Intimate apparel has not traditionally attracted much enthusiasm in a strictly business sense. But the tide has changed. Brassieres and other undergarments now have a more visible role in today's fashion and as the sector expands, the competition for talent is increasing.
"There is a lot more activity in the intimate apparel industry these days," says Winnie Yu, programme leader of Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Intimate Apparel, offered by the ACE Style Institute of Intimate Apparel of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). The industry has expanded into techno-fabrics and stretch laces with enhanced comfort, fit and flexibility a priority when designing new silhouettes. "Lingerie has become more varied and customisable with innovations. It is sometimes even meant for 'wear-to-be-seen' and 'mix and match' purposes," Dr Yu notes.
Established in 2005, the ACE Style Institute of Intimate Apparel is the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region. It represents close collaboration between academia and industry players. Its establishment was funded by a prominent intimate wear manufacturer based in Hong Kong and the two parties work hand in hand in people development. Moreover, it is a platform that promotes exchange between local and overseas industry experts and supports research and consultancy services with regard to intimate apparel.
The intimate apparel programme provides academic and practical knowledge focusing on the design and technology aspects of the market. Students are required to complete 10 compulsory subjects concentrating on complex knowledge of intimate apparel design such as textiles, pattern construction, fitting and health science. Students acquire knowledge of essential product development tools such as the CAD system and seamless technology. Electives of the programme aim at giving students more in-depth industry know-how, for example advanced moulding technology and functional intimate apparel. "This is a highly professional programme. Technical designers and creative designers are the most sought after professionals, so our programme particularly incorporates the knowledge and skills required in these two positions," Dr Yu points out.
Offered both full-time and part-time, the programme can be regarded as a top-up qualification for associate degree and higher diploma graduates. Although admission requires previous relevant qualifications, students graduating from other disciplines may also be admitted. However, Dr Yu says in these cases students have to work hard to catch up since the study of intimate apparel is in many ways more technical than other clothing-related disciplines. "The term intimate apparel covers a vast portfolio of items serving both genders and all age groups. Besides brassieres, briefs and panties, garter belts, body suits, camisoles, corsets, girdles, men's underwear, vests, sleepwear and swimwear all come under the category of intimate apparel, so there is really a great deal of knowledge to master before one can be called a professional," she notes.
In addition to providing quality education, the Intimate Apparel team invests considerably in research projects in an attempt to innovate for the industry. It recently published a new brassiere sizing system using DWR (breast depth-width ratio) under the leadership of Dr Yu. DWR is a mathematical equation which can help produce more shapely outlines and greater comfort for women. The system has the potential to be adopted worldwide.
The programme is supported by generous scholarships and the active participation of key industry players in knowledge transfer. Ample practical training in factory environment and a seven-week study trip or industrial placement, which seek to enrich students' all-round knowledge and international exposure, are also available. "There is a shortage of talent in intimate apparel and the industry is very supportive of our programme. We see promising prospects in front of our graduates," Dr Yu says.
Dr Yu explains that despite intense competition in the global market, Hong Kong remains a leading sourcing hub due to a number of edges: a well-established supply chain, provision of skilled and semi-skilled workers, short lead time, adoption of international standards, advanced technologies and growing migration from OEM (original equipment manufacturing) to ODM (original design manufacturing) and OBM (original brand manufacturing). Many local industry players have implemented modern management practices to stay ahead in the global environment. Some of them have obtained ISO 9001 certification and adopted the six-sigma concept. "Hong Kong's intimate apparel manufacturers are very competitive. Our supply chain infrastructure is so highly self-sufficient that a manufacturer can source almost everything required for production, from yarn to fabrics and trims, within the Pearl River Delta. This shortens lead time and lowers prices," Dr Yu adds.
The dynamic development of the lingerie market is clear in many ways. Many world-renowned fashion brands have launched their own lingerie line and intimate apparel is now commonly perceived as a mix of fashion and function. According to Dr Yu, the intimate apparel sector has enjoyed double-digit expansion in recent years while the other sectors of the garment industry have seen only single digit-growth.