Roundtable debate: Sports bra trends

As technologies develop, sports bras are becoming less like a lingerie garment and more like an essential item in a consumer’s gym bag. Lingerie insight brought together a number of key industry experts to discuss this trend and what’s driving innovation and growth in the market.

Panellists on the Lingerie Insight sports bra trends roundtable:

Magdalena Kondej: Head of Apparel and Footwear research at Euromonitor
Alysha Taylor: Product manager at Panache Lingerie
Carol Cottrell: Owner of online retailer Boobydoo
Kirsty Kothakota: Marketing manager at Shock Absorber
Amanda Brasher: Retail consultant for Sweatshop and a member of the Breast Health Research Group at Portsmouth University
Kirsty Hall: designer for Freya and Freya Active

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How has the sports bra market evolved, in terms of fit and technologies, over the last five years?

Magdalena Kondej: The market is valued at £3.5 billion in the UK and it’s growing at 6% annually, so it’s really high growth. We’ve seen a shift in the market because it’s no longer acceptable to wear your boyfriend’s T-shirt to the gym – it used to be about sweatpants and nothing fashionable and now we’ve got so many brands and options aligning functionality and fashion together. We are also seeing fast-fashion players like H&M launching sportswear lines, so it’s definitely a very lucrative category.

Kirsty Kothakota: The big shift for us was the launch of the Run Bra in 2009. We did research prior to that in 2005, which set the benchmark for testing and analysis and scientific understanding of sports bras, and then the launch of the Run Bra shifted the category completely. Like [Magda] says, it is no longer about wearing your boyfriend’s T-shirt; people are looking for technical apparel and everything that went into that product was about the best technical apparel.

Amanda Brasher: I would say that [Shock Absorber] was the one to come into the market and change it, but then there was a massive explosion from lingerie companies and swimwear companies and now as [Magda] was saying, you’ve got the H&Ms of this world also coming in.

Kirsty Kothakota: If you look at the market five years ago, it was very different to the market now. We analyse market data and consumer data and we noticed that there is a huge amount of choice now in the market place. There has also been a huge shift in consumer perception – five years ago people were thinking sports bras were really out-dated, but one of the barriers to entry, which has just dropped away, has been the look of sports bras and there is now a mix of fashion and function.

Carol Cottrell: I also think that when you look at America, they really wear sportswear as a lifestyle, but they have such a restrictive choice of sizes.

Amanda Brasher: I would say that we are much closer to the Australian market than we are to the American market. The American market is a lot of years behind us. The Americans still think of a sports bra as an item that compresses you and it’s a crop top.

Why are we so far ahead of other markets like America then?

Kirsty Hall: Things like the Olympics have brought more emphasis on fitness and bras are worn to be seen now. There are so many choices, colours and prints and fitness has become a really important part of modern-day life.

Alysha Taylor: The Americans have big chain stores, which are really focused on high fashion and less fit, so maybe, as we are looking at fit first, I think that’s where they are falling short.

Magdalena Kondej: I agree, especially with big innovators like Lululemon, which I think was the first company to start selling sports bras for women at high prices, like yoga pants for $100. There are no $100 sports bras. So there are opportunities in the premium sector as well.

How have the materials used to make sports bras evolved?

Kirsty Hall: We use a lot of fabrics like Polygene, which is like an odour treatment, and Coolmax to keep you cooler for longer. All these fabrics are good for sportswear, but they all incur extra costs, so it’s been about finding a balance between design and technology. But we are branching out all the time with technologies and fabrics.

Alysha Taylor: I think we’ll be forced to [invest in more technologies] because consumers have so much more choice so they’ll demand more and more, as they should do. So I think that is going to push us all in the right direction and help everybody to innovate faster.

Kirsty Kothakota: I think [consumers] are getting savvy as well. If you think of the category and how it’s moved, [sports bras are] being seen as sports apparel and I think, as a brand, one of the key messages is that your sports bra is your sports kit if you’re a woman. So we are up against other sports apparel categories and we a no longer seen as lingerie.

What is driving innovation in the market?

Alysha Taylor: I think, for us, the more women who are educated on the right fit and realise they are not the 34B they thought they were, that’s where sales will increase.

Kirsty Kothakota: I definitely agree with the education thing – there is still an issue, but it’s better – and the press are much better at talking about sports bras. I remember five years ago, when we were looking at media plans, we were predominately looking at the sports titles because that’s who were writing about sports bras, but there’s been a huge shift in the media environment. The likes of Zest have gone and more women’s lifestyle magazines are writing about sports and fitness and featuring sports bras.

Amanda Brasher: I think those women who exercise regularly and compete in any level are pretty good at wearing sports bras. The “Race for Life” category of women is where the education is still missing. Those customers almost don’t feel worthy enough to going into a sportswear retailer or a specialist retailer and buy a sports bra. Part of our battle is getting across the message that you should replace your bra as often as you replace your shoes.

Why are some women reluctant to wear a sports bra?

Carol Cottrell: One thing that I’ve noticed, especially with the youngsters, is that most of them are wearing underwired push-up bras, so they don’t want to lose that. And also, they’re conscious about their nipples showing so they like to wear padded bras.

Amanda Brasher: I think the real issue with girls at school is the changing rooms. It’s a complete no-no to stand there and take your everyday bra off and put your sports bra on.

