As consumer spending is squeezed, shoppers are splashing out on lingerie and hosiery. Drapers finds out which are the strongest-selling styles and why
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Underwear is moving out from beneath clothing’s shadow. Intricate bras and bodies are designed to be seen, and the sector is set for significant growth. The UK’s lingerie market will grow by 11.4% between 2016 and 2021 to top £3bn, market researcher Mintel has forecast. It seems that lingerie may be benefiting from a form of “lipstick effect” – as consumer spending continues to be squeezed, shoppers opt for items with lower price points such as underwear and hosiery.
“It is a little bit miserable out there, the economy is a worry and so customers like to treat themselves with some gorgeous, glamorous underwear. Just knowing that you have a nice set of underwear on can make you feel good,” explains Debby Duckett, buying director at Boux Avenue.
As the sector flourishes, however, competition in this crowded market is increasingly fierce. Brands and retailers seeking to make their mark in lingerie are up against the sector’s giants, both established – Marks & Spencer commands a 27.6% share of the UK lingerie market, selling more than 21 million bras every year and two pairs knickers every second – and newer entrants.
I expect growth in the lingerie market over the next 12 months as the bralette look begins to influence the core collections of bigger brands
Sian Thomas, international head of design for Triumph
“The main challenge for us is definitely competition from bigger retailers either moving into or expanding their own-brand lingerie offers,” confirms Janet Mudge, brand director at lingerie label Bluebella.
“The big guys, like Asos, are focusing on their own labels, so we have to make sure we are constantly producing product customers won’t see in those ranges.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a wave of smaller lingerie brands has entered the market. What they lack in size, they make up for by offering consumers more choice than they can find on the high street, in terms of both styles and sizing.
Lingerie label Dora Larsen, for example, is known for its quirky colour combinations and delicate lace. Founder Georgia Larsen, who started the brand in 2015 and previously worked as a lingerie buyer for Topshop, believes consumers are looking for something different.
“There is just so much choice out there and customers don’t have to rely on the high street telling them what to wear,” she says. “They expect more than ever before. It’s no good doing an update on last year’s bestseller – you need to be producing something exciting.”
When it comes to product, the bralette’s reign over the UK lingerie market shows no signs of ending, as customers ditch heavily padded styles in favour of a sports-inspired silhouette. But as the trend matures, brands and retailers are racing to introduce products that can mimic the look on a variety of cup sizes, big and small.
“Bralettes continue to be popular, but brands are developing non-wired solutions that are still supportive,” explains Elly Rigby, the owner of London-based lingerie retailer The Pantry Underwear, which also runs a shop-in-shop at luxury department store Liberty.
“Those who focus on larger cup sizes are replicating the triangle bras traditionally more suited to an A to C cup, which is no mean feat. We’ve also seen some very pretty padded bralettes for smaller cup sizes coming through, because, if you’re quite flat-chested, a bralette doesn’t give you anything.”
Supportive styles that echo the effect created by triangle bras and bralettes are among lingerie retailer Boux Avenue’s key pieces for spring 18, adds Duckett: “We’re definitely seeing the popularity of styles that can create the look of a triangle bra with more support.
“If you’re a D cup, you’re going to struggle with a little bralette, but a high-apex bra [where the point at which the cup joins the shoulder strap is higher] can create that look with wire. We’ve done particularly well with our high-apex Zoe bra and with high-waisted knickers with sheer panels. They offer more comfort and that is definitely something customers are looking for.”
M&S has also noted the rise of bigger knickers. Full briefs became the retailer’s best-selling knicker shape in 2017, knocking the Brazilian off the top spot. Last year, it sold 13 million full-brief knickers in the UK.
Sian Thomas, international head of design for Triumph, agrees: “I expect there to be some growth in the lingerie market over the next 12 months as the bralette look begins to influence the core collections of bigger brands. Everybody wants that look, regardless of cup size. By adding light padding and wire into higher-apex and longer-line styles, we can create the shape and feel of a bralette but with support.”
The trend for athleisure will certainly continue for at least some of 2018
Lizzie Dawson, design director at Urban Outfitters Europe
As the athleisure trend progresses, customers will turn towards a softer, more feminine variation on the trend.
“The trend for athleisure will certainly continue for at least some of 2018,” explains Lizzie Dawson, design director at Urban Outfitters Europe. “Customers still like the idea of lingerie being worn as part of the visible outfit, as opposed to just an undergarment. There has been a very masculine, athletic approach in the last 12 months and, although I don’t expect this to go away any time soon, I anticipate demand for more feminine product to come through.”
As the choice of styles and brands proliferates, lingerie can be as much an affordable pick-up for customers as it is everyday necessity. The market is growing, but so too is the number of players hoping to take a slice of it. Retailers need to make sure they are offering plenty of choice, and styles and sizes to suit every customer.
Spotlight on socks
Socks and tights are no longer an afterthought. Rigby argues that interesting hosiery is a particular opportunity for retailers. Searches for sheer socks and glitter socks on image-sharing social media platform Pinterest have rocketed by 195% and 260% respectively over the last year.
“We’re certainly seeing customers invest in their hosiery. People aren’t wearing skinny jeans that go right down to the shoe any more,” she explains. “They’re wearing straight cuts or styles with ripped bottoms, which makes interesting, good-quality socks an integral part of the outfit.”
Paula Maso, concept designer for sock and underwear brand Happy Socks, which introduced new trend-focused line Hysteria last year, agrees: “Transparent styles, glitter and embellishment are all the rage [in socks]. We’re really excited about tights for autumn 18, as the more fashion-forward personalities start to wear them in a really fun way. As a larger trend, sheer qualities, glitter and beading is going to keep growing.”
Even classic black and nude tights are being reimagined. Disruptive underwear brand Heist has created a stir with its eye-catching ad campaign and ambitious claim to have created the perfect pair of tights. The brand, which launched in 2015, uses a seamless waistband, stretchier yarn and 3D knitting to make tights it says reduce rubbing, twisting and laddering.
“We worked with 67 women to find out what they wanted from tights and focused on three complaints: digging in at the waist, itchy yarn and slipping down,” explains Heist’s head of community Ellie Howard. “For the waistband, we looked to products like yoga leggings, which allow customers to move freely. There’s also no gusset, the tights are seamless and knitted in one continuous tube. The toe seam is then tucked under the foot.”