Sportswear’s Success Drives Fresh Innovation in Underwear

Sportswear’s success is opening up opportunities in other areas of apparel. Whether consumers are paying a premium for high-tech performance wear or opting for lower-priced sportswear from the growing number of fast fashion brands now in the market, since the vast majority of sportswear is slim fitting, underwear that compliments is a must.

Looking beyond aesthetic appeal, sports underwear is seeing heightened activity in terms of functionality, much of it focused on sports bras. Despite the recent activity, there remains vast potential for innovation in the category, which is still in the very early stages of development – the first sports bra only arrived on shelves in 1979. Even relatively simple design tweaks, such as pockets to hold keys, seams designed to prevent itching and fabrics that wick away sweat, can all add value at this early stage.

Fashion and functionality make for a winning mix

Global underwear category leader, L Brands’ Victoria’s Secret, was the first to truly mix fashion and functionality in its sports bra range. It first tested the sports bra concept in 2006 and launched in 2013. Now the retailer offers a huge range and combines its expertise in the field of structure and fit with a host of patterns, colours and designs. Encouraged by early success, the sports bra range is being rapidly rolled out, arriving in 100 US stores this year, with another 100 to follow.

Under Armour has followed suit, launching what it describes as a “game-changing” sports bra range that incorporates gel shoulder straps and a gel-encased underwire to provide support without irritation. The new Armour bra collection, part of the brand’s hugely successful “I Will What I Want” campaign, includes a simplified range of styles with low, medium or high support and is a significant step forward from traditional crop top-style offerings that remain the mainstay of sportswear brands. Lululemon is another to test the water with additional functionality – its Cool to Street Bra, for example, zips at the front.

As the market develops we can expect to see more sportswear brands looking to incorporate functionality more typical of traditional underwear into their sports bra offering. Although this requires investment, added functionality offers both a point of difference in an increasingly competitive market and allows for a more premium price positioning.

Nanotechnology is next on the list, with wearable tech a little way off

The arrival of nanotechnology means fabrics can now relatively easily be imparted with cooling, odour-neutralising and antibacterial properties, all of which are already arriving in sportswear. It is easy to imagine how this type of fabric innovation could be the next significant innovation in sports bras and serve as another means of adding value. Another as yet largely unexplored innovation opportunity comes from textile manufacturer Delta Galil, which has used its patented seamless knitting technology to create completely seam-free Ergonomic Sports Bras.

Looking further ahead, advancements in wearable technology may also hold potential at the premium end of sports underwear. While Lululemon and Victoria’s Secret have both already trialled bras with electrodes that connect to heart rate monitors, a longer-term prospect lies with biometric technology, which makes it possible to turn bras into wearable smart devices that monitor the likes of heart rate, fitness and muscle performance. It must be acknowledged that, as things stand, smart sportswear is ultra-niche and costly enough to exclude the vast majority of consumers. Nevertheless this avenue of innovation should not be written off, but rather watched with interest.

The right retail environment can widen sportswear’s appeal

While sports bras are seeing a huge amount of product innovation and this will serve to spur strong value growth, retailer innovation is lacking and this is holding back the category from perhaps reaching even greater potential.

Sports bras are not only a key product, they can also serve as an entry point into sportswear as a whole. In a recent study conducted by the University of Portsmouth, 46% of 2,000 women surveyed said their breasts were a barrier to participating in sport. While underwear retailers such as Victoria’s Secret offer advice as standard, in most sportswear stores women are left to fend for themselves. Improvements to the retail environment mean women will be enabled to find a sports bra that fits and begin their fitness journey, opening up more sportswear purchases across the product spectrum.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, the largest sports retailer in the US, is the first sports retailer to invest in a new approach. The retailer has created a multi-branded bra “destination” in its stores, where professional bra fitters are on hand for advice. Alongside product innovation, this kind of retail strategy is key if the category is to fulfill its true potential.