Sports bras shake up lingerie industry


The ground is quivering beneath the metaphorical feet of the traditional bra industry.

Experts from a recent webinar about the future of bras, hosted by lingerie and intimates tradeshow organizer Curve EXPO, noted the older more staid bra makers already were being squeezed by changes in technology, changes in the shapes of women’s bodies and the changing tastes of younger women.

Model Erica Desmond wears a sports bra. Sports bras are surpassing traditional bras in popularity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. MIKE CHAIKEN PHOTO

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing many women to work at home. And from that platform, women started preferring to be comfortable while they sat in Zoom meetings.

Laura Tempesta, a bra expert who has worked with Nike and owns her own company Bravolution, said the traditional bra industry is facing a “tsunami.”

“The bra industry is ripe for devastation,” said Tempesta. The industry has been slow to change, often operating and designing as they had for the past 100 years. That, in itself, has put traditional bra brands in jeopardy, said Tempesta.

Then COVID-19 struck the world, Tempesta noted. The pandemic is like a “gale force wind” striking against traditional bra brands.

Jos Berry, the founder of Concepts Paris, said as women’s bodies are changing and evolving, they are having sizing problems. This also has meant women are having problems with the underwire used in bras that provide support for their breasts.


As a response, said Berry, sports bras are becoming more popular, said Berry.

An advertisement for traditional bras circa the 1950s.

According to the “Sports Bra: Market Shares, Strategies, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2020 to 2026” report from Wintergreen Research, Inc., “The shipments value of the sports bra market in 2019 at $9 billion is rising to $38.4 billion by 2026… Sports bras represent a breakthrough in innovation and will likely completely replace traditional bras.”

Nicole Randall, who used to be an executive with Victoria Secret Pink and Nike, said the demand for sports bras has grown even larger during the pandemic.

First of all, noted Randall, sports bras provide fewer problems with sizing, since they do not use traditional cups. Secondly, since sizing is easier to figure out, women have found them easier to buy on the web as they shop from home during the COVID quarantine. Traditional bras typically require a customer try them on for fit to make sure cup sizes and strap sizes are appropriate. Sports bras don’t require that step, said Randall.

Comfort also plays a role in the rise of the sports bra during the pandemic, the experts said.

Due to COVID, and the work at home movement, there has been a cultural sea-change where women are learning to wear bras that do not offer underwire support, said Tempesta. Women are saying, she explained, “I don’t want to wear that (underwire bra) anymore and will look for something different.”

Also, as women are working from home, Randall said sports bras provide a convenience. Women can take a work out break during their day without changing because they already are wearing a sports bra.

Women’s bodies also are changing over time, the experts said. They are curvier and have larger bra cup sizes.

Randall said some of the younger generation of bra manufacturers are recognizing the changing bodies of women and addressing them with new products. For instance, brands like Pink are adding small band large cup sizes that are more comfortable.

Women with larger cup sizes, until now, may have had to turn to the traditional bra companies for garments that provide comfort, said Randall. But new brands, using newer technology, are working on serving the needs of these women as well. This may result in a further drift away from traditional bra brands and increased demand for sports bras that fit all women.

A vintage advertisement for traditional bras.

The desire for comfort is going to continue to be a platform of innovation, said Randall.

Traditional bra manufacturers may be left behind because of their “tradition,” said Randall. Many of these brands have been making bras the same way for a hundred years. It gets harder to change after being in business for that long.

Smaller brands and niche brands like Nike are more nimble and can pivot to meet the changing tastes of women, said Randall.

But as sports apparel brands dive into sports bras, Randall said manufacturers have to remember they are marketing to women.

Yes, said Randall, sports bras do what they do, such as provide support and protect the breasts, because of the technology utilized. However, Randall said, many women are alienated when brands talk about the bras in the same way they sell athletic shoes.

Women want to know the bra will make them feel like a woman, said Randall.

“I want you to talk to me like a woman,” said Randall, channeling the mind of the customers for sports bras. “Women need to know it’s the most comfortable bra so they (make the time to) try it on.”

Tempesta said women want to know how a bra feels physically. They also know what a bra will feel like emotionally.

Women do not need to know a sports bra is laser cut and has interesting graphics, said Randall.

Sports bras are often viewed as utilitarian, while old school bras are viewed as an item that can be sexy.

Randall said there is a belief you can’t have sexy and comfort. But, she said, brands can bridge that gap if they innovate.

Sports bras are not the only post-pandemic success story for intimates, the experts said.

Newer companies are offering more styles of intimates that appeal to younger women such as bralettes for women with smaller breasts, said Randall. These are less structured than traditional bras. Again, the comfort factor during a pandemic comes into play.

Randall also said sexy lingerie has seen an uptick in sales during the pandemic.

“People need entertainment and need something that helps them feel better (during the pandemic),” said Randall.