As the fuller bust lingerie market grows, brands and retailers are under pressure from demanding end-consumers to not only deliver well-fitting bras, but on-trend, fashionable styles and new innovations in larger sizes. Lingerie Insight brought together a number of key industry experts to ask whether these needs are being fulfilled.
On the panel:
Alysha Taylor: Product manager at Panache Lingerie
Steve Hazlehurst: Head of marketing at Charnos and Lepel
Clare Gorton: Senior buyer at Debenhams
Agnes Dewhirst: Junior lingerie buyer at Figleaves
Charlotte Davies: Designer at Curvy Kate
Lingerie Insight: There has been a surge in lingerie brands launching D+ collections in recent years. What are the main reasons for this trend?
Alysha Taylor: Research shows that in the past maybe 10 to 20 years that the average bust size has gone from a 34B or 34C to up to a DD – I think that’s a contributing factor. Then, on top of that, there has been a wave of girls that are more educated than their mothers and grandmothers in the sense that they’re more willing to go and get fitted. I think another layer is that there is now more advertising and accessibility, so nearly every online retailer or bricks and mortar retailer have some kind of access to fitting, and I think that when people go and get fitted that can result in them being a smaller back size and a larger cup size than they thought they were.
Steve Hazlehurst: I was at Panache 12 years ago and at that time they were seen as quite a niche brand, but now we have the likes of Curvy Kate taking a different approach to it. Brands have to evolve and they can’t keep focusing on that small size market. Charnos and Lepel have always catered from an A cup upwards, but it’s been part of my remit to take it to the next level since joining LF Intimates. However, we’re not looking to go up into the very large sizes because it’s important to not steer away from who we are. You can’t be everything to everyone. I know some brands that are being pushed into the fuller figure market when actually they’re not a fuller figure brand, so I think there is a trend in that.
Charlotte Davies: I just think people are more aware of their own bodies. And I think a happy outcome of the whole photoshopping issue is that people are looking at magazines and thinking ‘my bra doesn’t look like that’ and ‘why doesn’t it look like that?’ Maybe it’s because fitting has become more advanced and it’s more widely available, or it could be down to a rise in blogging and people discussing things and sharing photos. Also, I think it’s just a natural churn of generations and more mums are becoming aware of fitting and fuller bust lingerie and passing this information on down the line.
LI: How has the fuller bust market evolved over the couple of seasons in terms of new innovations, shapes and styles?
Clare Gorton: Probably one of the biggest things we’ve seen is the demand for back smoothing, so even though the customer may not be a plus size woman, she still wants smooth. I think there are certain things a full bust customer wants to have now, a bit like she wanted a clear back strapless.
Alysha Taylor: One thing that we’re finding to be popular, which is nothing really exciting, is stretch lace. Everybody just wants stretch lace and while the traditional three-piece shape is still massively favourable, the four-piece stretch lace gives that really round shape. It’s really forgiving, quite an easy fit and it’s really accommodating for anyone that’s got bust size variation.
Steve Hazlehurst: I think that wires have also changed. Before, they were so tough. So I think changes in manufacturing have enabled brands to readdress what they do. We’ve also seen a demand for soft cup bras, only up to a G cup though. We launched a soft cup to trade this season and we’ve had massive response for that. There’s also been a lot more requests for strapless bras.
Agnes Dewhirst: On the other side of the whole comfort thing, we are seeing a real trend towards the sexier shapes and styling. Customers really want to go in for the whole Fifty Shades type of product, but we’re finding that brands like Pour Moi?, for example, are doing really well because they are pushing it for the G+ customer where they’ve got that strapping detail. Basques are also doing amazingly for us, especially around seasonal times like Valentine’s Day and Christmas. So there’s a real appetite for those kinds of shapes – longlines, basques and anything new
What challenges do the brands on this table face when manufacturing fuller bust lingerie?
Alysha Taylor: For Panache, our SKU range can go from 30 SKUs for a T-shirt bra, all the way up to 90+ SKUs, so obviously there are challenges. Not only is it a big stock investment; it’s a space investment for the retailers. It’s an awful lot of work to produce those sizes and although it’s absolutely 100% worth it and required, we need to be mindful of the challenges retailers face. We need to help them and educate them on the best-selling styles and what they need to trial first.
