The bra may appear a modest garment, undercover and appreciated more for its contents than for its structural qualities. Yet behind the lace lies a cut-throat world of takeover bids and high security R&D - all part of the mission to develop a perfect bra. By Sapna Arora.

"You got the cups in the front, two loops in the back...I guess that's about it," said Frank Costanza on US sitcom 'Seinfeld' in 1993.

Not any more. Things have become a whole lot more complicated. Big-name manufacturers are deploying teams of scientists and designers, sometimes trailed by patent lawyers, to re-engineer the brassiere. And at stake is nearly US$5bn a year that women spend on bras - about half of all lingerie revenue.

Nearly every woman wears a bra, and many complain that theirs squishes, chafes or jabs. Because some women spend 16 hours a day hooked inside the garment, finding one that is comfortable, flattering and not too revealing remains for many the Holy Grail of lingerie shopping.

Some are willing to shell out as much as $200 for top-end silk or satin brassieres.

Driven by the popularity of revealing tank tops and sheer blouses, bra sales grew strongly in 2004, up 8% from the year before, to $4.8bn.

Across Europe, private labels are driving the market, along with increasingly influential high street retailers. The former are big enough to court customers but small enough to spot a trend and respond faster than the international bra manufacturers.

Meanwhile, high street retailers have improved their own-brand bras to the level where there are negligible differences to the branded products.

Even the high street has competition. Across mainland Europe, supermarkets and hypermarkets now account for 35% of the bra market. In the UK, underwear sales for the George brand at Asda, for instance, have doubled over the past five years.

There's going to be a shake-up: greater demands are going to require greater efficiency and speed.

This is an industry that's all about innovation.

The worldwide bra market increased 40% during the 1990s, and the UK market grew by 34% to EUR1.67bn between 1998 and 2004.

Just a few key players dominate the global market: the German owned Triumph International, and the Americans - Vanity Fair and Sara Lee Corporation.

Trendiness has long been a hallmark of the bra business, but the recent spate of innovation began with the much-hyped Wonderbra, which was ferried to stores in armoured cars and limousines on its 1994 debut.

Once called 'padded bras' this is the category that the world famous Wonderbra falls under. These bras lift the breasts and add shape them with extra padding. Some more innovative push-up bras use silicone inserts or water sacks to imitate the fullness of natural breasts. They are said to "lift and separate," creating a full cleavage look on breasts of all sizes. These bras always offer lots of support.

A Wonderbra sold every 15 seconds in its first weeks on the market according to manufacturer Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, quickly becoming the top-selling push-up bra and a cultural icon.

On its website, the company, a unit of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp, touts the bra's "precision engineering." Also, according to the latest statistics, US giant Sara Lee sold EUR1.54bn of lingerie last year and owns over half of the European market.

MJM International, the parent company of Ultimo
Approximately nine years ago, Michelle Mone, a 28-year-old model, dreamed up a bra in which moulded silicone of the kind usually used in breast enhancement operations could be incorporated without underwiring.

Two years of research and development later, the launch of the deceptively simple and heavily patented Ultimo bra caused queues round the block. It has made MJM International the fastest-growing lingerie business in Europe, turning over EUR14m annually, and has inspired a spate of further high-tech undergarments, among them bust-enhancing swimwear and the first backless body.

Ultimo also has a new product due out in spring 2006, which is top secret. It has to be as the industry is changing and is a lot more competitive then it ever was.

Cup size instigates invention of revolutionary new bra
Cup size is proving a factor in segmenting company territory. In the US and the UK the larger sizes are thought of as being an E cup upwards; but in France they think the large size is a D cup and in Italy it is a C cup.

When scientist Dr Joanne Morgan was persuaded to buy a backless ball dress she knew she wouldn't be able to wear it. Her desire to wear something attractive was thwarted by an age-old problem affecting thousands of women who need a larger bra size - the lack of a backless and strapless bra. 

"This means that more than 50% of women in the UK do not have access to a pretty dress because there is no backless bra available to them due to the fact these larger sizes can't be supported without the use of straps," she says.

Her invention gets rid of the traditional cantilever system of bra support and lift in favour of a new design - still under wraps - which won her the title of Most Innovative New Business in the 2005 Barclays Business Plan Awards.
With patents pending and a lingerie designer and retailer helping her, as well as two experienced entrepreneurs, a legal expert and five investors, she founded her company Faveo Ltd 18 months ago and is well on the way to bringing the Faveo Freedom Bra to the market.

Dr Morgan used five years experience of working in a lingerie shop as well as her scientific training and business skills to come up with the innovation, which has been tested as a backless and strapless bra up to size 46G. The basic concept is being used to design a range of new Faveo bras and bikinis.

But keen buyers may have to wait, as Dr Morgan's product might not be available to buy before the end of this year. 

The techno bra
The stereotype has it that only men are interested in technology. But the 80% of women who buy at least one bra a year are impressed by new advances, a fact of which manufacturers are only too aware.

Innovation is the lifeblood of the industry and brand loyalty is only as strong as the comfort and cleavage the bra provides.

New technologies have accelerated design advances over the past decade, from the introduction of innovative fabrics (the bra industry pioneered the use of fibres such as spandex, Lycra and even nylon) to construction methods such as 'hot melt' and ultrasonic bonding, as in Berlei's 'Berlei one,' a virtually stitch-free bra two years in development.

Other developments include the Ultrabra Airotica, a cleavage enhancer with crescent-shaped airbags stitched into each cup (and tested under pressure on high-flying aircraft), which can be inflated using a tiny pump, and the natural liquid miracle bra from Victoria's Secret, a firm with the stated intention of launching a new bra innovation each year.

The products must be visually attractive, but each new bra technology aims to give its wearers some novel advantage - added comfort, support and protection, an enhanced or less pronounced bust and so forth over its predecessors.

The new techno bra developed by Kristy Groves features a heart monitor, GPS locator and wireless phone. If the bra detects a rapid jump in the heart rate, the GPS system establishes the location and informs the police via the wireless phone. The bra is able to differentiate between a heart rate increase due to exercise, adrenalin or physical attack.

A lot of engineering is required to make a bra. But there is also a considerable fashion input. The challenge is not only developing the right product but also getting it out at the right time.

By Sapna Arora.