Carol Cottrell: We get people calling up saying “I’m really big and I’m sure you don’t have a bra to fit me” and I’ll say “give me your measurements and I’ll advise you which ones to try”. We normally get one or two calls a day from people who have tried something and it hasn’t fitted. This is the difficulty with the difference of sizes across
the industry because there’s no industry standard.

Amanda Brasher: The reality is that some women probably did try and find a sports bra in their 20s and there genuinely wasn’t something on the market. So we’ve had people saying that nowhere does their size. Well they didn’t do your size five to 10 years ago, but they certainly do now. So there’s that education to be had too.

How else can we change these perceptions?

Kirsty Hall: I think brands are raising awareness of the importance of wearing a sports bra. Freya have recently done a study at Portsmouth University to look at the movement of the bust across larger sizes to access strain and pain. We are trying to put this information out there so people know how important it is to keep your bust from sagging while you’re exercising.

Carol Cottrell: We’ve done some filming with some elite athletes from Brunel University and none of them had ever been fitted with a proper sports bra, so I gave them lots of samples to try. They didn’t realise the difference they would feel. I’ve also made a fitting video showing how the sports bra should fit and showing
the difference in the sizing across different brands.

What are the current trends in the sports bra market?

Amanda Brasher: A lot of companies are producing underwired sports bras, which was a complete no-no a few years ago. Now Panache, has an underwired bra and there are various other underwired sports bras. So that’s a change in the market.

Carol Cottrell: One thing that I’ve noticed is that there is a trend in manufacturing plunge-style sports bras, but all my training and education has said that you should actually try and support all of your breast tissue and not have breast tissue exposed because you can still cause damage.

Alysha Taylor: I think black is absolutely the best seller, but colours and fun prints are becoming increasingly popular. For us, colours are doing amazingly well for us.

What design details will the retailers on this table be looking out for when buying sports bras for SS15?

Amanda Brasher: The only reason for me to change my current bra selection is if there’s some innovation that I think makes a product a superior product, whether it’s light weight or more supportive. I have a cross section of bras so I’ve not got anything in mind that I’m focusing on.

Carol Cottrell: Quite a few people ask for a good front-fastening bra, but I don’t think there is a really good one in the market. For me, I would also be looking at something that you could almost fine-tune. The Enell bra that we stock is the Marmite bra – you either love it or you hate it – and it either fits or it doesn’t because you can’t adjust it.

What new innovations have the brands on this table got lined up for next season?

Alysha Taylor: Starting in AW14, we’ve got the new non-wired version, which is currently undergoing testing, and so far the testing is coming out fantastically well. I’ve been trialling it myself and I love it; I think it’s more comfortable than the 5021, if that’s possible, because people love that bra. And of course some women will never want to wear a wired bra so we want to make sure we offer choice.

Kirsty Hall: We’ve just launched our sports bra crop top, which was tested at Portsmouth University and that’s had a really good response. It’s just been in Vogue and Kate Upton
has been wearing it. We’ll be launching it in some neon colours next season.

Kirsty Kothakota: Colour is a big thing for us so we’re looking at trends within colour ranges. So, for AW14, we’ve got purple with lime accents.

With all these new innovations, are sports bras becoming more expensive?

Alysha Taylor: I think that we are all aware that there is a ceiling point for a lot of retailers, but at some point you’ve got no choice but to try and nudge it. If you’re trying to improve your product and the price of manufacturing in the Far East is going up then sometimes there is no choice.

Kirsty Kothakota: I’ve done some research on how the pricing has changed since 2006 and it’s actually pretty static. If you look at the average price of sports bras in the last five years, it’s actually down because a lot of supermarkets like Asda are bringing out larger ranges of sports bras. So we have to strike that balance in bringing the absolute best in performance and technology and what we’re up against. You can’t go sky high with the prices because there is this segment of the market that is looking for cheaper price points.

Amanda Brasher: It comes back to offering your customer different choices and explaining why a certain product is £30 and what the technological differences are between products. A sports bra is piece of technical equipment and I don’t think women view a sports bra as a piece of technical equipment. Until you explain to them that it is, they won’t know.

Kirsty Hall: I agree; it’s like with Coolmax and Polygene – they are really good technologies for fabric, but people don’t see them and they don’t know what the benefits are.

Magdalena Kondej: I think we can draw some parallels with other categories as well. Two or three years ago, jeans was just a staple category and nobody was looking into the luxury segment and now this is huge and people have made a lot of money out of it, so maybe this is the future of the sports bra market as well.

Where do you see the future of the sports bra market heading?

Kirsty Hall: For us, the key thing is fit and continuing to innovate with new colours, technologies and shapes, and experimenting with styling and the finishing touches, including the adjustments and keeping it fresh.

Kirsty Kothakota: We’re striving to offer the best user experience so our bras are the best that we can offer in terms of fit. What we’ve found as
well is that there is a huge lack of awareness of what sport you should wear a sports bra for. So, again, it comes back to education.

Magdalena Kondej: The most important thing is that we operate in a category that is going to grow massively. We don’t have specific numbers, but the number of women participating in any kind of sports will only grow.

Alysha Taylor: We will focus on offering choice, so choice of colour, fit and purpose. I think as everything is getting more and more specific and almost personalised, I think sports bras will become specific to people’s needs in terms of the sports bras women should wear for a particular sport.

Amanda Brasher: I don’t think women are of a mind-set where they’ll say “I’m going for a run, so I’ll wear that particular bra”. There is an element of that, but I think a woman wants to do pretty much everything with her sports bra. We used to have activity levels, but why would you want an activity level? You just want the best.

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