Sports Bras The Leading Edge of Activewear

Sports bras have a lot in common with sneakers. Both call for complex design, aerodynamic construction, and a balance between support and comfort. They are essential for a wide range of athletic and fitness activities. Both have expanded into the lounge-y athleisure universe, where they've acquired style status and become daily at-home and street-wear.

And like sneakers, sports bras are major sellers, outselling all other intimates during the first few months of Covid-19. No wonder Euromonitor predicts a doubling of growth in that arena through 2024. Currently, Wacoal sports bra sales are currently up by double digits. Freya and Elomi, known for their expert fit, have seen their sales almost double. Pour Moi, with its extensive size range, reports exponential growth in activewear sales. "Pre-crisis, this category was already on an upward trajectory, but due to rapid lifestyle changes, it went crazy," reports Krista Tonra, Pour Moi's U.S. sales director.

Why is this happening now? For one thing, women furloughed from their jobs or otherwise sequestered at home suddenly have ample time for all those see-and-be-seen Zoom exercise classes, for FaceTiming, gardening, and just lounging around. Sports bras suit all these activities. "Women are looking for function with benefits," says Octavio Quintana, Leonisa USA's executive vice president. A matching sports bra and compression leggings, color-blocked, maybe, or in a tie dye or floral print constitute a new uniform: the 2020 power suit.

While activewear includes everything from tanks, crop tops and hoodies to leggings, shorts, and socks; sports bras are the key items—the ones calling for extra-savvy technical expertise in providing all-important bounce control. Jiggle, the enemy here, not only interferes with performance, but can be harmful to breast tissue and ligaments. But here's the tricky part: these bras shouldn't feel restrictive. Intimates brands produce what many regard as the best sports bras, the ones most likely to fit properly, and least likely to cause the dreaded, squished-in mono-bosom look. Unlike athletic and fashion brands, generally sized S to XL, lingerie brands typically use alphanumeric sizing and are just about the only ones that accommodate cup sizes beyond DD—for which there is a growing demand and supply. As Miryha Fantegrossi, Wacoal America's Vice President of Design and Merchandising, puts it, "Anyone above a C cup should absolutely wear an alphanumeric size bra. Alpha size bras smash everything down rather than properly support breast tissue."

Sports bras from lingerie specialists may well use up to fifty components, assembled in dozens of steps by specialists in styling and construction—with or without underwires. For Sarah and Michael Wiener, owners of Trousseau, a bra specialty shop in Vienna, Virginia, "Sports bras must have a rigid band, to avoid bouncing, plus support anchoring from the sides, and a multiple hook closure—or else they'll loosen up and lose support." Details are also likely to include wide padded shoulder straps, a racer or crisscross back, and flat seams. As for fabric, it's likely to be breathable, wicking, antimicrobial, and lightweight, with power mesh cutouts for ventilation (as well as design), and possibly UV protection too (a sure sign that these bras are meant to be seen). Now here's a curious fact about sports bra sales: they're split among several different retail/e-tail categories: lingerie specialists, apparel and specialty fitness dealers (like Nike, New Balance, Sweaty Betty, and Bandier), and fashion venues with activewear collections (Anthropologie, Cos, Uniqlo). Then there's an emerging fourth category—easywear verticals, like Aerie (an American Eagle offshoot) in the U.S.A. and in Europe, Tezenis (under the Calzedonia umbrella). The comfort-oriented stock in trade at these 21st century retailers is a mix of activewear and innerwear that morphs into outerwear.

Why such a clear-cut distribution divide and why are sports bras from intimates brands such a secret from so many women engaged in fitness activities? One answer: Almost no intimates brands are carried by athletic stores and fashion-oriented retailers. These businesses "underestimate the value of proper support in a sports bra—which involves carrying the full size range," proposes Joy Haizen, managing director of Anita USA. Both athletic apparel dealers and many of their customers lack education about bra fit. "But lingerie stores have the fitting expertise with cups and bands," she adds.

There is another possible reason for this split: The intimates category, which got its start in curve-enhancing corsetry, to this day carries the alluring and sensual whiff of lacy lingerie, of balconettes and garter belts. Women's activewear, by contrast, prioritizes muscle tone, function, and the romance of brand identity. The Nike Swoosh and the Adidas trefoil have a definite cachet.

