Barely There Biz: Lingerie Fashion Week to Launch
Showcasing the latest in the big business of skimpy, several designers will hit the runway on Friday during the inaugural Lingerie Fashion Week.
In what is billed as the first week devoted exclusively to the industry, six designers will present their fall/winter collections in New York, shelling out anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000 apiece to participate. The event marks a departure from relying solely on the trade-show-centric model that many brands are used to, where new product is unveiled at twice-yearly gatherings that occur in February and August.
"In the past, the intimate apparel industry has had trade shows," said Lauren Rich, the event's founder. "Just like Fashion Week happens twice a year, the trade shows happen twice a year. They're the path to buyers and getting into stores."
Designers who did want to put on runway presentations often found it difficult to build substantial buzz during the hectic New York Fashion Week that displays the latest in women's wear and men's wear.
"The options so far for lingerie and intimate apparel brands were to do your own runway show anytime throughout the year or try to collaborate with a designer during New York Fashion Week," Rich said.
(Read more: Highlights From New York Fashion Week)
"It's really difficult for the smaller brands," she added. "New York Fashion Week is so crowded — there are hundreds of brands showing."
So far, smaller labels' individual presentations have yet to generate the level of buzz that intimate apparel behemoth Victoria's Secret stirs up each holiday season during its two-hour televised runway show.
(Read more: Scenes From Victoria's Secret 2012 Fashion Week)
Uptick in Sales
This year's show comes just as intimate apparel sales are beginning to come back following a slowdown during the recession, said Marshal Cohen, retail industry analyst with NPD Group.
Before the recession hit, lingerie had been performing well, but sales turned south during the downturn. During this time, the shapewear segment, including that market's leader, Spanx, was the biggest bright spot for the broader intimate apparel market, a category that includes also hosiery, lingerie, night loungewear and sleepwear.
"Lingerie is usually one of the first categories to recover, along with the beauty and accessories businesses," Cohen said. "What happened this time around, their spending habits changed."
Although intimate apparel didn't see its typical post-recession jump start, it is now experiencing slight growth again after regaining momentum in the second half of 2012, he added. Sales rose 0.8 percent to $10.6 billion in the 12 months ended November 2012 compared to the same period in the prior year, according to the latest information from NPD.
Before, women used to update their wardrobes frequently, but now innovation is the primary driver behind their purchases.
"It was a panty year last year," Cohen said. "It's going to be a bra year in 2013. During 2011, it was all about shapewear. That's what's kind of happening — the cycling of purchasing has slowed. Women aren't buying as readily and as frequently as they used to."
Since the group lacks the sort of innovation of other industries, for example the tech sector, consumers aren't as driven to pull out their checkbooks.
"Women are not running out and getting in line like they are to get a cell phone," he said.
"Unless someone comes out with something new and unique, you don't need to add to it (your wardrobe) unless something gets worn out," he added.
One sales driver stems from licensing deals with celebrities, well-known designers or an association with a certain lifestyle (such as the National Football League's partnership with Limited Brands' Victoria's Secret).
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"It's much easier to launch a brand around a celebrity or an entrenched designer than if I were to try to build a brand myself," Cohen said. It may take three years to build an independent line, but merely three weeks for a celebrity-line to take off, he added.
"The ability to be able to catapult the brand into consumer recognition through a celebrity or recognizable designer creates the opportunity to push the brand light-years further," he said.
Trends to Watch
Celebrities have contributed to two recent trends in the space: innerwear as outerwear and pieces inspired by the widely popular "Fifty Shades of Grey" series.
"You will definitely see brands design product that has some sort of association to the books," Cohen said. "You will see retailers try to capitalize on the brand's popularity. And you may or may not see consumers respond to it."
So far some retailers' efforts appear to be taking off. Last week, The New York Times reported that sales of Hanky Panky's After Midnight collection, a line that includes lace cuffs and cutouts leaving little to the imagination, have surged 30 percent year-over-year, according to the company.
Incorporating intimate apparel elements into everyday items is another celebrity-driven trend that's given the industry more exposure.
"Lingerie-inspired collections are seen all over the fashion runways and the bridal runways, and I think that has a lot to do with the huge surge of pop culture, celebrities, stage performers, musicians wearing these pieces," Rich said. "I think Americans are starting to become less conservative in terms of wearing lingerie, talking about lingerie, buying lingerie."
While the category is certainly growing, who exactly is spurring these sales is less clear cut, Rich said.
"I think it's a mix of both," she said. "I think there are a lot of women who are more open to exploring what lingerie has to offer. And certainly there are a lot of men who would like to see their partners wearing more than a basic T-shirt and bra."
CNBC.com is planning additional coverage of the category's first fashion show this weekend.
-By CNBC's Katie Little; Follow her @katie_little_
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