Charlotte Davies: It’s about finding manufacturers that are able to cope with your capacity and also to find people, who may not speak English as their first language, to label all the products correctly. You pay a premium for that and you have to police it really carefully. Fitting is another thing. When I first started at Curvy Kate we mainly sold in the UK, but now we’re growing in America, Germany and France and we’re dealing with people who actually have very different body shapes to each other. You’ve got to find a happy medium between keeping your original customers happy and making sure you have a diverse range of products to appeal to the new customers.
What are the main challenges of stocking a bigger range of sizes?
Clare Gorton: Our fixtures are only so big and you can’t get all the size ranges onto the shop floor. Also, we don’t have very big stock rooms. So it’s about steering the customer towards kiosks so we can show them that we’ve got something in their size that the bra fitters can fit. We tell them their size and all the styles that we can order in for them. We just can’t physically have that amount of stock in the amount of stores that we have because the fragmentation would be huge. We also encourage customers to order online and collect it and have it fitted in store. If they don’t like the product, they can return it straightaway.
LI: Agnes, how does Figleaves, as an online retailer that doesn’t do fittings, limit its returns?
Agnes Dewhirst: Our customer service team is really important to us. They are award winning because they are able to fit people over the phone by going through all the stages. We also try to keep innovative in terms of our advice online, so we have a bra calculator that actually works. It’s not the old method of adding four or five inches; we’re actually telling customers to get rid of the tape measure, look at themselves in their favourite bra and ask, ‘what is it doing?’, so looking at it from a visual point of view. We also have loads of customer reviews on site. Every brand is different; there’s no consistency or standard in the lingerie industry so, for us, the reviews really help our customers decide whether they need to try a smaller back size or go up a cup size in a certain brand or style.
Clare Gorton: I think people really trust other people’s opinions. They really trust the reviews and it’s interesting to see the feedback that you get – you can almost have a conversation with someone on there.
Steve Hazlehurst: I do think though that blogger involvement in certain areas has influenced people’s opinions in a negative way. I’m not against blogging at all, but I’ve been asked to promote a product with a certain blogger who is never going to give us a good review because the product is just not for her. We get our design teams to look at the reviews because it’s a great way for them to get some honest feedback, but you have to be careful because they can push you to where you don’t want to be as a manufacturer.
LI: Are enough retailers stocking fashionable and functional D+ collections?
Steve Hazlehurst: When it comes to independents, they cover this sector really well, so much so that they forget about the smaller sizes. But what makes it hard is that it’s their money that they are investing in the stock. So it’s important for us that we give them product that they really need and not try and sell them product that won’t sell. I think we are starting to see more stores stocking fashion ranges whereas before it was all about core, core, core.
Alysha Taylor: I think one area that is slightly neglected is swimwear; retailers understand they need to offer 90-something SKUs in lingerie, but actually the same also applies in swimwear. Why should that same customer walk away with fantastic lingerie, but when she’s half naked walking down the beach she doesn’t have that same support? Online, you haven’t got the restriction of space, but it’s a lot to ask of independents to invest their own money in this, as Steve said.
Charlotte Davies: If you look at it from the point of view of a buyer, it’s a risky product to have in store because if you traditionally only sell up to a G cup and generally your DD to G range only
features basic colours and basic styles, it can be quite scary. But, I don’t think that having an interesting, diverse product range is a young thing anymore; having a fun set of underwear is everyone’s prerogative.
Do the retailers on this table think there is enough choice in this sector?
Clare Gorton: I think there is a lot more choice nowadays. If you go back a couple of years, you really wouldn’t have got a lot of fashionable bras; there would have just been a lot of plain, simple, very covered bras. Finding a neon bra in anything bigger than a D cup would have been practically impossible. Now, the DD brands have almost got different personalities. You’ve got Curvy Kate with their Star in Bra campaign and getting the customer to become the face of the brand, and then you’ve got the likes of Lepel, which has that younger element.
Agnes Dewhirst: For me, because it’s different buying online; I’m constantly on the lookout for new brands and I’m struggling to find the next new brand. I love nurturing new brands; we’ve done amazingly with Curvy Kate and Cleo has gone from strength to strength. So, for me, it’s like ‘what’s the next one?’ And I just think that having more competition actually pushes everyone on. It moves fit on, it moves design on, it moves the size curve as well. For me, there can’t be too many brands – I’d buy them all!
