Getting Intimate: Apparel Industry Embraces its Future

Dan Cameron

It is remarkable how one piece of popular fiction could have such an impact on an entire industry, but it’s undeniable: When discussing the hot trends in the intimate apparel industry, one name that many experts from top companies keep mentioning is Fifty Shades of Grey, the 2011 E. L. James novel that’s still going strong. And with a Hollywood feature hitting in 2014, you can be sure the hysteria isn’t dying down any time soon. For industry leaders, that’s just fine: Grey has helped open the door to more customers, more press and more products than ever before. How are they taking advantage, and what can consumers expect to see in the coming year?

“The mainstream lingerie market is dominated by a few key players with a plethora of fledgling brands that mostly play to a niche couture realm,” says Lar Hovsepian, director of marketing for Dreamgirl International. “This realm has seen minimal growth over the years, though the branding and desire for the product remains strong. Mall-based shops and the success of Fifty Shades of Grey have helped bring sexuality to the forefront in American society. In the adult or ‘sexy’ lingerie market, the realm has slowly become more saturated, thus causing manufacturers to really step up the game to offer better quality garments, better designs and oftentimes better pricing.”

I think things are just going to get more and more revealing, more risqué, until America finally grows up. -Wilson Kello, Creative Director, International Intimates Inc.’s Sexy Lingerie Division

Wilson Kello, creative director of International Intimates, Inc.’s Sexy Lingerie Division (which consists of René Rofé Sexy, Pink Lipstick Lingerie and several robust private label programs) notes that the good news is despite the continuing economic downturn, they are still experiencing growth.

“Maybe it’s a symptom of that downturn that the naughtier styles are strongest for us right now,” Kello says. “They say vice products surge during times of financial hardship — people want some escape from the daily grind — and I think our more risqué styles offer that kind of release. With Pink Lipstick, it’s the mesh and cutout pieces that are really moving; and with René Rofé Sexy, it’s the crotchless panty range. It seems like the more crotchless panties we make, the more people buy. I don’t know if it’s a price point issue or just the word ‘crotchless’ in the product name, but it’s really working.”

Kello adds that shredded seamless, transparent mesh, wide-gauge net — basically anything that’s more revealing — is particularly popular. “I’ve been heralding the innerwear as outerwear phenomenon for a few years now, and you don’t have to look far to see it becoming a reality. Girls are wearing strappy bras out as tops. You see shredded backs, shredded fronts, mesh sides, lots of sheer layering — all ways of being more revealing and showing more of what’s underneath. In fact, there’s kind of a strappy bra renaissance — now that bras are being worn not as underwear, but to be seen, the visual details are really starting to matter.”

Kello also sees adventurous mixing and matching — like bandeau bras with big, open tanks, and layering lingerie pieces with outerwear so the lingerie can explicitly be seen. “Neons seem to be having a continued resurgence, even though when it comes to the numbers, black will always be No. 1, with pink and red lingering on as distant seconds. One other interesting thing I’ve noticed is the prevalence of hardware on basically any garment: studded spikes on shoes and even sunglasses, and grommets and chains on jeans and tanks.”

Kello says that before the Fifty Shades phenomenon, he would have pegged their target demographic at 18- to 40-year-old women. But the global sexual awakening that occurred after the book’s release has greatly expanded the market.

“Our customers are women, and the men that buy for them, from the age of 18 to 60,” he says. “Currently, we’re firmly ensconced in the sexy or adult market, and I suspect our pathway to larger market share is to both build upon our successes there and to create versions of our current range that are more palatable for a mass market. I mean, they carry lube and ‘personal massagers’ in Walmart. We want to create more wedge products that continue to open the door for erotic products in the mainstream.”

Kello notes they are developing “crossover” products that bridge the adult market and the mass market. Their newest development is Pink Lipstick Sweat, described as “sexy workout gear.” This new line will hit stores in November, and is geared toward the woman who knows she looks good and wants to flaunt her physique in the gym. “Sports bras, yoga pants, running shorts, everything. The pieces are fun, too — most of them come with a hidden pocket for your ID and cash, or whatever you might want to stash away.”

Hovsepian says that even with the economy still struggling (though making a slow comeback: she points to a Dreamgirl increase in total lingerie bookings of 29 percent over the prior year as a positive sign), their target customer is still shopping for lingerie. “We notice a lot of lingerieas- outerwear to be trending, along with beautiful club wear separates that can be worn out as a set or with other pieces,” she says. “Lingerie with fringe bodices or fringe details have been drawing quite a buzz here. Sheer-paneled garter slips are also good sellers because they are truly feminine in their body-hugging and curve-accentuating silhouettes. We’ve been designing many different categories with strappy features.”

