Jul 01, 2023

How shapewear sparked a billion

It’s the unlikeliest trend of 2023 – the curve-hugging lingerie has gone from discreet big knickers to must-have status symbols

It’s three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and there is a queue shaping up on the lingerie floor at London’s Selfridges store. The buzz is for the brand Skims – while the rest of the department is comparatively quiet, the customers here have their arms full of sculpting shorts and smoothing briefs, bodycon slip dresses and ribbed loungewear.

Some have travelled into the capital, they say, just for this shopping experience. Others are already wearing the underwear as outerwear; their smooth, form-fitting bodysuits are as slick as a coat of paint, and look good with jeans and a blazer.

Gone are the days when big, beige girdle pants were the punchline in Bridget Jones’s tragic wardrobe. In 2023 shapewear is worth queuing for – it’s on Instagram and on pop stars (Billie Eilish wore Skims in her video for 2021 single Lost Cause). It is coveted, status fashion, loaded with empowering messaging and promises to make you look – and crucially feel – like your best self.

The race to stay ahead of the curve is now a billion-dollar one, with players ranging from pop-culture personalities to more traditional retail giants.

The global shapewear market was valued at $4.7 billion (£3.6 billion) this year, according to The Business Research Company. M&S alone sells 5.3 million shapewear pieces per year – that’s 605 an hour.

Kim Kardashian is one of the figures responsible for this big rebranding. The reality television star turned entrepreneur co-founded Skims in September 2019. Her original idea, she says, was to move away from the perception that shapewear is a slimming product.

‘Before launching Skims, the biggest issue I found with shapewear was that it flattened the curves I loved,’ she tells me. ‘There was a huge gap in the market for shapewear that embraced women’s curves. Each piece from Skims is designed to enhance your shape, never flattening it.’

Kardashian is famed for her hourglass figure and has popularised the bodycon look for all. The goal of her aesthetic isn’t to look skinny, it’s to appear ‘snatched’ (or extremely close-fitted) – shapewear can smooth over, but not ultimately change what’s underneath. It doesn’t matter what your dress size is; in spray-on clothes, you will always showcase your truest silhouette.

Listing her favourite pieces, Kardashian talks about styles with ‘targeted support’ and shorts with ‘butt pockets that accentuate and lift’. These are technical, high-spec garments. But the reason that her brand has grown so quickly is that it also offers lighter-grip pieces comfortable enough to wear every day. A fresh round of investment in July has seen Skims (which also sells swimwear and loungewear) valued at $4 billion.

Across the board, brands have been expanding their product offerings to introduce more choice, addressing specific wearer needs and scenarios. Want a gentle butt lift, from undies so comfortable you could wear them all day at the office? See John Lewis’s Anyday Full Shaping Knickers. After a scaffolding structure to hold in your stomach for a wedding reception? Try Wolford’s Forming Body or Heist’s Sculpt.

The idea that fabrics can be manipulated to hold tighter or looser around specific body zones has led to serious innovation, and fierce trademarking. Heist does HeroPanels™. M&S has Magicwear™. Spanx makes its Bra-llelujah!® and Undie-tectable® briefs. The winners in the market now are those who can help you find what you actually want, without requiring a degree in textile sciences to do so.

‘The greatest evolution has been to see shapewear worn every day,’ says Kiana Miree, chief merchandising officer at Spanx. ‘The category has moved from being reserved for special occasions – going to an event, on a date night, or getting married – to wanting to feel this great all the time. The customer’s expectations over the last five years have changed in terms of where they want to wear the product, but with that comes the expectation of comfort, breathability, being able to wear it all day.’

Spanx now offers three main tiers of hold to suit different occasions. It’s been 22 years since Oprah included the original style in her annual ‘Favorite Things’ list, and to maintain its position as a red-carpet favourite, reinvention has been essential. From that single pair of shaping shorts, the Spanx range now spans 63 shapewear lingerie products, as well as shaping jeans, swimwear and even suiting.

Miree plays it cool, but Spanx has clearly been flustered by the influx of competitors on its patch. It is notable that last year the brand enlisted a celebrity ambassador for the first time in its history: the supermodel Ashley Graham. But its position as market leader is strong and more than half of its revenue comes from repeat customers.

One thing that Spanx and others have set out to do more recently is ‘dispel the notion that shapewear has to be hot’. If you ever wore shapewear pre-2016, you will likely have few memories of actually enjoying wearing it, and more of the relief you felt once you took it off.

Summer is the most popular time of the year to buy shapewear. America held its National Shapewear Day at the height of the selling season on 10 August (the same as National Lazy Day; make of that what you will). In the UK too, shapewear is wanted for holidays and weddings, but also to wear under light cotton day dresses. As Europe has sweltered in 40-degree heatwaves, the commitment to wearing another layer feels… sweaty.

