Spanx, the flab-obscuring, body-sculpting line of bras and bodysuits, helped a generation of women squeeze into ever-tinier dresses.
Now it’s struggling with its own image problem.
“Compression is just so 15 years ago,” said Jacqui Stafford, a fashion editor and celebrity stylist in New York. “Women today just don’t want to be squeezed into something uncomfortable. And they’re more comfortable with real bodies.”
As the conversation around women’s bodies evolves, from chasing the perfect figure to embracing “real beauty,” what is a body-sculpting, figure-contorting brand such as Spanx to do?
Even company executives acknowledge that the thinly veiled fat-shaming that has long dominated its ads feels outdated. So instead of gut-squeezing agony, a new line of Spanx pants and bodysuits offers an easier, less constricting fit, something the brand says has more to do with smoothing the body’s bumps and curves and less to do with sculpting or shrinking waistlines or thighs.
And as of late last month, each red box of Spanx promotes a dose of what the company says is feminist inspiration: “Don’t take yourself or the ‘rules’ too seriously,” reads a message card, inserted in a pack of high-waisted shaper shorts and signed by Spanx’s self-made billionaire founder, Sara Blakely. And on the back of the packaging: “Re-shape the way you get dressed, so you can shape the world!”
Spanx, the once-revolutionary spandex shapewear-maker with an estimated $400 million in annual sales, is navigating the tricky world of female body shapes at a time when the idea of an ideal body shape feels increasingly outmoded, if not offensive.
Obsession with weight loss and impossible curves is still alive and well, evident in the popularity of waist trainers or the prevalence of diet pills. Still, from Lena Dunham in the HBO series “Girls” to the comic Mindy Kaling of Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” the media spotlight today features fewer “social X-rays” and more women of varying shapes and sizes, although leading actors in some series still set off gossip about their gaunt cheeks and collarbones.
The fashion world, long criticized for creating unrealistic expectations of female beauty, is starting to move away from altered images. France is set to ban excessively thin fashion models. Apparel executives, such as the chief executive of Lane Bryant, increasingly talk about “changing the conversation” on plus-size clothing. And Victoria’s Secret ignited swift condemnation last year for an ad that featured a lineup of skinny models with “perfect” bodies.
Shapewear is also under siege from the roaring popularity of so-called athleisure apparel, the gym-inspired spandex leggings and yoga pants taking over street fashion. Women’s activewear jumped 8 percent last year from a year earlier to $15.9 billion, according to the NPD Group, which tracks and analyzes retail data, while women’s shapewear fell 3 percent to $678 million. (Some sportswear is constricting, to enhance athletic performance.)
“There are a lot of trends that are pushing shapewear down,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. “Why buy underwear that’s uncomfortable when you can buy yoga pants which has got stretch to it and can make you look a little slimmer?” he said. “The game has changed, the rules have changed, and the playing field has changed, and Spanx just doesn’t have the marquee brand power they once had.”
It’s certainly a challenging image turnaround for shapewear, which has been the target of plenty of bad publicity. There have been health concerns that the clothing can excessively squeeze nerves and organs, as well as lawsuits over claims made by two other lingerie companies, Norm Thompson Outfitters and Wacoal America, that their caffeine-infused shapewear could induce weight loss. (The companies agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $1.5 million to be used for refunds to consumers who fell for the pitch.)
Stefanie Mnayarji long felt frustrated by her constricting wardrobe, which she saw as a distraction from her busy finance job as an asset management consultant. To meet what she sensed was a need in the market for more comfortable shapewear, she founded Luxxie Boston, a high-end line of undergarments made from a silk-blend material with just a subtle hint of shaping, developed with help from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“I found myself at a disadvantage, constantly worrying about the discomfort of my shapewear. Men never have to think about that,” Mnayarji said. “But shapewear is just outdated; it’s not cut for modern clothing. There’s virtually no innovation that’s gone into these products, except for something that’s restrictive, that’s literally holding women back.”
Spanx’s new chief executive, Jan Singer, the former head of apparel for Nike, said she was keenly aware of the brand’s predicament. Since taking the helm at Spanx in July, she has also started to stress comfort and to offer more solutions than just shrinking.
Instead of lifting or pinching or tucking, Spanx’s bras now stress their “ultrasoft pillow cups” and “soft-touch” underwire contouring, for example, and “dig-free” straps for all-day comfort. And to ward off being relegated to merely special occasions, such as weddings, that might call for tummy-tucking, its panties offer less-constricting, “everyday” shaping. (Spanx also now offers a line for men, which equally stresses comfort.)
“We kept offering reduction, and we heard stories of women coming home at midnight on Saturday and throwing their Spanx out in the garbage,” Singer said. “But the whole world’s changed. Now women think: I don’t need to change my shape so much. I just want to be comfortable.”