What is driving innovation in the fuller bust market?
Alysha Taylor: I think it goes back to what Agnes was saying; it’s competition. There is always something new to be looking at and a reason to drive forward. One thing that Panache has really steered away from is using spacer fabric because the spacer fabrics that we have seen have given that kind of east-west look and that’s not something that we would want to put in our brand. However, we’ve taken our time and we’ve come up with a bra that has a light, breathable, firmer spacer fabric that is going to support the fuller bust for the new season. So I do think
it’s about competition driving you to do these things, but it’s also about making sure that you do it right, in a way that’s healthy for your brand.
Steve Hazlehurst: I think price is also a major innovator because you can’t go above a certain price point with certain stores, so that makes us work a lot harder in seeing what we can come up within that framework. We don’t shy away from Charnos and Lepel being mass market brands and our tipping point really is £30, so we have to work hard within that innovation for price. You could come up with something amazing and say that it’s £42, but it just wouldn’t sell.
Clare Gorton: I agree. We’ve got our own-buy product and obviously some of the brands are offering different choices, but I’ve seen some beautiful T-shirt bras that I can’t take on because of their price point. We’d put products with a higher price point online, but even then there is a ceiling point of how high we can go. I might love the product, but I’d never sell it at £42.
LI: How do you keep your price points down when it comes to selling lingerie that requires more fabric to produce?
Steve Hazlehurst: I think you have to balance your margins across your SKUs. So one size might make a good margin and one might not. And then I think it’s about being clever and analysing what you have – you could bring in new products and then suddenly you’re making no margins. You must also negotiate your fabrics well.
LI: What design details will retailers be looking out for when buying fuller bust lingerie this season?
Clare Gorton: For me, I am looking for strapping and also sexier knickers. I know the focus is on the bra, but actually it’s nice to see more attention paid to the knickers, so larger key holes on the back, and colour. Generally, I am looking for collections that have ramped it up in the sexy stakes.
Agnes Dewhirst: We’re definitely looking at the more risqué product. We have the Erotique section on our site that does incredibly well and we had an overwhelming response from customers that they want it in the larger cup. So Scantilly [from Curvy Kate] is perfect for us and we want to build on that. There are a couple of brands that will be going from our portfolio and there aren’t really direct replacements for them. So that’s what we’re looking for – that kind of sexier product.
LI: What trends can retailers expect to see in SS16?
Alysha Taylor: We’ll be launching a lot of new core products across all brands. We’re going to be offering more sport in core and we’ll be looking at launching new nursing bras. And then we’re going to have a real focus on Cleo, so we’re taking a bit of a new design direction change for this brand. It’s going to be a little bit edgier. It’s still going to be fun, but we’re going to take influences from current and relevant icons. A really good example is Taylor Swift; she was really sugary sweet before and even she’s got a bit edgier.
Steve Hazlehurst: A big focus for us is going to be swimwear from Lepel. Lepel was always really good for swim and then it gradually faded away. We’ve had a really good season this season with quite a small collection, but the next collection is going to be quite big. Lepel has also become a little bit edgier because it allows us to separate it from Charnos. We’ve also ramped up our core offering because we had to strip so much product away in order to move forward, so we’ll be expanding that now. Also, Charnos is really important to us, so we’ll be looking to launch nightwear and expanding some of our classic ranges like Cherub.
Where is the future of the fuller bust lingerie market heading?
Steve Hazlehurst: I think there is more that can be done in independent shops. There is so much focus on fit and people understand it, but I think what people don’t expect is to be pounced on to get fitted, so I think there needs to be a change there. Some shops have become more like stock rooms and as you walk through the door there is a mass of product and you can’t see what the brands are. That’s for us to help support that change as a brand. I think there’s also still a big push for sports bras in fuller bust sizes.
Clare Gorton: I think the market just has to keep evolving and changing. There is still growth potential and it’s just making sure that you’ve got those core areas that the customer knows, but also that she is seeing newness, be it colour or strapping.
Agnes Dewhirst: I agree. I think newness is really key to the market, but the customer is also looking for her favourites to keep evolving. If she wants the perfect T-shirt bra, she doesn’t have to compromise anymore, so I think she’s becoming more demanding; she wants the best strapless bra, she wants the best plunge bra and she wants the sexier styles. I think the market is going to be offering more and more of those kinds of products.