‘Our Anti Chafe shorts are our current bestseller, selling around a million pairs since 2022,’ says Soozie Jenkinson, head of lingerie design at Marks & Spencer. With Cool Comfort™ technology embedded, they offer a light hold, but also promise to keep legs cool and eliminate rubbing and static.

British brand Heist entered the market in 2015, offering breathable comfort as its priority. Claire Breslin, managing director, says that leading with this message has helped to attract fans in a crowded market. ‘Our customers definitely value the sense of freedom rather than restriction,’ she says. ‘Products that offer heat and moisture management are key, as is the combination of hi-tech fibres and compression yarns that prevent slipping and digging.’

At Marks & Spencer, the bestselling shapewear size is a UK 14, at Heist it’s a 12-14. It dispels the narrative that, as our collective bodies are getting bigger, the shapewear market is ever expanding to fit them. That said, size diversity and visibility has improved significantly. At Spanx, sizes now run from XS to 3X and all products are fitted and tested on all sizes. At Marks & Spencer, styles run from a UK 8 to 24. The use of size-diverse women in advertising is now commonplace.

The Grammy-winning singer Lizzo entered the market with her range Yitty in 2022, offering sizing from XS to 6X (UK 6 to 34-36) and a website that lets you view each product on models of a range of body shapes. Though the singer has recently been at the centre of controversy, the brand continues to thrive.

‘I’m sick of people telling me how I’m supposed to look and feel about my body,’ she wrote on Instagram as it launched. ‘I’m tired of discomfort being synonymous with sexy. If it’s uncomfortable, take it off. And if it makes you feel good, put it on. Yitty isn’t just shapewear, it’s your chance to reclaim your body and redefine your beauty standard.’

Diversity of skin tones for supposedly ‘flesh’ coloured products was another issue Kim Kardashian called out when she launched Skims. ‘Shapewear often wasn’t available in the shades I needed, so I would cut styles into custom silhouettes and dye them with tea bags to get the colour I needed,’ she explains.

To counter that, pieces in her range are available in up to 10 shades – others have followed suit, but to commit to a full suite of sizes and colours takes serious investment, and plenty of smaller brands are still falling short.

Cynics may say that the shapewear market hasn’t really changed – it’s just had a PR boost, clinging on to the body positivity movement and rebranding itself accordingly. But perhaps this is exactly what lingerie marketing has always done to move with the times?

In Crown to Couture, the fashion exhibition on display at Kensington Palace until 29 October, it is thought-provoking and entertaining to see Spanx and Skims displayed next to hoops and corsetry from the 1750s. The intention is to show how Georgian royal courtiers had a similar approach to getting glammed up as those going to red-carpet events today.

Others claim the history of shapewear dates back as far as 1600 BC – drawings depict the people of ancient Crete wearing underwear that would accentuate their waist, hips and breasts – and can be traced via the Hellenic Greeks and their metal girdles, and the Victorians in their whalebone corsets. In the modern era, Marks & Spencer celebrated 90 years of its own shapewear offering in 2022 – its 1932 debut was advertised as ‘St Michael corsetry’. It’s taken a while, then, for comfort to at least become more of a priority.

Body snatchers – clockwise from top left: Superfit Bodyshape, £40, Pour Moi; Contour Seamless Body, £70, Heist; Magicwear Waist Cincher, £35, M&S; Men’s Sculpt Boxer Briefs, £34, Spanx; Everyday Sculpt Shorts, £36, Skims

Where does it all go next? Skims for him, of course. Men’s shapewear is seen as the next frontier – Kardashian is set to launch her menswear range this autumn. Spanx is there already, having debuted its men’s shapewear in the UK in 2021, and its range now spans 15 products.

‘It stemmed from red-carpet demand,’ says Miree. ‘Male celebrities were envious that women had our product and they didn’t. We use the technology that we’ve developed for womenswear and applied it to men’s products. The male customer typically wants better posture; often there’s a lumbar and pectoral focus.’ The brand’s Ultra Sculpt tops, for example, promise ‘Superman-level sculpting’ via ‘ab control, chest control and lower-back support’.

And once the goal of offering every shapewear configuration known to man and woman is achieved? Well, in a sketch for Saturday Night Live, Kardashian predicted the next venture for Skims: shapewear for dogs. ‘These are the only products that will comfortably accentuate your dog’s curves, no matter how thick that butt,’ she joked, alongside a bulldog in a faux-Spandex coat.

We laugh now, but who knows what shape the future could take?