Startup lingerie brands are disrupting an undergarments industry that hasn’t changed much since Howard Hughes designed the underwire bra in the 1940s to highlight actress Jane Russell’s bosom in The Outlaws, though as the story goes, she ditched the “ridiculous” garment and surreptitiously wore her own.
At some point, the “over the shoulder boulder holder” jokes just aren’t funny anymore, nor are the sore neck, back pain and shoulder strain suffered by women who holster up their sizeable breasts daily in brassieres that often pinch, poke or are just downright uncomfortable. Large breasts can contribute to poor posture; some ample-chested women slouch in an effort to minimize their “assets,” and yet others simply find themselves pulled down by the weight of it all.
For decades, bras have been designed to hold breasts up by placing much of the weight-bearing burden on the shoulders, which in turn strains the neck and back muscles. That might work for women in A cup territory but the larger the bosom, the larger the load.
Sophia Berman, herself a 32DD, thought there had to be a better way to redistribute the load large breasts place on the upper body. Armed with her Carnegie Mellon industrial design degree, she launched her three-and-a-half-year-old startup, Trusst Lingerie, with funding from Pittsburgh’s AlphaLabs software accelerator, which more commonly nurtures innovators in the robotics space.
Berman said AlphaLabs was intrigued by Trusst’s work with 3-D printing, which she used to ideate the most essential component of its innovative bra. The 3-D molded plastic engineered truss system features different shaping for different areas of the bust and cantilevers out from the body. Built into the molded cups, the truss system wraps about the bust like an underwire would, shaping the breasts, Berman explained, and then actually projects out from there.
“It uses principles of physics and engineering to provide a resting point for your breasts,” Berman said. “The load-bearing truss portion is actually underneath the heaviest part of your breast.”
With the truss doing most of the heavy lifting, shoulder straps are left with a lesser load, reducing the strain on the neck and back and the discomfort that goes along with it. Berman credits 3-D printing for accelerating the technical design, allowing the startup to identify a workable structure more quickly than manual prototyping would allow.
Trusst, which caters to the growing plus-size market and carries bands ranging from 32 to 46 and cup sizes from DD to J, conducts extensive wear testing on multiple body types to determine the right fit and design. The company works with fewer than 10 factories, including a plant in China that produces the molded bra cups as well as cut-and-sew facilities in China, on the East Coast and in California.
How Evelyn & Bobbie reimagines the bra
Evelyn & Bobbie (EB), another startup, took a similar approach to rethinking the bra—that staple of virtually every Western woman’s wardrobe. Founder Bree McKeen wanted to start from scratch, putting aside everything we think we know about what a bra is or should be. “In the early days of EB, our approach was to try and forget all precedent and convention as far as ‘how bras were made,” she explained. “I was really struck by the fact that for 85 years the underwire bra had essentially been one slightly different version after another, each one built on the exact same foundational design.”
McKeen said her previous work in finance and with early-stage healthcare ventures exposed her to the tantalizing potential of materials research and 3-D design environments, and bringing those kinds of innovative materials into the bra “felt pretty obvious.”
Like many great tales of disruption, EB was “very much a garage design story” in its early days. McKeen and her father got to work in his garage, armed with a jigsaw, duct tape and Sugru—a moldable glue that sets as a durable silicone rubber—experimenting with rudimentary prototypes before eventually graduating to Rhinoceros 3D, the CAD software.
“I’m pretty sure we are the creator of the world’s first fully 3-D printed bra, using hard and soft materials to create a completely 3-D printed multicomponent bra,” McKeen said. “That one will be preserved in the archives for sure.”
The initial efforts yielded valuable insights: first, that the underwire had to go, and second, that a stitch-free approach would offer greater comfort for long-term wear. But the biggest realization was that a bra as a load-bearing garment must shift the burden from “delicate neck and shoulder muscles to the core,” McKeen explained, in order to achieve new levels of comfort and wearability. That’s where the molded plastic component, created through 3-D came in. Coupled with the stitch-free process, EB settled on a winning combination.
But finding a factory that could deliver the stitch-free technologies plus a partner who could co-mold within stitch-free specifications “was no small challenge.”
“Our product required totally new tooling, and really pushed the limit of the equipment we were using,” McKeen said.
At the core of the EB design is an algorithm that determines sizing and fit, and the company is working on an update to its initial formula. The first algorithm was based on a number of best practices from underwire bra fittings in tandem with a limited number of individualized preference adjustments. “This version of the algorithm works great for many of our customers, but it has been pretty inaccurate for some body types,” McKeen noted, though pop-ups and customer fit sessions are a great way to communicate feedback to decision-makers quickly.
McKeen described CTO Jenna Fizel, who’s responsible for finetuning the algorithm, as a “human unicorn who can make a pattern for a dress, write code to support 3-D construction, and make a handmade leather bag all in the same day.”
However, the algorithm is only as good as the self-measurements customers take (barring those who are professionally measured at one of EB’s pop-ups or other official events). After all, capturing accurate measurements is half the battle in determining the best-fitting bra size. EB is “still gathering data about self-measurement variance,” McKeen explained, noting “there are some clever ways to get around it.” Later this year the company plans to announce some innovative ways of getting around challenges stemming from customer self measurement and “algorithm outliers,” she added.
What’s more, those “outliers” are EB’s “secret ingredient” when it comes to expanding its future for product offerings.
“Our data analytics team sorts through the detailed feedback they provide on what wasn’t perfect—seemingly small things—to discover trends for different body types,” McKeen said. “This goes far beyond things like ‘women with smaller busts prefer different padding’ and into specifics around what different body types need for maximum comfort.”
For EB, “different body types” doesn’t mean general labels like “plus size” or “pear-shaped” and rather has more to do with mathematically-defined dynamics of body proportions, much of which boils down to silhouette optimization. “Some bodies, for example, need the cups to sit more closely together for an optimal silhouette,” McKeen explained. “All of those variations, not just in fit but in silhouette, are all being incorporated into new sizes.”
Offered at a premium price points—$128 for “True Complexion” flesh tones and $148 for Smooth Lace—EB’s signature Everyday Bustier bra features a back-smooth band, and can be worn with or without straps. “Our model is built on having fewer goods, but better goods—products that are high quality and functional,” McKeen said. Women probably will have always have room in their lingerie drawers for the sexy bras designed for special occasions but for everyday wear, comfort is king.
“The vast majority of the time, [women] are running companies, managing families, doing serious work in the world,” McKeen explained. “We want something that is beautiful, but most of all functional. I think it’s time to separate what I lovingly call ‘bedroom costumes’ from functional intimates. Women are changing the world, and we need the right equipment for the job.”
EB launched through a Kickstarter campaign that McKeen described as “critical” to the brand’s success, as it validated the market demand for a new kind of bra and was instrumental in securing additional financial resources for an already capital-intensive business.
For now, EB is running its first multi-month pop-up through September in Los Angeles, developing its product roadmap and executing new styles and silhouettes. “There is a strong demand from larger cup and band sizes, too, so that’s going to be a key focus for us,” McKeen said.