She adds that programs with stronger bookings this year are Dreamgirl’s Black Diamond packaged hosiery, club wear, bridal lingerie and packaged panties and thongs. From club dresses to garter belts, Hovsepian notes that Dreamgirl embraces the edgy look. Black Diamond hosiery has been selling so well because they offer a “value add” to the traditional hosiery category: “We love adding opaque and knitted baroque, lace and corset detailing into our bodystockings. These styles are offered at great price points, while still offering a full ‘set’ of seductively styled seamless intimate wear.”

Erin Sue, marketing and communications for Coquette International Inc., says that babydolls and chemises have been their best sellers across all collections. “We have ones that are cute and flirty, to those that are more revealing and sexy. With an extensive variety to choose from, women tend to gravitate to these styles that are easy to slip into.”

And in 2013, Sue adds that purple has become the new red. “Our designers incorporated several shades into our sub-collections, showing off their color blocking techniques and using different materials to create texture illusions. Additionally this year, patterned lace has been quite popular and is seen generously throughout our lines. For our spring and summer collection, bright colors and soft cups were trending this season.”

Colors also play to the seasons, notes Adella Curry, director of marketing for Baci Lingerie. She projects that in the near future, there will still will focus on dresses, we wanted to expand a little and offer satin and lace. “Darker colors do well in the colder months, bright colors get a lot of play during spring, and summer is wedding season so we see a surge in all of our bridal/white pieces. Besides seasonal boosts, Envy [a men’s underwear line] and the plus-size styles are doing great,” she says, adding that lashes, accessories and costumes have also been hot. “People have been playing a lot this year, and we take notice.”

Magic Silk owner Jeff Baker anticipates record sales this year with Magic Silk’s expansion into new collections. Midnight Bound, Hypnotic Swirl, Satin Treasures and Bridal Bands of Lace collections have all exceeded his expectations, and he says re-orders are strong. Magic Silk encompasses four major sub-brands: Exposed (lingerie, the company’s largest brand packaged in signature Pink box, classy Corset box and new Bridal box); Cheap Thrills (year-round costumes); Hot Angel (fantasy dress-up, with many styles featuring cupless and crotchless cut-outs); and Wisecracks (boy shorts with playful sayings imprinted on the back). The company introduced a fifth brand in July: Club Seamless, which features convertible dresses and neon mesh under-layers.

Baker says that club and dancewear are going to continue to gain momentum, along with neon colors that are black light responsive and unique mesh fabrics. He also notices that classic designs that have fun, unique accents are becoming more popular.

“The industry is always changing, and we make a point to stay ahead of the game. Trendy fabrics, neon colors, lace, crochet and seamless are what’s hot right now,” says the Magic Silk president. “It’s very important to get out into the market to feel the vibe of the industry. We participate in six key industry tradeshows each year, and I also make it a point to visit our customers in person to meet with their teams. Quality face time is most important.”

Magic Silk introduces new collections four times a year. It recently started shipping the Neon Lace collection, and in September will begin shipping the new Spider Mesh collection (made with “a funky netted fabric that is both sexy and seductive”) as well as its Bamboo Magic collection, designed for comfort and practicality with lightweight, breathable fabric that offers antibacterial, thermo control and moisture-wicking properties. Baker notes they have five new groups in the works: Petite Ruffle Mesh, Glitter Mesh, two Neon Dancewear collections and a Black Leopard Jacquard Mesh collection paired with pink lace trim. All will launch at the September ILS.

From Fetish to Plus

Andy Green, president of XGEN Products, notes that the biggest evolution in recent years has been the rise of the plus-size market. He notes they are always looking for styles that fit both plus- and one-size customers. They try to keep the line at more than half for plus sizes, and strive to get toward 60 to 70 percent.

“It’s challenging to stay on the cutting edge of fashion, for sure,” Green said. “My wife works in the mainstream fashion world, so we are always talking about ‘newness’ in style, color, cut, etc. I look to see what the mainstream world is doing, and am always in constant communication with the factory and getting new samples made. Once we get to a critical mass of styles we like, we go into photo-shoot mode.”

