"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.