But eager to attract athletic store customers, many intimates brands have expanded their sports bra selections beyond the traditional black, white, and nude underwear colors to include vivid brights, subtle pastels, of-the-moment color blocking, statement prints, and strategically placed cutouts. A growing number offer sustainably made products in recycled fabrics. Some follow the lead of posture-correcting brands like IFGfit and Intelliskin, and are delving into alignment bras and leggings. Many are hooking up with brand ambassadors and influencers; and some, especially the smaller, more agile digital natives like Evelyn & Bobbie, excel in social media marketing and online sales.


Anita is an award-winning 130-year-old family-run brand with a strong focus on fit. All its designs and product development are done at its headquarters in Brannenburg, Germany. One of Anita Active's top three countries in the U.S. as noted by Joy Haizen from Anita U.S.A. her office consistently provides sports bra and activewear market intelligence. This includes information on active colors, fashion, and lifestyle trends. What's more, Haizen and her staff "point out voids and opportunities in the US market and relay our retailer requests." The Anita Active collection specializes in wireless, ultra-lightweight sports bras whose SKUs range in size from an AA to an H cup. But encouraged by retailers, the new Extreme Control Plus style goes up to a K and features five-part cups, elastic side panels, strategic ventilation zones, a supportive double strap system, and power mesh lining at the back. Suitable for smaller breasts the lightweight Air Control DeltaPad, with patented foam cups, a soft underbust band, sealed seams and, again, that power mesh back. Legging-wise, Anita Sports Tights are made of a textured compression fabric (for relieving muscle strain) with built-in 3D nubs, which almost feel like a refined, circulation-boosting shiatsu massage. This company's technical fabrications may be the best in the business, according to Trousseau's Sarah and Michael Wiener. Anita's newest sports collection features matching high-impact bras and compression and massage leggings in python and tattoo prints. "The more we add fashion, the bigger the response we get," says Anita USA's Joy Haizen. And as Danny Koch, owner of the Town Shop in New York, points out, here is a brand that's "very creative with colors and so committed to its styles that they're re-colored multiple times a year." What's more, Anita Active is sold at athletic retailers. In New York, it's available at Paragon Sports; nationwide, it's at Fleet Feet, a chain with over 180 branches. Fleet Feet's director of Merchandise Planning and Analytics, Catherine Moloznik, says "Anita bridges the gap between elegant looking lingerie and activewear, and caters to a demographic that loves a bra with back hooks." These athletic dealers are provided by Anita with fit-centric training sessions. The lingerie retailers, meanwhile receive Anita's yoga- and running-inspired display mannequins.


Based in Colombia, Octavio Quintana and his U.S. crew have major input in this company's R&D and designs. The house specialty is shapewear with a sleek, fashion-conscious, body-contouring edge, made of luxurious-to-the-touch, multi-way stretch fabrics. This year Leonisa introduced items like the Eco-Friendly Recycled Sports Bra, with a mesh front and open back, and the Eco-Friendly High-Waisted Shaper Legging--both made from recycled plastic bottles. "The collection completely sold out," notes Quintana. The current bestseller, the Back Support Posture Corrector Wireless Bra, recommended by Hola! Magazine, not only is a boon for improving yoga and weightlifting posture, but is worn by many women at their laptops, to help undo back curvature. Another favorite is the torso-slimming ActiveLife Extra-HiWaist Firm Compression Legging with PowerSlim technology, minimal seaming, a midsection lining that tones the waist and tummy, and strategically designed anti-squash rear end shaping. Customers buy it in multiple colors. "By far the best fitting and feeling leggings I’ve ever worn," said one customer, "It's also ideal worn with crop tops."


Headquartered in Japan, with a separate U.S. design team in New York, has a top-selling powerhouse fitness bra for the American market: the no-nonsense, high-impact, compressive Sport Underwire Bra. Doubling as a minimizer with total breast containment, it's unique in having its wires float on the outside, making it chafe-less. With its molded cups, it not only makes for bounce-free horseback riding and kickboxing, but looks good beneath a lace or chiffon blouse. Also popular: the High Impact Convertible Underwire Sports Bra, similarly built with compressive, encapsulated cups. This style has adjustable stretch straps that convert to racerback and color-contrast edging— both of which make it a Zoom favorite.