The second collection of the company’s Lapdance line recently came out, which was more than 20 dresses — with a lot of styles available in multiple colors, and almost all in plus size. “We feel this is the most sexy outfit for a woman and can be very provocative with openings showing skin in certain places. The first collection, which was in 2012, was all in black. This second collection we came out with hot pink, neon blue and some lime green. These look great in natural light or under the black light.”

The next line of Lapdance, which will be shown at ILS, will be bikini sets, bottoms and leg garters — a specialty area XGEN is trying. “While we still will focus on dresses, we wanted to expand a little and offer these fun items in our classic hanging package,” says Green.

Liz Jones, lingerie designer at Pipedream Products, says that 2013 has been the best year ever for their Fetish Fantasy Lingerie collection — which includes a men’s MVP Jock. “Coming from a high-end fashion standpoint, this collection is completely on track with the 2013 trends. Between the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current punk exhibit and the ongoing Fifty Shades phenomenon, punk and fetish are going strong, and bondage lingerie is only getting more and more popular.”

Jones is a graduate of Parson’s School of Design, with a strong background in following trends and forecasts from high-end fashion, art and design. She says that CEO Nick Orlandino made it a point to hire a well-informed, in-house lingerie designer (“a first for any novelty company”).

“Our lingerie collection was groundbreaking in that we were the first company to release a complete fetish lingerie line of straight sizes and plus sizes. No one has ever done that before, and Nick felt very strongly in having every single piece available in plus sizes as well. Since our Fetish Fantasy Lingerie debuted at the September 2011 ILS, the market is seeing more and more fetish-inspired lingerie,” she says.

“Retail environments have also seen change. Stores are more educated about what they’re bringing in. Before, stores would carry everything and anything, but now they’re more conscious of what the consumer wants, as well as mainstream influences. They want to carry the best of the best, and they’re focused on carrying brands — whereas before the market was more category-driven. Nick was definitely ahead of the game in this department when concentrating on branding ourselves in recent years, complete with support materials, signage and of course our award-winning Planogrammer software.”

The Marketing Advantage

In recent years, Hovsepian notes that Dreamgirl has gone lighter and brighter with packaging because they feel the newer stark white panels of their signature Diamond box contrast nicely against the vibrant imagery of the models, garments and backgrounds they feature.

“With regards to in-store materials, we are in the works of developing a strong and easily installable Dreamgirl boutique presence for our retailers’ slat walls and peg boards with updated seasonal graphics. This shop-in-shop feature will help with branding the Dreamgirl name in addition to offering the stores a unique, three-dimensional visual appeal,” she says.

“New world marketing has been all the rage for the past few years, and I consistently read through articles, blogs and even advertisements to find the most effective social media applications that offer us a better consumer reach alongside gathering pertinent statistics about our campaign successes. Video integration into social media is really big these days. Vine, Instagram video and YouTube are the best ways for imagery to go viral.”

Lisa Tran, public relations for Carrie Amber Intimates, says that they provide sales tools to all of their retailers to help them sell. This includes a “Best Sellers” guide, video clips on every item, images, product information and live training. “Our goal is to inform and inspire while making selling a cinch. We also provide a trends sheet, listing all the trends that we used for inspiration of the current collections and details on all fabrications and materials used on every design.”

Jeff Baker says that sexy romance boutiques that cater not only to individuals but also to couples have emerged as the most successful retailers in the industry. “The days of the old-fashioned adult stores are long gone. Consumers want a positive shopping experience, so many stores have undergone extensive facelifts inside and out in order to draw in a wider demographic. This is our target customer, and we see the future continuing in this direction as sexy continues to move in a more upscale direction.”

When it comes to packaging, each of Magic Silk’s brands has its own specific package design that defines the merchandise it contains, while enhancing its appeal to targeted customers.

“We believe that our strong emphasis on packaging and innovative product designs put us at the forefront of the industry,” Baker says. “Sharp packaging is very important while there is still the need to have versatility with collections that have strong hanger appeal. Online retailers are now a large segment of our customer base, so digital support is also critical. Technology advances have added new challenges that must be met.”

Baker adds that they support customers with promotions as much as possible, including collaborative Facebook promotions as well as other ads both online and in print. “With the internet in full swing for years now, information travels quickly and we need to react faster than ever to changes in trends and industry demand. We see our customers as partners and support them accordingly. Being in tune with their needs is key to achieving success.”

