FEATURE: Giving Birth

Lingerie Insight investigates the current offerings in maternity lingerie and discovers what the sector will be giving birth to in the year ahead.

How many maternity bras could one woman need?

“Generally two to three maternity bras and three nursing bras,” Amoralia director Jules Canterbury states with authority, “one to wear, one as a spare in case of leakages and one in the wash.”

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Maternity lingerie has traditionally always been seen as a niche area of the intimate apparel sector. Its natural constraint – a defined and limited period of demand – appears to have put many potential retailers off, with the added complications of design only adding to their hesitation.

But, the maternity lingerie sector is now becoming increasingly competitive, as innovative entrepeneurs see the profits to be made from prettifying the previously plain panties.

“It’s a surprisingly competitive sector,” Canterbury says. “In fact, there are over 30 brands fighting for a slice of a very small pie.

“Another challenge is that we always have to have enough stock of continuity items – a retailer can’t ask their customer to come back in six months when the new collections are in.

“Finally,” she adds, “there’s always the issue of getting the right balance between style and functionality – a bra has to be comfortable, supportive, pretty and come in at a competitive price point, as there is a real price sensitivity in this market.”

Traditional brands are realising that they have to offer prettier, more fashion-led collections to compete with the newer entrants. It doesn’t help that more and more retailers are offering own-label collections, such as Mamas & Papas, and Mothercare, so specialists are having to innovate and show the customer that they really do add value.

This year, Amoralia has revamped its swimwear to offer a mix-and-match story and is developing its best-selling Second Skin collection to offer a fuller bust version of the nursing bra, as well as adding fresh fashion ranges to its mix. It is currently seeking to expand the business significantly with new sales agents across Europe, greater investment in marketing to support its retailers and new product development.

Bravado Designs, recently acquired by Medela AG, is another brand that has come up with a series of new designs to help it obtain a greater share of the market.

These include ‘flexible sizing,’ a Bravado Body Silk Seamless Nursing bra which can be fitted at three months and be worn at birth and during nursing. The double ply fabric will expand as the rib cage changes during pregnancy and contract back after birth.

The cup also has the ability to grow with you and contract back, alleviating wrinkles in the cup when one breast is fuller than the other. Bravado Designs claims that with this product, if there is exceptional growth, the maximum number of bras would be two.

Bravado Designs director of European operations Penny Clayton says: “Following the exciting news about Bravado being acquired by Medela AG, the world’s leader in breastfeeding systems, we will continue to develop innovative new products and programs under the Bravado brand that meet the needs of expecting and nursing mothers everywhere.

“We will be driving forward with lots of projects and making sure pregnant and nursing mums have access to Bravado Designs product worldwide – watch this space!”

Emma-Jane also offers a product that is designed to adapt to the woman throughout her pregnancy. The brand designed its Next Generation seamfree bra to come in just four sizes, 32 – 38, with one cup size that covers sizes B to F.

Emma-Jane sales director John White says: “This means as a woman’s breast change, the bra changes with them, so they can get away with buying fewer of them.”

Technology is playing an increasingly important part in the performance of brands, as they seek to stay ahead of the growing number of competitors.

Cake Lingerie designer Tracey Montford is keenly aware of this and considers technology to be a vital aspect of the maternity brand’s design.

She says: “For brands who are championing innovation, like ourselves, technology and unique engineering is key to product development every season. Cake Lingerie continues to innovate and is first to market in a number of areas; MyBust, Flexible Wire Fashion Nursing & other fit related improvements.”

Flexiblem, or soft, wires are a concept which has recently been picked up by a number of different brands. And, according to Anita UK general manager Gemma Barnes, this development of bras with specially design soft wires has been eagerly received by nursing mothers. The bras aim to support women as they seek to regain their shape, whilst offering vital post-pregnancy comfort.

“We have developed special wires that are approved by medical teams as safe for nursing mothers to wear,” Barnes says, “and this has really satisfied a need in the market place.

“Breathable fabrics and the possibility to use soft wires in nursing products have moved the levels of choice in the sector on dramatically.”

Royce Lingerie is another lingerie brand that is focusing on the development of its fabrics. Yet, it believes customers care more about the brand’s ability to provide comfort than any other ‘technological’ property.

Marketing executive Gemma Deering says: “Generally, customers are not looking for technical fabrics in this area, but are more concerned with softer finishes and generally more comfortable fabrics for maternity and nursing bras.

“For us, one of the major advances in technology was the introduction of X-STATIC silver fibre to our Comfort & Nursing bra ranges, offering anti-bacterial, anti-odour and thermo-regulating properties.”

But, while these technologies may help some brands to stay ahead of the competition, the cost of continual development can become crippling, particularly to smaller brands which don’t have the money to put into constantly renewing their collections.

With consumers demanding an increasing breadth of product range, many brands are already being forced to expand the number of products they make available.

“The increases in cotton prices have had a big impact on the lingerie industry as a whole,” Deering adds. Also, the size range of maternity and nursing bras seems to be increasing all the time – Royce has recently launched styles in JJ & K cup sizes, due to customer demand.”

Womama director Heidi Holbrook agrees that high cotton prices are putting pressure on the brands. She says: “We have a new set of pregnant customers coming through all the time, so although the retailers want ‘new’ products to pretty up their stores every six months for most customers, it is the first time they see your collection, so it is ‘new’ to them.

“The pressure to show something ‘new’ every six months, with the high minimums coming out of China, is potentially crippling to a young business. With a new collection comes new photoshoots and marketing campaigns, which are quite costly.”

But, there are alternatives to heavy technological investment which brands can use to push their brands. Clever use of marketing can be very lucrative and the ability to jump on society’s latest events and turn them into a profit can determine the success of a company.

Every sector has its moment. For bridal lingerie, this year, it was the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. For sports underwear, it is the 2012 Olympics that has lingerie and swimwear bosses rubbing their hands with anticipation. But, what is the event that has the maternity sector crying out in joy?

Carriwell spokesperson Joanna Ayrton says: “A royal baby would certainly make headlines, as will Victoria Beckham’s pregnancy. Victoria Beckham is always under the spotlight and regarded as a style icon. Having the right underwear to give you the right foundation goes a long way to achieving the celebrity inspired look.”

Breastvest co-founder Sam Tefler adds his opinion into the mix. He says: “People like Holly Willoughby and Myleene Klass are at the forefront of the UK’s celebrity maternity and new mummy coverage due to their regular appearances on our screens and overwhelming popularity with mums-to-be. They’re happy to talk about their experiences and always manage to look great without looking too good to be true.

“In addition, Holly was very complimentary about breastvest when it was reviewed on This Morning, so we love her.”

But, in nine months time, will Tefler still love the industry? How will the sector have grown? Maternity is, ironically, not an area that has room to naturally expand and, within this space, an increasing number of players are now jostling for preference. Growth can only come through offering the best product and taking other brand’s market share.

Tefler adds: “More and more suppliers are cottoning onto the fact that pregnancy and early motherhood doesn’t have to equal dowdy outfits and underwear. Women display their most natural beauty when they’re pregnant… and more and more, they’re being given the chance to have a wardrobe and lingerie drawer to wear alongside nature’s gift.

“[We believe in] the continued development of lingerie and maternity clothing, which allows women to feel like women, rather than simply an incubator.”

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