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Fabric focus fuels French success

Jul 10, 2018

How the Eminence and Athena underwear brands maintain market leadership

The Eminence Group covers a broad spectrum of the market for men’s and women’s underwear, from budget level to premium collections. Chairman Dominique Seau shares his vision of the market and its needs, with the emphasis on comfort and quality fabrics.

Dominique Seau, Chair of the EMINENCE group

Dominique Seau, Chair of the EMINENCE group

The EMINENCE Group is a major player in the French underwear market selling 25 million items a year. Of these, 10 million are knitted, cut or finished in its two French plants with1.5 million entirely ‘Made in France’. Its Athena brand enjoys 71% awareness (Ifop) and ranks second overall in the mainstream domestic market, and its Eminence brand is a best-seller in the premium category. While these segments differ in many respects, they have some things in common – notably demand for comfort and top-quality fabrics.

How are your brands positioned?

Since 1944, the Eminence brand has targeted upper middle class men over 45. The superior quality products we offer are mostly manufactured in our French plants, with some production elsewhere in Europe or North Africa. Athena is a popular mainstream brand catering for a wide range of price points from value products with our budget ‘€co packs’ to specialist high-performance sportswear undergarments. Secret de Beauté, our women’s intimate apparel line launched in 2015, also offers excellent value for money.

How do you meet the differing male consumer expectations associated with these positionings – especially in your choice of fabrics?

Fabrics play a key part in brand appeal. Eminence products make extensive use of fine gauge and natural fabrics such as brushed cotton with long fibres that ensure lasting softness, as well as cotton/Modal or micro-Modal mixes that have a second-skin feel. Athena uses a broader range of fabrics but with the same emphasis on quality and comfort. The garments in its entry-level packs are practical and functional and only available in basic colours, but are nevertheless cut from pure cotton or cotton/LYCRA® fiber. Our intermediate range – Easy – offers more fashionable, colourful products that combine fabric quality with more differentiating detail. Our most technically advanced products targeting the active sports segment use a breathable microfiber that is a polyamide and LYCRA® fiber mix. A built-in mesh over the groin and around the crotch ensures optimum breathability and good moisture wicking.

You entered the highly competitive women’s intimate apparel market with an ambitious money-back guarantee on Secret de beauté branded products – how has this worked out?

Yes indeed – we promised to refund the cost of any article sent back by disappointed customers without question. We were confident about doing so because we use only top-quality fabrics sourced from a select number of suppliers. Our ‘Coton précieux’ line, for example, uses mercerised cotton and LYCRA® fiber. Our quality specifications exert pressure on margins, but customers approve. The figures speak for themselves: returns citing quality issues account for less than one in 10,000 sales!

Is the cotton/LYCRA® mix a ‘must’ for consumers’ sense of well-being?

Yes, for sure. We use it in over 90% of European output of Eminence’s pants and briefs. The elasticity and shape retention of the LYCRA® fibre ensures a snug, comfortable fit conforming to the wearer’s body. Poor fit is rarely cited as a reason for returns.

BUSINESS collection by EMINENCE

Fabrics apart, do the brands have other special characteristics, such as specific cuts or finishes?

Of course. Eminence offers biased-cut garments that are higher at the back, covering the kidney area and helping prevent stomach compression. We also go to great lengths to ensure seams don’t irritate the wearer, and incorporate a single fabric panel between the legs instead of the usual crotch seam to increase garment durability. And we increasingly stamp washing instructions directly onto the fabric avoiding use of uncomfortable labels. The same attention to detail characterises Athena-branded products, even entry-level garments. For example, we use triple seams for additional comfort, while our main competitors make do with double.

Your brands are available on-line: how do you promote premium fabrics in a virtual shopping environment?

Internet is a very dynamic channel for us nowadays. Eminence, our most traditional brand, recorded triple-digit on-line sales growth in 2017 and Internet channels now account for 15% of our turnover. Fabric touch isn’t really an issue as most consumers who visit our websites already know and trust our brands and take quality for granted. In general, neither men not indeed women feel the need to touch the product. They buy lower body garments that they’ve already tried and liked. Nor are they seeking bargains: on-line prices can be higher than retail. I think it’s the convenience that they appreciate, being able to purchase underwear without having to go to a shop. It is simple and practical.

To what extent have partnerships with prominent sports personalities contributed to brand awareness?

Athena was an Olympic goddess in Greek mythology, so the name has strong sporting connections. For several decades, we have partnered with leading French athletes to reinforce this aspect of the brand’s DNA. We’ve been involved in a range of sports that reflect different performance needs and body shapes. The personalities involved including Renaud Lavillenie (Editor's note: pole vaulter, Olympic gold medallist in London in 2012), Kevin Mayer (Editor's note: 2017 decathlon gold medallist at the World Championships), Martial Mbandjock (Editor's note: European relay gold medallist in 2010) and Sylvain Court (Editor's note: 2015 Trail World Championship gold medallist). And we’re about to reveal an exciting new contract with another French champion.

Sylvain Court, Trail World Championship gold medallist tests ATHENA’s ENDURANCE 24H collection

With your experience of both men’s and women’s segments, would you say the sexes have similar needs and expectations – or not?

I think their expectations are increasingly similar. They both look for everyday comfort and as they get older, both place more emphasis on well-being becomes and value quality. Both appreciate supple fabrics that enhance their body shape without being too moulding. Both abhor transparency. Where they really differ is when they buy for their significant others rather than themselves. Men tend to buy gorgeous lingerie – expensive and beautiful premium garments. Women, on the other hand, are unwilling to fork out as much for their partners. Luckily, we men increasingly take charge of our own underwear purchases!

What are the main challenges to maintaining your market leadership position?

At Eminence, it is to attract new consumers. We already boast the highest brand loyalty in our segment: we don’t have many casual customers. We need to attract more men in their 40s and 50s, given that they tend to prioritise comfort over looks and are prepared to spend more to enjoy genuine quality. Athena’s challenge is three-fold. It must remain affordable in a market influenced by the aggressive pricing strategies of hypermarkets and supermarkets – over two thirds of Athena sales are special offers. For this, we need to offer evident consumer value to everyday products, notably on waistbands, and add colour and modern appeal to our ranges. And articles for both sport and daily use must be functionally innovative. For example, we’ve developed anti-odour treatments using antibacterial cotton and LYCRA® fiber in our “Endurance 24H” range.

Any regrets?

Maybe the fact that we can’t offer ‘Made in France’ budget ranges. Manufacturing in France costs four times as much as in Asia and twice as much as in Eastern Europe. It is a luxury that Eminence can afford, thanks to its top-of-the-range positioning, but Athena rarely can. The bulk of our Athena collections are produced under close supervision in Asian plants.

Your dream for the future?

My dream would be for Athena’s technical ranges to become everyday wear rather than the preserve of athletes, just as trainers are now regular street wear.

  1. Athena ranks 2nd among brands in the men’s underwear market (source: GfK, Summer 2017)

Contact Information

EMINENCE Customer Service Desk FRANCE

INVISTA Contacts

INVISTA Apparel & Advanced Textiles Arnaud Ruffin Strategy and Business Development Director +41 22-770-40-07 GENEVA SWITZERLAND