Dreamgirl’s Hovsepian concurs, noting that e-commerce has been in full swing for a long time — and a large number of their target market shops online for ease of shopping and discretion. “Because of this, we have found it necessary to pose a more interactive dynamic with our consumers through the sharing of our up-close-and-personal features: designer picks, trend alerts and behind the scenes through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a plethora of other new world marketing avenues.”

Tran says that technology has stepped up marketing and advertisements for every brand. “From a social media standpoint, social media outlets such as Instagram and blogging are consistently popular and continue to gain attention for all companies regardless of industry. They are free marketing tools, and who doesn’t like free? Of course, strategizing how to advertise on these platforms requires great planning. Not everyone is successful when using these channels.”

Industry Influences

Technology and social media work both ways — intimate apparel companies aren’t just using them to reach customers, they’re also finding inspiration. Erin Sue of Coquette International says that watching trends in mainstream media is very important when it comes to staying on top of the latest fashion trends. “What are the popular television shows and movies that are currently out or that are expected to hit theaters in the coming year? Celebrities are also extremely influential in fashion trends and how they pair outfits. We take these ideas and insert them into our lingerie designs to keep them on trend for the season.”

Seven ’til Midnight — the contemporary division of Carrie Amber Intimates that was launched in 2008 by sister team May and Vinh Luong — has made fans out of celebrities like Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian, which has helped usher lingerie into more homes than before.

“Seven ’til Midnight draws inspiration from the runway, on-going trends in the fashion industry and pop culture. Hollywood is our backyard — the glamour and vibrant nightlife inspires us and assists in creating new trends. From street style to award shows, we love tuning into the social scene and seeing what styles are turning heads,” Lisa Tran says. “The market has evolved and changed over the years to become more mainstream. It is becoming socially acceptable to wear lingerie out, if worn correctly. People are open to talking about what used to be considered taboo… women are also more confident with their bodies, willing to flaunt their assets.”

The contemporary line has an emphasis on fashion-forward designs. The division is marked by bold colors and eye-catching prints with luscious fabrics and flirty details, with lingerie, costumes, leg wear, accessories and the Baby Got Curves collection for plus-size women incorporating more than 2,000 SKUs — with the top-selling category being packaged lingerie.

Seven ’til Midnight’s best selling group is Midnight Affair, which includes a lace cami and chemise with accessories such as handcuffs and eye mask, and comes in pink, black and red (and is also available in plus size). The Indecent Desires lamé dress can be worn for a night in or out: “Our customers also love to pair the dress with cat, witch or devil accessories for a chic take on dressing up. Another hit is our Hot Shot collection of seamless dresses featuring vibrant colors and edgy motifs such as skull fishnet and slashes,” says Tran.

“Popular trends include bright colors such as neon, as well as jewel tones. Pin-up is a trending theme, in which we drew inspiration from for our Holiday 2014 collection. Mixing and matching lingerie with day wear is a growing trend with fashionistas. Lace, lame and seamless have been extremely popular and in demand with our designs, especially for our ready to wear pieces,” she adds, noting that bondage-inspired pieces with a softer pairing of lace will be a hit for the upcoming year along with military prints, animal accents, bright colors and seamless pieces.

Tara Christine, founder of, looks to the music, cosmetic and fitness industries. “A lot of trends become apparent to me on the EDM scene, on the front table at Sephora, in song lyrics and music videos. I also read WWD, Racked, Accessories Magazine and many of the Conde Nast publications. Subscribing to trade newsletters makes it easy to stay abreast of what’s happening, so that way updates are available in your inbox. Since our products complement lingerie and dancewear, I’m very much dependent on what’s happening in the lingerie world so I’m always looking at new color schemes and patterns.”

Empowering with Accessories

Tran notes that Carrie Amber Intimates encourages the idea of shopping for an outfit — from mixing and matching garments such as a bustier with a tutu to completing the outfit with accessories. Seven ’til Midnight’s hosiery, tutus, gloves, masks and wide variety of panties such as ruffled boy shorts and lace panties are great additions, she says.

Christine has built her company around the need, saying that accessories and beauty products help achieve the desired image the lingerie customer is seeking. “Individuals shop for lingerie to feel sexy, empowered and desirable. By incorporating beauty and accessory products into a lingerie store’s merchandising mix, it optimizes the opportunities to fulfill the customers’ perceived need and desired outcome. I was at a Halloween party at the Playboy mansion, and there was a girl in very basic black lingerie, but she was wearing a fedora and white glove … and boom she had a great Michael Jackson costume! Just those two accessories changed everything. I just loved it!”

