The lingerie market has, simply put, exploded. The Business of Fashion reports the global underwear industry was worth over $110 billion in 2014, and according to Euromonitor, "women's underwear was the largest category in womenswear in 2013." But in the United States, it's controlled by a few big players, including Triumph and Hanes, which owns Maidenform, Wonderbra and Playtex. Oh, and Victoria's Secret.
Which is why independent retailers are quietly taking on the industry by doing something revolutionary: listening. They've been hearing our moans over the lack of large sizes and groans about the impracticality of the styles that typically get attention, and they're using that to disrupt a lumbering, slow-moving industry and address these real needs.
That process has pretty much flipped the industry on its head. Usually, companies or designers have to charm the trade magazines and industry power players to establish themselves first; after that come the savvy marketing techniques, and the Internet will follow. But these companies are doing the opposite, relying on the magical, mystical Internet to connect with real people's needs first.
"The way retail channels work now is that brands are able to get directly in connection with their consumer base," Cora Harrington, the founder of the blog The Lingerie Addict, told Mic. "You have discussions happening, and then you have the ability to get these products to consumers. Before blogs were really a thing, the only way to share what you were doing was trade journals or through a boutique."
With the Internet on their side, indie lingerie retailers are looking toward the future and acting on it — and in doing so, making lingerie one of the most progressive, inclusive, exciting spaces in fashion. Here's what they're doing.
Recognizing that not all shoppers have the same skin color
Take the brand Nubian Skin, for example. Launched last year by Ade Hassan, it blew open the conversation about why "nude" apparel almost always means "white" or "light beige." After years and years of never being able to find her own shade of "nude," Hassan decided to launch an intimates company that would cater to women whose skin color isn't a pinky-white.
"Lingerie is something that's incredibly personal, and the people who are generally running these large companies are older white men, and so the last thing on their mind would be, 'What am I going to wear under my top to make sure that it's not possible to see through it?'" Hassan told Mic last year.
Before the media got wind of Nubian Skin — or any major lingerie industry players cared to tackle the "nude" problem, for that matter — the Internet took notice.
"The conversations started on Twitter first," Harrington said. "And all of a sudden Black Twitter was all over it. Then Mashable picked them up and then the industry."
From that finally came the mainstream: Nordstrom picked up the line this summer.
Creating an intimate shopping experience
From navigating size-specific sections to facing your fears in bad dressing room lighting, shopping is personal. That's especially true for undergarments, so it makes sense that the process should be intimate and sensitive.
The only lingerie boutique in the United States that caters to the LGBTQIA+ community, Bluestockings Boutique caters to people who identify across the gender and sexuality spectrum, and it invites in trans and queer customers. Bluestockings founder Jeanna Kadlec told Mic she launched the online store in April after realizing there wasn't "a store where anyone can walk in and feel safe and secure and accepted and not judged because of their body or their gender identity, where you could walk in with your partner and not have to worry."
It's not the lingerie itself that is "queer," the company insists, but rather the wearer that makes it queer friendly.
"The experience at Bluestockings is built on inclusivity," Kadlec said. "Namely, I don't assume that I know my customers' sexual orientation or gender. The website exclusively features gender neutral pronouns. We offer discreet shipping, because customer safety comes before our branding."
Listening to the voices of industry outsiders
One distinction throughout the independent lingerie community is that many of the founders of these retailers and brands don't have a lingerie background at all. Before launching Nubian Skin, Hassan worked as a management consultant. She said she had no business or entrepreneurial background at all before launching her company.
That seems to be an advantage when it comes to creating and manufacturing inclusive lingerie. Entrepreneurs like Kadlec, Hassan and Girald of Naja started because they saw a need first and foremost, not a desire to play safe with what already worked and pad a pre-existing bottom line. And thanks to the Internet, they're inclined to start not on a spreadsheet, but by connecting with fans who are stoked to share new information about their business or products.
"People today would keep the conversation going more than usual," Harrington said. "Ten years ago, these complaints would have been just one post, liked by a few people. There wasn't a Twitter 10 years ago. The places where these conversations are happening are brand new."
That's not to say the indie brands aren't concerned with financial success; in fact, specialty lingerie is often more expensive by necessity. But in the spirit of inclusivity, many of these brands strive to lower prices where they can, said Harrington (who herself comes from a nonprofit background).
"The more diverse brands aren't necessarily perfect," Harrington said. "But ... they're trying to get to a place where their items can be bought by everyone, and that takes time."
Designing clothing that transcends gender
A still relatively untapped segment of the market, lingerie that expands gender categories could be the future. One of the leaders
here is the founder of All Is Fair in Love and Wear, Peregrine Honig. Neither a designer by trade nor an industry insider, Honig launched the line of gender fluid lingerie earlier this year on Kickstarter. As the owner of the lingerie boutique Birdies in Kansas City, Missouri, Peregrine was hip to the art of selling lingerie, but found there were trans individuals with struggles she could address with her line.
"What I learned is that everyone is different," Honig recently told Mic. "Some people who are transitioning don't want to use these products at all but for people who do, I wanted to make sure the line catered to their needs."
Once All Is Fair is up and running online, Honig hopes to offer a shopping experience similar to Bluestockings, with intimate consultation and online support. Later this year, All Is Wear will also be getting its own brick-and-mortar store in Kansas City.
There are many other brands looking out for gender fluid undergarments, including Chrysalis Lingerie, which was founded in 2013 and made headlines for being the first lingerie line for transgender women by transgender women. Play Out Underwear is another, which has made it known their underwear is for no one gender with gender-neutral terms in their ads, queer models and even queer-themed music videos. More recently, designer Marie Yat introduced a loungewear line without gender hang-ups, including ladies-style briefs with straps echoing a jock strap.
"Realizing I can never get what I wanted in the market, it felt right to start doing something I would like to wear everyday that was unconventional and comfortable to wear," Yat recently told Mic.
Making products that recognize women's real-life needs
At their best, beautiful bras can offer someone support and comfort when they needs it the most. Take post-mastectomy bras, for instance. They've had a reputation for looking and feeling quite medical, but Dana Donofree, the founder of AnaOno Intimates, wanted to change that. Launched in the summer, the indie brand sells bras with varying fits and styles for different stages of recovery, from healing to reconstruction to prosthesis.
Maternity and nursing bras accommodate a similar niche need for women. Often known to look pretty geriatric, indie retailers like the U.K.'s Lorna Drew, for one, are creating beautiful pregnancy and nursing bras. And there are plenty more where that came from.
Other ventures the lingerie industry has dabbled in just this year include acknowledging that the female body is human with the inclusion of several sweat-proof bras and underwear that can withstand a day's worth of menstrual blood. Then, there's the growing DD+ industry, which has further proved how powerful the plus-size market can be.
There are still areas indie retailers and brands haven't yet conquered, and no company can be perfect. But give it a few more years, and perhaps we'll be able to walk into a Target and see an attractive post-mastectomy bra hanging alongside a binder, or a bra in a dark shade of brown nestled next to a pair of underwear unclassified for females or males.
If if happens, it's going to be the indie designers that made it happen.