From braless to custom bras: The online bra industry is booming (Victoria’s Secret isn’t)

From braless to custom bras: The online bra industry is booming (Victoria’s Secret isn’t)


Lingerie brand True&Co offers a True Body collection that's meant to look invisible under clothes. The company was started in co-founder Michelle Lam's room after she had a "shockingly bad bra fitting experienced," as she describes it. "I felt the ugliest I ever had in my lifetime." (Photo: Courtesy of True&Co.)

Today, many women own an item that they once thought didn’t exist: A bra that feels like it was made just for them.

Just three years ago, Millennials were triumphantly going braless as a way to stick it to the man, and reject getting underwire stuck in their sides. But now, thanks to bespoke female-founded companies that are targeting clients through social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, there’s a growing trend to order custom undergarments online,.

Heidi Zak, co-founder of direct-to-consumer seller ThirdLove, got the idea to sell comfortable bras that “really focus on the woman” after she had a horrendous shopping experience at Victoria’s Secret several years ago.

In February, ThirdLove shot photos of 78 women in LA. The women only had this in common: They looked healthy, natural and weren't models. (Photo: Courtesy of ThirdLove)

“The real ‘A-ha’ moment was going to a VS store, wandering around and per usual (being overwhelmed by) the velour and the wings and the really strong scent,” she says. “I wound up walking out with a bra that didn’t fit and put the pink bag inside my bag because I was embarrassed to be shopping there.” 

Today, Zak’s company offers half sizes and recommends specific styles based on its Fit Finder quiz, which has polled more than 13 million women about their breast shape and previous cup issues. Since its launch in 2013, ThirdLove has sold more than 4 million bras and presented styles in almost 80 sizes, with an annual 180% year over year increase in sales.

ThirdLove is one of several new online brands that advertise comfy undergarments straight to women, often via social media and with models of diverse races, ages and sizes.

Aerie's "Role Models," as the brand calls them, are: body positivity activist Iskra, Paralympic medalist Brenna Huckaby, actress Busy Philipps, actress Jameela Jamil, artist Cleo Wade, gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman, actress Samira Wiley and motivational speaker Molly Burke. (Photo: Courtesy of Aerie)

Other companies in this category include Pepper, which markets to small-chested women; True & Co, which has its own Fit Quiz that’s been taken by 7 million women; and Knix, which sells leakproof underwear and wirefree bras including one style championed by teenage transgender reality star Jazz Jennings. Jennings last October explained why she went from ditching bras to wearing them again in a YouTube video that has more than 555K views.

Jessica Sardella, a 26-year-old marketing consultant from Brooklyn, purchased her first True & Co bra this year after she “caved to the constant ads” the bra company posts on Instagram.

“I initially clicked the True & Co bra ad because the models they used were so real and untouched and that was refreshing to see,” she says.

Pepper, a bra company meant for small-chested women, started as a Kickstarter project in 2017. This year, co-founder Jaclyn Fu says the company is making six-figure sales monthly. (Photo: Courtesy of Pepper)

According to research firm NPD group, women are opting to buy bras outside of a brick-and-mortar stores now more than ever, with online sales capturing a quarter of the $7.2 billion bra industry in 2018. 

Nicola Dall’asen, a 24-year-old beauty and fashion editor at Revelist, says she was “honestly shocked” when an online quiz for ThirdLove suggested the perfect bra for her, after she had struggled to find the right fit for her asymmetric breasts in stores.

“The fabric is softer and much more flexible than most bras,” she says. “I refuse to wear anything else now.” 

These days, adds Sardella, “I think women are more intrigued by a comfortable bra than a flashy bra. There’s nothing worse than wearing a cute bra for aesthetic but then dealing with the back pain and indents in your shoulders at the end of the day.”  

Aerie's Real Me bras are available in a range of nude shades. (Not just beige.) (Photo: Courtesy of Aerie)

Aerie, the American Eagle sister brand, has had success with its second-skin style bras that “make you feel like you,” their site promises. Aerie launched the Real Me collection with a variety of sizes and “nude” skin tones last summer. Since then, clicks to the brand on shopping website rose 257% year over year. The brand has also been praised for featuring a variety of models, including those with different body shapes and women with disabilities. 

“The Millennials and Gen-Z, they’re the most diverse generation in the history of the world. And this generation wants to see everyone represented,” says Gabriella Santaniello, an analyst focused on fashion at retail research firm A-Line Partners. “We’re so beyond the shade of skin. It’s also about what’s under the skin and how you feel about yourself. Maybe you’re flat-chested, your tush is a little big, maybe you’re a bit androgynous. All of that needs to be represented.”

"We look for a wide range when we're choosing models," says ThirdLove co-founder Heidi Zak. That means the lingerie seller looks for women of all sizes and ages who look healthy and natural. (Photo: Courtesy of ThirdLove)

As trends push toward practicality, Victoria’s Secret, which continues to predominantly feature slender models in sexy bras in their advertisements, has struggled with sagging sales. 

In the first quarter of 2019, Victoria’s Secret saw sales decline by 5%, and parent company L Brands reported a 61% drop in Victoria’s Secret’s operating income compared to the same period last year. 

In February, L Brands announced it was shuttering 53 more Victoria’s Secret stores. Documents released Wednesday show that 35 have closed as of May 4.

Last year, Victoria’s Secret had its lowest rated Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Les Wexner, CEO of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands, said in a statement that “we are going to re-think the traditional Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Going forward we don’t believe network television is the right fit.” 

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