Over the summer, the company broke off the adult section of and made, a wholesale-only website that will host all their adult products. The main website will continue to host a majority of the jewelry and accessory items targeting “the mainstream female consumer, aged 16–35 that loves bringing out her feminine qualities.” Entyece will target adult and lingerie retailers that will provide products to the female consumer (and the men in their lives).

Christine notes that hot products include spiked bras, flower crowns and heart-shaped/bejeweled decorative sunglasses; this year sees the release of new products like their Niptyes and Bottle Service Bubble Bath.

“I started selling in a dressing room at an entertainment venue, so dancers and entertainers are a large segment. We try to reach this audience through getting wholesale accounts where they shop and placing ads that target the dancer demographic. Men are another segment that has become more apparent with the introduction of our gift sets and clityes. I reach out to bloggers and product reviewers that have a male audience to gain exposure in this segment,” she says. “Menswear is becoming more innovative and has opened the gates to new opportunities in the marketplace. I see this segment growing and becoming more popular in the future.”

Not Just for the Ladies

“The men’s underwear market continues to grow at fast pace,” says Ron Scall, V.P. of production & product development for Male Power, a division of Magic Silk. “Men have so many more selections than they had 20 years ago, and in turn spend much more money on their undergarments. There is much more fashion and choices of fabrications than ever before. Today the majority of men choose designer-looking underwear over the outdated basic ‘tidy whities.’”

Scall notes the line is geared toward a young demographic (18–40 plus). “Our market base enjoys showing their hardworked bodies in beautifully cut, sexy underwear. Male Power’s underwear selection is so varied that there is something for everyone. We are able to reach a broad market base because we have such a wide range of collections, from cotton and Bamboo basics to see-thru laces and nets.”

Male Power produces many collections covering a wide range of categories: Funny Undies (or gag underwear), Oral Assault (with risqué sayings featured on the garment and boxing ring-themed packaging) and Bachelor costumes (six styles including top seller Buttler, Officer Frisk-Em and Cocky Cowboy) all fall into the novelty category; the Bamboo collection and Black Box specialty underwear are geared toward everyday wear; and Fetish, one of its most popular collections, features a wet-look, fauxleather fabric detailed with studs and rings and sold in “Goth” inspired packaging. (To complement the men’s fetish line, they also carry a women’s fetish collection sold under the Lust brand.) The brand has consistently debuted at least six new collections twice yearly at the ILS shows in Las Vegas, as well as rolling out other collections in between.

“Active lifestyle underwear, singlets, tank tops and shorts are very popular now. Male Power continues to experience great reaction, with sales for our Bamboo collection featuring lounge pants, tees and shorts leading the way,” says Scall. “In addition to active lifestyle underwear, specialty fabrics continue to be popular. Bright neon colors in mesh, lace and spandex have been very strong, and fetish continues to be a big seller.”

Scall says that men’s club and dancewear has always been a category within the Male Power product range, and with recent renewed interest they will be offering a new collection this fall. It will feature a rip-off style made in a metallic fabric, and classic cuts with embellishments (“zippers, buckles and belts are always popular”). Male Power has many new collections both in production and in development, and will be showcasing the new designs at ILS in September.

“Our male customers are extremely savvy shoppers,” Scall says. “They know what they want and are very much aware of quality and comfort, which are the main manufacturing goals of Male Power. With the exception of some style preferences and designs, there really is not much difference in the marketing of straight men versus gay men.”

Liz Jones at Pipedream concurs: “We developed the men’s collection to be neutral so that both customer markets are satisfied,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about being gay or straight — the collection is geared towards those interested in fetish. And as with the women’s collection, Nick wanted to be sure the bigger guys had options too, so every single piece is available to fit up to a 46-inch waist.”

The Final Word

So what does the future hold?

“I think things are just going to get more and more revealing, more risqué, until America finally grows up,” says Wilson Kello. “None of this would be outrageous in Europe. People fuck in public parks in Europe in the daytime. But because of America’s puritan past and relative youth as a nation, we still have all these hang-ups about sexuality and sexual identity. So as long as there’s an envelope to be pushed, the youth are going to push until it finally breaks and no one freaks out if they happen to see a little skin on their trip to the supermarket. So unless the Koch brothers take over and push us back 50 years, we’re just going to get wilder.”