Victoria's Secret rival ThirdLove launches into activewear with new sports bra

ThirdLove says it has been working on its sports bra design and fit for more than two years.Source: ThirdLove

Lingerie start-up ThirdLove is hoping to get an even bigger leg up on its biggest rival, Victoria's Secret, by launching into activewear.

ThirdLove announced Wednesday the debut of its workout line, including a sports bra that the company says it has been working on for more than two years.

ThirdLove said “sports bra” has become the most-searched term on its website in recent months, and CEO and co-founder Heidi Zak saw an opportunity to get into a growing, but highly competitive, activewear market, taking on the likes of Nike, Under Armour and Athleta. Victoria's Secret has also been investing more in the category, recently debuting a line of sports bras and leggings called On Point.

“It's a competitive market for sure, but there's no company that's saying sports bra for women, first,” Zak said in an interview. “When you say Lululemon, I think leggings. When you say Nike, I don't think sports bra.”

While ThirdLove is also launching a selection of leggings and women's workout tops, the centerpiece of this new line is its sports bra. The bra's design is specific to a woman's cup and band sizing. Rather than choosing from small, medium or large, women will select their regular bra size, such as a 34B or 32D. ThirdLove's sports bra also features an adjustable back strap. Prices range from $45 to $70.

“We aim to be the best sports bras that there is. Not to be mediocre, but to be awesome,” Zak said. “And it's a growing market, so there's plenty of room for new competition to come in and take market share.”

Citing data from market research firm NPD Group, Zak said ThirdLove has grown to be the top bra brand on the internet for the millennial demographic, based on sales and market share.

Comfort driving category growth

The company hopes to maintain that position by launching into another hot sector that can provide an additional lever for growth. According to NPD fashion analyst Kristen Classi-Zummo, the sports bra category has been on fire, even during the pandemic, when overall apparel sales took a tumble.

Year-to-date sales of sports bras in the United States have totaled $2.1 billion, up 53% compared from the same period in 2019, she said, citing NPD's market research. On a year-over-year basis, sales of sports bras are up 48%.

“Comfort features are what's driving the growth,” Zummo said. “And what a lot of brands are offering with sports bras is an elevated essential that's not just for function and playing sport. They're pretty and they're comfortable.”

There isn't one dominant retailer in the sports bra market today. Retailers' private-label brands, taken together, account for about a third of the category's sales, NPD said. This offers an opportunity for a company to try to get a stronger footing in the space.

As for Victoria's Secret, which has been trying to appeal to more women by revamping its marketing, launching versatile products like maternity bras and using models of diverse body types, ThirdLove's Zak said she's impressed but not yet convinced the lingerie maker's efforts will work in the long run.

“It is a marked change over the past few months,” she said about her competitor. “You really can see the difference in the model choice, the tone, and even the product launches that they're going after.”

“It just remains to be seen, is that work authentic to the customer base? How many millions of customers have they lost? It's hard to get somebody back who left the brand,” Zak added.

A grab for market share

ThirdLove is positioned to be a huge beneficiary of Victoria's Secret's struggles. The company has been bold about its rivalry with an industry behemoth in the past, too. In 2018, ThirdLove took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times in which it issued an open letter slamming derogatory comments that members of Victoria's Secret's management team had made toward women.

Zummo has been watching the battle brewing among lingerie start-ups like ThirdLove for legacy players' market share.

“Direct-to-consumer brands are definitely having an impact,” she said. “We're seeing a lot of these smaller brands really resonate with an array of different age groups. … They focus on empowerment. They focus on diversity.”

A representative from Victoria's Secret didn't respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Victoria's Secret was spun out of L Brands in early August and began trading on the New York Stock Exchange as its own public entity. Its shares are down about 21% from an all-time intraday high of $76.

ThirdLove, meantime, is eyeing opening retail stores again, after the company shuttered its only location in New York's SoHo neighborhood near the start of the Covid pandemic. Zak wouldn't offer a timeline but said it is likely the company will invest in brick-and-mortar retail.

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