Out of the U.K., "Freya makes great bras for the full-busted narrow to average figure" said Trousseau's Sarah and Michael Wiener. The brand is known for its best-selling Sonic Sports Bra, with air spacer cups that mold to the body yet remain breathable. Another plus is an all-around sling for maximum support. A popular new style is the unlined, ultra-lightweight Dynamic Wirefree Hi-Impact Sports Bra in an extended size range, with more colors arriving this fall. Then there's the Kinetic Legging, whose wide waistband has deep-set elastic for torso support. This style comes in various surface designs. Most striking are the Reflective Twisting model, with a slimming meandering vertical stripe, and the Smoke model, whose swirling blue lower leg print makes the wearer look like she's knee deep in a trompe l'oeil lagoon.


Also British, Panache is widely considered a leader in largecup underwire sports bras. Utilizing advanced biomechanical technology research, these bras have been shown to reduce bounce by 83 percent. The Town Shop's Danny Koch calls the Full-Busted Underwire Sports Bra "a real go-to in an astounding size range"—up to 40GG, in a variety of solids and prints. The Medium Control Wire-Free Sports Bra, with racerback-J-hook conversion, comes in solids and a striking neon reptile print.


Based in France, Chantelle launches its full-coverage High Impact Active Bra—up to an H cup—this November. Its "stay cool" cup spacer technology provides maximum lift, lightness, and breathability, while the back emphasizes smoothness, and a J-hook adds to its functionality. This bra is smooth and sleek enough to offer daylong wearability, even outside the gym. As noted by Christin Russo, vice president of Planning and Merchandising at Chantelle Lingerie, Inc., this company "has a long history of listening to consumer needs in the U.S. market, and the development of this new sports bra is no exception. We are a very data-driven company, and use both qualitative and quantitative insights into consumer behavior in the U.S., both online and offline, to best inform our Global Marketing Team based in Paris."


British as well, for many years Elomi has been a trusted non-compression brand for larger cup sizes. types. Customers love its smooth-contour Energise Underwire Sports Bra with J Hook, ranging from 32D to 46K. Plus, the cup fabric is both moisture-wicking and stain-resistant.


A German brand dating back to 1895, Falke excels in "soft, comfortable, high-quality knitwear," according to Trousseau's Sarah and Michael Weiner. Its activewear includes bras, ergonomic tops, jackets, anti-fatigue compression tights, and runner's socks. All its sports bras are seamless. The standout Versatility Maximum Support Women Sport-Bra is a racerback with a locked zip-front closure.


The chic French brand known for its mid-size bra expertise, Simone Perele recently introduced its first sports style, the Harmony Underwire, in High and Medium support versions. The High version has a racerback hook, and a U-shaped ballet back. The Medium features a breathable mesh back, removable cups, and a pullover racerback with a keyhole cutout for air flow.


A British brand that arrived in the U.S. last September, Pour Moi offers a wide array of cup sizes. The Rachel High Impact Underwire Sports Bra, with foam-lined cups and J-hook racerback converter, goes up to size 40GG and has a high style IQ for its vivid color blocking.

The above rundown deals mostly with high- and medium-impact bras. When it comes to low-impact activities like weight training and yoga, the emphasis is on gentle support, softness, and pliability. Bras that excel in these areas are Wacoal's B-Smooth and Chantelle's Soft Stretch collections, as well as two styles from Miel, a newcomer in Canada by way of Colombia: the Racer Racerback and the Lele styles with their quick-drying fabric treated with plant-based antimicrobials.

One final bra, worn both for general use and low impact fitness, is the seamless, over-the-head Defy model from Evelyn & Bobbie, a recently established supplier in Portland, Oregon. With the Defy, the breasts are enveloped in an inner 'sling' that replaces traditional underwires in our patented EM EB Core, according to Bree McKeen, Evelyn & Bobbie's founder and CEO. This alpha-sized bra also keeps the breasts secure with high sides and a well-structured criss-cross V-back. Almost morphing into an abbreviated second-skin tank top, the Defy signals a new direction in sports bras design. Already, "sales have been beyond our wildest imagination," says McKeen, adding that sizes are going up to 3X, and new colors and unique molded, removable pads will soon appear.

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