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Do underwear and swimwear escape fast fashion? 

Right off the bat, we’re going to say no! Because the underwear market definitely follows in the footsteps of ready-to-wear clothing. And the big fast fashion chains opened up this section right when specialist chains were bringing out lots of their own collections. 

Underwear, from mainstream functional purchase to fashion accessory 

Since the beginning of the 20th century and the dropping of the corset during the First World War, to free women’s bodies and allow them to work in place of men, the main aims of underwear have been functionality and practicality. At the same time, sexy, flirty lingerie was developed, but it was rarely worn on a daily basis. Girdles and basques were the preserve of Hollywood stars before they went mainstream. The bra, with its two cups and alphanumerical sizing system, appeared in the 1930s. And the development of technical fabrics, such as nylon and Lycra®, contributed to this mainstreaming with the beginning of mass production, industrialisation and standardisation. Whereas before, people used to go to their hosiery shop to have their underwear made to measure. So this was not yet fast fashion, but the turning point of the 1950s could be considered as the beginnings of it. The Dim brand appeared in the 1960s. 

While the 70s were the “no bra” era, the 90s saw the emergence of the Wonderbra, plunge bras, balconnet and push-up bras. Underwear was worn to be peeked at and entered the world of fashion, being sold in supermarkets (like the Dim, Variance, and Playtex brands. etc.) as well as in luxury boutiques (Dior, Eres. etc.). Underwear then became a real fashion accessory that follows trends, just like any other clothes. 

The Victoria’s Secret revolution 

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The first boutique was opened in 1977 in Palo Alto, California, and designed to look like an English boudoir. Victoria is a nod to the Queen of the United Kingdom, whose reign is known as the Puritan era, hence the “secret” tagged on as an oxymoron. But it was not until the brand was taken over that it expanded and flourished. Despite its garments being of average quality and made in Asia, the brand took on the hallmarks of luxuy by putting on its first grand show in New York in 1995. Designed like a real fashion show, it was extravagant and sexy. The line-up featured all the willowy supermodels of the time: Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Karen Mulder, Eva Evangelista, etc. These shows went on to become an institution for two decades. All the stars of the runway took a turn, from Gisele Bündchen to Gigi Hadid, and starved themselves with the draconian discipline forced on them for weeks beforehand, as would be revealed later. These fashion shows were to make the brand famous for its many collections, with a vibrant offering frequently refreshed with new motifs and colours, from cotton underwear to the sexiest lace and swimwear. In 2013, Victoria’s Secret, with a branch in every American shopping mall, accounted for nearly a third of the underwear market. It then went into decline, lurching from scandal to scandal, and was finished off by the pandemic, which halved its sales. But although the brand only recently appeared in France – after its decline began – its fame and modus operandi have influenced the underwear scene significantly. 

Entry into Fast Fashion 

Underwear has all the ingredients that made fast fashion successful: rolling collections with garments made and sold at low cost, with as short a lifespan as possible to encourage continuous consumption.

Etam’s turn to put on a show 

Just as Victoria’s Secret, caught up in the bad publicity of the Me Too and Body Positive era, lost its lustre and discontinued its grand shows in 2014, in France, Etam took over. It staged its first fashion show to mark its 100th birthday in 2016, with Natalia Vodianova and Constance Jablonski as figureheads, to make for a more fashionable, desirable image. 

The group expanded its store and brand network (1,400 stores, including 860 Etam stores worldwide) and opened its first US branches in March 2022. Thus in 2007 it created Undiz, an underwear brand aimed at young people, with low-quality products at low prices. Conversely, the same group co-created Livy, a high-end, sexy brand, along with the Vog group (Bash) and took a majority share in Ysé, a mid- to high-end lingerie brand. From the highest to the lowest end of the market, the Etam group monopolised the French underwear market, which it led with 10.2% of sales in 2021 – ahead of Leclerc (9.6%) and Carrefour (market share 6.7%) – by bringing out new designs every week. 

Specialist retailers follow suit 

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In the 1990s, new specialist franchise shops appeared in France, along the same lines as Etam. Princesse Tam Tam is a prime example. Set up by two sisters, the brand was then acquired by the Japanese group that owns Uniqlo, and thus embraced a more commercial approach closer to that of fast fashion. Here too, the underwear, swimwear and loungewear were offered at reasonable but not necessarily low prices. However, the expertise in corsetry was limited and plus sizes were not in the mix. 

Fast fashion chains open up underwear sections

Attracted by this market, which young people are keen on, fast fashion chains got on board and used the same hallmarks as in other sections: swiftly rolling collections. Whereas it takes traditional brands, with real know-how, more than a year to bring a bra design to market. Fast fashion giants such as Topshop, H&M and Forever 21 all launched their own underwear lines. The most recent newcomer is Zara. The Inditex group already had its specialist brand Oysho, but in late 2020 opened up Zara underwear sections. The new breed of consumer, who does not always dare enter an underwear boutique or department store, is much more familiar with these brands. 

While traditional corsetry brands have been struggling to survive (Maison Lejaby in the 2010s and Indiscrète more recently), fast fashion, represented by the large all-rounder textile brands and by a cluster of specialist store brands, could well shake up the underwear market. And yet, whereas many of us need some real support, and whereas French women have an average bust size of 93.7 cm with a C cup, these brands rarely provide the necessary support, let alone advice! 

That is, unless digitalisation and its associated clutch of small digital native and body positive brands catering to all shapes and sizes turn out to be game-changers in the years to come… 

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