smith. “December 2019 sales of our high-waisted control briefs were up 95% compared with 2018, and sales of our sculpting high-waisted shorts were also up 93%.”

Initially starting with innovative hosiery, disruptive lingerie brand Heist launched shapewear in 2018. CEO Toby Darbyshire believes that Skims has caused a halo effect for the market.

“Skims is growing the overall category. The media interest in it and Kim Kardashian means that shapewear as a category has become more front of mind to a much wider audience.”

skims vanessa beecroft

Skims, photography by Vanessa Beecroft


Male shapewear

Spanx also received a celebrity mention in January, as British actor and TV host James Corden spoke out about wearing them on his The Late Late show, saying “My new year’s resolution is to try and get to a point where I do one show this year not wearing Spanx.”

The right fit and support in underwear is equally as important for men as it is for women

Kevin Wong, Selfridges

It is part of only a small number of brands that are offering male shapewear, and the range which launched in 2011, consists mostly of trunks, vests and t-shirts and is stocked by Selfridges in the UK.

Kevin Wong, buyer for men’s bodywear at Selfridges, saw positive effects from Cordon’s statement: “We saw an increase in men’s shapewear in the two weeks following James Cordon’s revelation that he wears Spanx, so it’s clear that men feel encouraged by the open discussion about male shapewear.

“The right fit and support in underwear is equally as important for men as it is for women,” he continued. “A growing self-awareness when it comes to body types and more open conversations about the subject do open up the possibility for male shapewear to become mainstream.”

Inclusivity has become a staple of womenswear and lingerie in recent years, with many brands offering a wide selection of sizes, as well as showing a variety of model shapes in its marketing campaigns. Skims are available in UK sizes 4-30, and in nine skin tones. This inclusivity could be taken a step further to include men’s shapewear and hosiery, believes Tom Martin, COO of independent etailer Snag Tights,

“James Corden’s comments reflect a shift that has already begun to happen in the shapewear and hosiery market – at Snag Tights, one in ten of our customers is male. However, we may start to see men being more confident in talking openly as a result, and I hope retailers will respond and develop their products and marketing plans accordingly.”

Growth in the sleep and loungewear markets has led Boux Avenue to launch a new loungewear range for autumn 20. Price-Smith says it will contain “New lounge bralets and T-shirt bras, shapewear, and luxe separates such as tracksuit bottoms, knitted cardigans and relaxed knits, for a product offering that caters to a full lifestyle.”

A zest for spring

Product trends in the lingerie market overall include a fresh, light colour palette.

“We will continue to be inspired by nature so all tones of green will be popular,” continues M&S’s Jenkinson

Sarah Connelly,rebranded as a lingerie fitter and personal shopper in November 2019, after closing her Edinburgh independent store Odyssey, which she had been running since 2010. She agree that a bright palette is key: “Citrus colours are big for spring – orange or lemon yellow. They are really light and feminine, and a real breath of fresh air.”  

Marks & Spencer

Marks & Spencer spring 20


Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at Mintel, argues: “The underwear market, like womenswear, has become increasingly competitive, as many newer players have come to the forefront challenging the big retailers and brands. We’ve seen lots of brands launching, having gained exposure through social media and built up a following.”

Nudea, for example, launched in September 2019, and specialises in comfort and fit.

CEO and co-founder Priya Downes agrees that there has been a shift in the market: “The trend over the past few years has gone from lingerie made for the ‘male-gaze’ to more women-focused designs, which take into account everyday needs of comfort and fit as well as style.”

Taking underwear out

Shoppers have not completely abandoned the feminine aesthetic, however.

“Comfort never goes out of style, but the modern woman does not favour comfort at the expense of a beautiful looking product. She seeks both,” explains Bluebella CEO Emily Bendell. “The most marked change has been the evolution of lingerie from an underwear to a fashion purchase. Our customer is just as likely to buy a fabulous bra or striking bodysuit for a party or night out than she is to buy a lingerie set to wear under clothes.”

Comfortable lingerie is becoming more and more important – but without having to sacrifice its look.

Georgia Larsen, Dora Larsen

Dora larsen style me sunday 3

Influencer Natalie Lee (@stylemesunday) uses Dora Larsen lingerie as outerwear

Dora Larsen launched in 2016, and operates from a studio in Peckham, south-east London. 

Its signature design element is colourful lace, and founder Georgia Larsen agrees that female shoppers are taking underwear out: “Our bodies get worn a lot as outerwear – over T-shirts and under strappy dresses so you see the lacy details. No one looks like us in the market, and people want to show it off.”

“I know our lingerie looks feminine and girly, but we’re trying to do it in a way that’s empowering. Comfortable lingerie is becoming more and more important – but without having to sacrifice its look. Some brands are doing lovely, plain cotton styles but we’re trying to offer a feminine, lacy design while still being comfortable.”

The move away from overtly “sexy” styles towards comfort is nothing new and was cemented by the cessation of the long-running Victoria’s Secret show in November 2019.

“The trend for comfort is one that won’t go away,” M&S’s Jenkinson adds. “We will continue to see the softer, natural silhouette drive lingerie development with continued focus on non-padded and non-wired bras.”

Bralettes are again a consistently key shape for both spring and autumn 20, a trend witnessed by Connelly: “Bralettes and non-wired bras have had a great resurgence in the last four years. There’s more of a want for less padded bras and for great natural form.”

Michele Poynter, owner of lingerie and swimwear boutique Mish, in Wadebridge, Cornwall, has seen also observed the popularity of the natural look: “Still outselling everything else are non-padded balconies, and non-wired bralettes. The best-selling brief shapes are shorts and high waisted styles, often seamless.

“Brands are playing it safe,” she continues. “Spring 20 was one of the hardest seasons to buy, because of the lack of choice being offered in the fashion ranges.”

Poynter also speculates that this could be a result of the number of stockists, both department stores and independents, reducing in size, as well as an “ever-increasing offering of own brand lingerie.”

Competition is rife, and can put a strain on independent shop owners, Connelly said of her recent change in direction, “When you’re competing with the high street you have to be open all hours. If you take time off, you risk losing customers – I just wasn’t willing to feel that pressure all the time.”

The UK underwear market is predicted to grow at a slower rate than general womenswear, where brands have particularly struggled the past year. This leads to a tough environment in the lingerie market, but new launches are continuously breaking through and snapping on the heels of established retailers, as seen with Nudea in September 2019, and on a bigger scale, Skims, the same month.

Customers expect inclusive and stylish products, whether in shapewear or underwear, that cater for a large variety of shapes and sizes. Established, as well as new brands, have to provide this to entice shoppers above their competitors.

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