Why you should care
A wave of new ultra-niche bra startups is targeting specific problems women face.
When Amanda Marie Harris’ boyfriend gifted her a white Free People dress, her heart dropped. It was gorgeous, with delicate lace sleeves and a plunging neckline. But as a 34DD cup, there was no way for her to wear it. She couldn’t hide her bra straps, and stickies wouldn’t provide enough support. Sometimes she’d take the dress out and drape it over her, fingering the sheer material enviously. “I had all these dresses with plunging necklines that I wasn’t confident enough to wear,” she recalls.
Mainstream lingerie companies like Victoria’s Secret offered her no solutions. Harris had the glimmer of an idea, but it seemed out of reach — how could she compete with them? Then she realized that emerging bra startups were challenging the status quo. Companies like ThirdLove (launched in 2013 with a focus on half-cup sizes) and True & Co (launched in 2012) have led the way. Now, their early success — ThirdLove is currently valued at $750 million — is spawning a wave of new ultra-niche bra startups that target specific problems women face.
Proclaim, which makes “perfect nude” bras for all skin tones out of recycled water bottles, launched in 2017. Toronto-based House of Anesi (which starts shipping product in March) has designed bras that shift shapes based on the wearer’s changing breasts. ReliaBra, a subscription service for sticky bras — no straps are needed to stay in place — launched last year.
Harris too has taken the plunge, creating her own company, Misses Kisses, and launching backless, frontless, strapless almost one-size-fits-all bras (cups B-G). Misses Kisses started shipping in March 2018, and late last year Harris received a U.S. patent and accolades from influencer Genesis Torres and cosplayer Mikon. The company Pepper, founded in 2017, specializes in bras for smaller cup sizes. It started with a Kickstarter campaign that reached its target within 10 hours and had 950 backers in 13 days.
You can’t be one brand that fits all anymore; to be good at something you need to focus.
Jaclyn Fu, co-founder, Pepper
“You can’t be one brand that fits all anymore; to be good at something you need to focus,” says Jaclyn Fu, 28, co-founder of Pepper.
These bras aren’t unaffordable. Pepper starts from $44, and Proclaim from $59. Misses Kisses is pricier at $95, but strapless bras are generally more expensive. Not surprisingly, personal experiences and challenges with traditional bras have fueled the entrepreneurial drive of the founders behind many of these niche bra startups. Fu conceived the idea for #smallsquad bras after struggling with bras for 15 frustrating years. “I wanted one that fit me and flattered what I have, rather than fit me in a mold,” she says. Fu was happy with her breasts, so why were her only options padded and lined? She designed from the ground up, using custom underwire to avoid pinching and shallower cups to eliminate gaps. Her “All You Bra” launched in April 2018 in sizes 32AA to 38B, and the orders have since risen month-by-month. Niche is where it’s at — it empowers her, rather than limits her, Fu says, noting that many plus-size women have small cups and struggle finding bras. “Consumers don’t have to settle for a bra they don’t believe in or align with,” she says.
Los Angeles–based Shobha Philips, 35, agrees. Born in India and raised in the Midwest, Philips always felt out of place in a lingerie store. “It bothered me that I could never find my skin tone in a bra,” she says. Her startup Proclaim sells bralettes in three nude shades, each named for a woman she admires; Ada for Ada Lovelace, Maya after Maya Angelou and Ella for Ella Fitzgerald. Philips’ version of success is when people refer to something as ‘nude’ when it’s brown — “to be nude literally means like skin tone, and this would mean they understand what the context of the color is,” she says.
Globally, the women’s lingerie market is skyrocketing, with revenue expected to rise 25 percent between 2016 and 2024, to $19.8 billion, according to Statista. That means there’s room for everybody. In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists Justine and Olivia Moore at CRV — one of the nation’s oldest early-stage venture capital firms — are closely monitoring this outside-the-bra trend.
“These companies seem niche but can pretty easily scale to a million or ten million,” Olivia says. “Women in their twenties are coming into real purchasing power and looking for something new.” The pair were lead investors in Harper Wilde, a bra startup that raised $2 million in July 2018, and predict more bra-preneurs will emerge. “People are waking up and realizing that half the population wears a bra every day,” Olivia says. “A rising generation of consumers want to shop in another way.” They credit the growth in female investors and social media influencers as key to many of these companies’ success but warn that while the space is hot right now, it’s likely many of these companies will be consolidated in the future.
Inspired by the shake-up in the bra industry around her, Harris created Misses Kisses. The style is unlike anything I’ve ever seen; imagine an oversized pair of headphones turned upside down, cupping the breasts. The pressure from the connecting wire pushes the breasts together and up, boosting cleavage while staying invisible under camisoles and plunging necklines (think Miley Cyrus at the 2018 Met Gala). “I know it’s not the biggest problem in the world, but it made me unhappy,” says Harris. There can be a learning curve when it comes to wearing these bras, Harris says — plus it takes a while to feel confident that your breasts aren’t going to pop out. “It’s like walking in high heels, some women catch on faster than others,” she says.
Running a company isn’t easy — and creating a supply chain isn’t the only challenge Harris has had to face. She uses social media to get traction and has had to deal with flagged Facebook posts for sexy content. The founders of these niche startups also know that for the moment at least, they’re not in a position to challenge the behemoths of the industry. Still, the love they’re receiving convinces Harris that the moment is ripe for companies like hers.
“We’ve been wearing the same design for over a century,” she says. “It’s time to think outside the bra.”