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Engineering a New Foundation

To create a comfortable bra that flatters but doesn't show too much is a scientific mission in the $5-billion business.

November 06, 2005|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

"You got the cups in the front, two loops in the back .... I guess that's about it."

-- Frank Costanza

on "Seinfeld," 1993

*

Not any more. Things have become a whole lot more complicated.

Big-name manufacturers have deployed teams of scientists and designers, sometimes trailed by patent lawyers, to reengineer the brassiere.

At stake is nearly $5 billion a year that women spend on bras -- about half of all lingerie revenue.

Nearly every woman wears a bra, and many complain that theirs squishes, chafes or jabs. Because some women spend 16 hours a day hooked inside the garment, finding one that is at once comfortable, flattering and not too revealing remains for many the holy grail of lingerie shopping. Some are willing to shell out as much as $200 for top-end silk or satin brassieres.

Driven by the popularity of revealing tank tops and sheer blouses, bra sales grew strongly in 2004 -- up 8% from the year before to $4.8 billion. Many women went "out of their way to update their intimate wardrobe ... so they could be seen in public," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, a marketing information company.

Sales leveled off in the year ended in August, a change Cohen characterized as a "sustained growth rate, not a bust -- no pun intended." Retailer discounting also has held down revenue growth, he said.

To drive what they hope will be another sales surge, bra makers have indulged in a research-and-development binge, coming up with new techniques for fabric cutting, molding and padding. The result are strong-selling models that give women "a smooth silhouette," said Jo Jeffrey, spokeswoman for Figleaves.com, a large online lingerie retailer.

Victoria's Secret was out first, in March, with the Ipex -- a bra two years in development with a contoured lining that hugs the skin but offers what its ads term the "confidence of full coverage."

The pitch represents something of a departure for a company best known for barely clad models, but the $45 Ipex already is Victoria's Secret's second-bestselling bra, (behind the Body by Victoria "It" bra) spokeswoman Sara Tervo said. The company, a unit of Columbus, Ohio-based Limited Brands Inc., has applied for patents for the lining fabric and the manufacturing process, an unusual move in the bra business.

Kyoto, Japan-based Wacoal Corp. followed in June with iBra, which features a foam cup produced through a heat-molding process. The manufacturer bills the $50 bra, sold only in the U.S. market, as having "No stitches. No seams. No tags."

Though it's too soon to tell whether the Ipex and the iBra will score big financially for Victoria's Secret and Wacoal, both bras have "rejuvenated some interest in their brands," said Cohen of NPD.

Some makers eagerly capitalize on others' success by copying popular designs -- slightly changing placement of the strap or clasps to avoid patent-infringement claims, Cohen said.

"This is an industry that's all about innovation," he said.

Trendiness has long been a hallmark of the bra business, but the recent spate of innovation began with the much-hyped Wonderbra, which was ferried to stores in armored cars and limousines upon its 1994 debut.

A Wonderbra sold every 15 seconds in the first weeks on the market, according to manufacturer Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, quickly becoming the top-selling push-up bra and a cultural icon. On its website, the company, a unit of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp., touts the bra's "precision engineering."

Push-up bras had been around for decades before the Wonderbra. Howard Hughes designed the first one, a steel underwire number for Jane Russell to wear in his 1943 feature "The Outlaw," although the actress later confessed that she didn't wear the bra in that movie -- and, she said, "he never knew."

And the next big bra thing?

Cohen said the industry's best minds were now experimenting with silver threads woven into the fabric for strength, "so you don't get that bra strap that gives out in the middle of the day."

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