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Wacoal: Women’s Intimate Apparel


Wacoal is a company with a clear mission: to create new value that exceeds the expectations of each generation of consumers. Much of the diverse lineup of women’s intimate apparel readily available in Japan today would not have been possible without the determination of Wacoal to create solutions to consumer need.

  • Bras designed to enhance the beauty of woman, a concept quite different to any product that had come before
  • A pioneering girdle, the patent for which was the first international patent ever obtained in Japan
  • High performance underwear inspired by shipbuilding technology and manufactured in three dimensions using a 3D model.
  • Luxury, high quality lingerie, created using the world’s most outstanding fiber technologies.

Wacoal has a long history of excellence in its products, of using high-level technology to create high-quality products. Today, Wacoal is in the process of strengthening its reputation and appeal in the global underwear market.

“Making Women Beautiful”: The Mission Statement of Wacoal’s Founder

In 1949, Koichi Tsukamoto, who was the founder of Wako Shoji, a company involved in the wholesale and retail of women’s accessories and general items, somehow discovered that American women wore, inside their clothes, an item known as a “bra pad”. He started work on developing his own version of the brasserie, and in 1950 he had succeeded. In the same year, he developed an ambitious five-stage, fifty-year plan to become the leading manufacturer of women’s underwear in the world. According to his plan, by 1990, when the plan entered its fifth stage (or decade), Wacoal would be a significant presence on the international underwear market. His truly determined plan carved out a vision for the company to be a major player on a global industrial stage, despite Japan still suffering in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today, over 60 years after the company was established, Wacoal operates in 39 countries worldwide, and has indeed become the international powerhouse that Tsukamoto envisioned.

Boosting Wacoal’s Global Success

In 1964, Wacoal established a Product Research Division, and began to address the issues of intimate apparel design from a human engineering perspective, measuring and analyzing the true physical shape of Japanese women. That department still exists today, although now it is known as the Human Science Research Center. The Center carries out research on many aspects of the female body, going beyond just body shape and external beauty, and focusing also on quantifying the other experiences associated with wearing underwear, such as the way a fabric feels against the body and the fit and comfort of the garment.

Every year, the Center collects data from a group of women, totaling between 500 and 1000, from a wide demographic range, from late teens to women in their sixties. The data accumulated over the past forty years has now reached more than 40,000 individual entries. This allows product development to be built on a basis of strong scientific evidence; it allows Wacoal to develop items that are unaffected by fleeting fashion or trends and concentrate instead on the things that women truly need.

Wacoal’s measurements are made using a number of different machines and scales, and the technology that enables this accuracy in measurement is vital to Wacoal’s success. When the company was first established, measurements were made of women’s bodies, in 160 body parts in total, using the same method to determine physical size as was used in schools. This simple method continues to be used today, and it has been central to the accumulation of vast accurate data. In the 1990s, the company introduced a three-dimensional measuring device, allowing researchers to display and archive information in three-dimensions on the three-dimensions of the actual human body. In addition, Wacoal worked with Osaka University to develop a two-dimensional silhouette analysis device, capable of obtaining data on human silhouettes. The device is then able to display the average silhouette for women in each age range, and this information is also used in store.

In the same way that contour lines are used to indicate the undulations of mountains on a map, moiré fringe analysis, is a technique used to express the curves and bumps of the human body two-dimensionally. This analysis is another core technology that helps to shape product development at Wacoal. The Human Science Research Center then uses the data to develop diverse brands for different generations, body shapes, and purposes. Today, Wacoal has a lineup of over 60 brands, including lines other than women’s intimate apparel, through which it strives to answer the needs of diverse women customers.

A facility similar to the Human Science Research Center in Japan has now been established in China and the USA, and local researchers are beginning to build up new databases on the figures of women customers in those locations. The Wacoal Sports Science Corporation, located in the USA, has conducted research on the mechanisms of joints and muscles on more than 35,000 subjects, and has used the findings of that research to obtain more than 50 patents world-wide.

With a strong focus on basic research and a design and manufacturing approach based on objective data, these achievements are all characteristic of Wacoal’s proven ability to continuously create new value.

Towards the Next Generation

Today, Wacoal refers to this business field as the ‘body designing business’, and it is dedicated to moving forward in this area. The ‘body’ referred to here is both the physical body and the body of emotions that makes up every human. Wacoal attempts to provide value, in the form of beauty, comfort, and health, to this dual body. This philosophy is about more than just conventional underwear; it has been extended, for example, to Wacoal’s high performance wear brand CW-X, designed to enhance physical condition during sports. It has also been applied to development of inner wear ranges such as Fitness Walker and Cross Walker® aiming to improve walking posture. Cross Walker® was launched in spring 2005, and recorded an incredible 13.8 million unit sales between launch and the end of 2009. Cross Walker Shakitto®, an improved version of the line, sold 370,000 units in the five months immediately following its 2009 launch. When the Shakitto® line of tops was tested on 31 subjects, around 70% of all wearers recorded improved posture after wearing. Wacoal also has several prominent brand ambassadors, including Major League baseball player Ichiro Suzuki and professional tennis player Ai Sugiyama, who testify to the benefits of Wacoal’s sports lines. Wacoal is expected to continue its positive performance in sports markets.

According to an analysis by a company that provides online information about the global apparel and textile industries, women will, on average, purchase bras at a rate of around two a year, even when they already own five or more. Another survey, carried out in 2008 by a Japanese marketing company, indicated that of the 600 million women in China, only 200 million wear bras, leaving around 400 million Chinese women who have yet to begin habitually wearing bras. Put very simply, this suggests that the potential market for bras in China is several times over that of Japan. Emerging markets such as China represent a very exciting opportunity for the women’s underwear market, and are likely to provoke severe competition in the future.

Intimate apparel used to be considered little more than something that was worn under clothes, making functionality — support, correction, and comfort — much more important than design. Today, however, the design and image of products are also of crucial importance, and there are some truly unique and surprisingly bold designs available on the market. In Japan, Wacoal commands the largest share of the women’s underwear market, but non-Japanese brands such as Triumph International are chasing the second largest share, with large American underwear brand Victoria’s Secret and French lingerie company Chantelle, highly popular in France and Italy, also as strong competitors. The popularity of these brands is a clear indication of consumer demand for sensual and luxurious design in addition to functional performance as underwear.

Faced with this global underwear market and its evolving demands, Wacoal will continue to create new value, and continue to achieve corporate growth, by looking at objective data that has been carefully accumulated over extended periods, developing products based on the findings of research on the human body, and applying top level manufacturing technology to promote the further advancement of intimate apparel.

Jul 14, 2011

About the author
Hiromi Jitsukata is a reporter for Japanest NIPPON