How Bridget Jones boosted the market for big underwear

big underwearBy Janet Godsell, professor of operations and supply chain strategy, University of Warwick.

We all giggled at the enormous underwear scene in the first Bridget Jones film, but despite these garments once being seen as a byword for unsexy, shapewear has become one of the great success stories of the lingerie market. It is 15 years since the film’s release, and the famous “hello mummy” quip when Hugh Grant’s character Daniel Cleaver discovered that Bridget was wearing “absolutely enormous panties”.

With that one scene Bridget and Daniel made it acceptable, even sexy, to wear support pants – and to talk about them. Today, the market for this larger form of underwear has grown significantly. A number of brands make it and UK-based retail chain Debenhams recorded a 200 per cent increase in shapewear sales between 2007 and 2012, a trend which has continued. It is now one of the most significant segments of the underwear or “intimates” market.

One country that has ridden this wave is Sri Lanka. It is now at the forefront of shapewear innovation, design and manufacture, having invested heavily in research and development over recent years. As a result, it developed a key technology involved in shapewear in 2008 and is now a market leader.

Bridget Jones unwittingly starting a shapewear revolution. Danitza Cabezas Jofré/flickr

This growth in its popularity has been led by an unprecedented level of innovation within the sector. Manufacturers have invested in the design of shapewear, reducing the size, increasing the comfort and improving the style. And it has involved a significant supply chain, which I’ve studied with my colleague Rivini Mataraarachchi from the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka.

70,000 miles

Manufacturers have worked hard to develop products that consumers want at affordable prices – and have built a strong supply chain around it to do so.

A complex supply chain exists to make one item of shapewear, using materials sourced from Sri Lanka, the US, Germany and Eurasia. A typical pair of shapewear pants involves bringing materials together over more than 70,000 miles, 16 different manufacturing sites, across three continents, to provide a pair of pants to a customer in London.

The 70,000 mile shapewear supply chain. Janet Godsell

It is heartening to see that Sri Lank’s shapewear industry has used local capability where possible – for both the base materials and packing items – and sourced other components globally where technological advantage lay elsewhere. Advanced thread technology from the US is used to ensure that the different seams are soft, comfortable and have the correct degree of stretch and draw. Eurasia has developed the ancient Chinese flocking process, which adds the velvety embossed pattern (made up of fibres called flock) to the shapewear. Labels and hangers, meanwhile, are sourced in Germany.

By leveraging and combining these different technologies and manufacturers from around the world, new innovative products can be brought to market faster and cheaper.

Constant innovation

Even in a product as apparently simple as underwear, innovation is critical to ensure long-term survival in what will otherwise become a commoditised market, which is when companies compete primarily through price in a race to the bottom. Market-share can be lost to countries with lower labour costs, unless other innovative ways are found to increase efficiency in an ethical and responsible way.

We are also seeing the innovation developments in shapewear crossing over into other clothing ranges, including compression wear for sport, which is popular among athletes for the support and comfort the shapewear technology lends itself to. Nike put silicone embedding technology to the test in their kits for both the England and France teams in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Branded “silsoft”, the panels are designed to increase the grip and durability of the shirts, to improve the circulation and enhance the performance of the rugby players that wear them.

The discussion of underwear sparked by the first Bridget Jones film has inadvertently boosted shapewear sales, and this largely invisible world of global supply chains has sprung up to capitalise on it. It shows how centres of excellence around the world can be linked together to produce innovative new products with real user benefits, in an ethical and responsible way, at affordable prices.

Who would have thought that there was so much innovation, technology and a 70,000-mile supply chain supporting a simple pair of pants?

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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