An unsinkable swimsuit and a blow-up bra were among the beachwear and lingerie innovations that made "inflatable" a buzz word at this Autumn's Lyon Mode City trade fair.

The swimsuit, a one-piece available at the moment in children's sizes only, comes from the Plouf range by Greystone. The secret of how it keeps the wearer afloat lies in the construction of the fabric which employs a branded inflatable fibre called Eliotex. This traps air against the body, allowing the fabric - though little thicker than a normal suit - to act like water wings.

Pump up the volume
The blow-up bra, equipped with miniature versions of the auto industry's safety air bags, is the latest gift to the less-than-well-endowed by Gossard, creators of the Wonderbra. In this model, which will be marketed as the Airotec, the wearer can control the degree of expansion by means of a valve.

Meanwhile what British manufacturers achieve with air the Americans do with liquid.

Silicone enlargement without the inherent dangers of having gel inserted under the skin is the offer from Bragel International. Their new Gel Bra line uses silicone gel permanently enclosed in polyurethane film to replace conventional padding and to provide what Bragel describes as "natural fullness and push up."

A similar bra has recently been introduced by the Debenhams store group under the name Ultimo.

Other variations on the liquid padding theme seen in Lyon include the Aquabra from the Altesse Co Ltd in the USA. It is filled not with silicone gel but, as the name suggests, a water-based solution. The manufacturers guarantee that the liquid is "non-toxic" and, perhaps not surprisingly in view of its water content, non-flammable.

Also making its European debut at Lyon is the six strap bra, or as its creators Princesse Tam-Tam prefer to describe it, the "three styles in one" bra. It is a bandeau in Lycra net and micro fibre sold with three sets of straps that enable it to be instantly converted to suit different styles of outerwear.

But then leading Paris lingerie designers like Vannina Versperini no longer make a distinction between the two categories of clothing. Vannina says: "Today the reality of clothing exists only in the way it is worn." Her own collection for Spring 200l, previewed in Lyon, offered as outerwear satin slips topped with T-shirts and tailored jackets worn over bras or bustiers teamed with wide legged trousers obviously inspired by traditional pyjamas.

Her lingerie fabric palette meanwhile eschews conventional pastels in favour of electric blue, plum and tobacco brown.

Crossover companies
Britain's Gabrielle Ross, founder of the Beau Bra label, also loves bright colours. But she combines them with a more overtly feminine approach to styling epitomised by the "trade mark" bows with which she decorates not only each garment but the fabric bags that turn her slip and G-string sets into gift items that sell particularly well at Christmas and again in the spring as St Valentine's Day gifts.

The runaway success of Ross's company virtually since its foundation in l997 derives from its clever pinpointing of a market that was previously believed Britain didn't possess - under 30s who will happily pay £35 or more for a tiny scrap of satin and lace.

But analytical thinking comes as easily to Gabrielle Ross as creative designing - she runs her lingerie business almost as a sideline to her law studies.

Nor is a background outside fashion that unusual among the ranks of leading designers showing collections at Mode City. Marius Hogendoorn, founder of the Dutch beachwear house Rus'H Company, which specialises in itsy-bitsy bikinis, is also a business consultant who wrote a standard work on communication research before entering the swimwear trade ten years ago.

But then financial analysis of the European lingerie market released at the show by the organisers of Mode City nails a number of myths about the lingerie trade. For instance the British are supposed to be the greatest users of chain stores as a source of underwear, but in fact the French are far more likely to buy their bras and knickers at grocery superstores, now the nation's biggest distributors of lingerie, holding a 28 per cent share of the French market overall. And in second place come mail order catalogues with a l7 per cent share.

Bragel's gel bra uses silicone gel to replace conventional padding

Brits are biggest lingerie spenders
It is the Brits who are now Europe's biggest spenders on lingerie in which they invest 2.6bn Euros a year compared with France's 2.5bn.

In the swimwear sector, France lies third in the European league table with purchases of around l5 million units a year. Both Italy and Germany are bigger swimwear markets while Italy is Europe's most important manufacturing nation, turning out 55 million swimsuits a season. Only the Americans beat this with an output of 60 million.

Each year that passes however, brings more contenders into what is becoming an increasingly cosmopolitan trade. For instance, Hong Kong is now the world's largest exporter of swimwear with sales worth $2l4m, and, worryingly for European manufacturers, three-quarters of its output sold to European stores.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, Mexico's rising tide of swimwear exports, worth $77.5m at the last count, with 95 per cent of sales going to the US, must be equally challenging to the 60 producers of branded swimwear who service the US home market.

Market leaders turn to technology
The reaction of US market leaders - certainly those who showed at Lyon - has been to fight price-based competition with ever greater emphasis with technical innovation. Typical of this approach, with its international launch neatly timed to coincide with the Olympic Games is Speedo's introduction of what they describe as "the worlds fastest competition swimsuit - the Fastskin."

Four years' research went into the production of the "hydrodynamic" fabric for this suit, and the claim is now that any wearer will move through the water 7.5 per cent faster when wearing this sharkskin-inspired covering.

But it is not only American textile technologists who are pursuing plus factors with the zeal of medieval alchemists seeking the philosopher's stone. Among the Italian contingent Carvico's latest run-resistant synthetics and Star's skill in four-colour printing on knitted fabrics excited considerable interest from lingerie manufacturers of all nationalities.

Similarly UK's Finden Coatings' high tech fabrics with silicone coating attracted international interest. Developed by Finden, the new look provided by coating techniques allied to the breathability and shape that are retained by the base fabric, made its displays of particular interest to manufacturers of swimwear, general sportswear and the corsetry trade.

Tactel effects vary from fine, second skin fabrics and fabric blends to those with more functional properties

Swimwear manufacturers were also intrigued by Austrim's claim to have produced a series of "tan through" fabrics that will nevertheless filter out harmful UV rays.

Innovation express
In fact, such is the current pace of innovation that what seems like science fiction can in the l2 months that separate one Lyon trade fair from the next become almost the norm. It has already happened with stretch and with microfibres and is now happening with anti-bacterial and fragranced fabrics.

Now the talk is of what the industry's demand for fabrics that will make up into seamless garments will bring, and whether such developments will ultimately eliminate the need for the complex sewing operations that still have to go into the construction of most bras and many categories of support foundations.

Meanwhile, on the fashion front, the call is for velvet, faux fur, jewelled and leather-like fabrics to create ever more glamorous swimwear that will stand up to regular dousings in salted or chlorinated water without losing their looks.

By Sonia Roberts