One day, we were ready to have a business together. We were both doing other things, but we were ready. We said, ‘What if we could get bras that really fitted us properly?’ We did loads of research and mystery shopping. I went to every lingerie store in Victoria, I think, and it was very, very obvious that the people were not very well-trained in bigger cups. The offers were pretty poor. You’d get comments like, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to fit you, dear. Sorry.’
Maxine Windram: I think the most impactful thing for us was walking out of lingerie stores or department stores, and feeling that there was something wrong with our body. I felt that nothing fit me, so I didn’t fit. Just the Triumph minimiser worked for me, which I now realise was too small, but it was suited to my grandma. It wasn’t for a 15-year-old girl. So it was really hard for a teenager to feel that way. And it still happens now and it really is very impactful when you don’t fit into anything.
About 50 per cent of women are over a D cup and many stores will stop at a double D. Like Adidas. They go up to five cup sizes, A, B, C, D, DD. But there are another nine cup sizes above that, up to a KK. When you go into a store that doesn’t go beyond a double D, they will give you a big size band, so the cup fits, so it means that you’re losing support.
IR: There are some major lingerie brands that are run by men, but unless you’ve worn the product yourself, it’s hard to understand the challenges that a lot of women would go through.
LW:We didn’t really have experience in retail, but we threw ourselves into it and we [completed] all of the training from all of the suppliers, but that was with a tape measure. And we very quickly learned that a tape measure doesn’t work. It’s OK for measuring a straight line if you’re a builder, but it really isn’t any good in a fitting room.
MW: The way that bra fitters have learned for so many years just does not work over a D cup because the breast is a volume. It’s not a straight line. We knew we needed to take a very holistic approach. It’s not just about the measurements, it’s about how women feel about the shape of their breasts and the style of bra that suits them. There is so much more involved than just numbers.
IR: Can you tell me about some of the work you’ve done to help customers get the right fit?
LW: Our training is quite a bit different to other stores. It usually takes three months before we let people actually go out the door without a mentor. A big part of it is the language people use. Women are really tough on themselves and we need to listen to that, try to empower them, inspire them and offer them choices that we know work for various body shapes and sizes. We have many women who leave saying ‘You’ve changed my life.’ They’re crying because they haven’t had a proper fit before and they haven’t felt so good. Their shoulders are pulled back and they’re going to talk to their daughters and sisters and tell them about the experience.
MW: If we think about the difference between us and other retailers, it is that three-month training program. We’re very much a consultancy, where we consult one-on-one with the customer. Fitting a woman over a D cup is quite different to fitting a woman who’s an A to C cup. The bras have more structure, panels, and the styles are different. So there’s additional training that we need to give our staff to work with women with a fuller bust.
We’ve had staff from other retailers before, but we basically wipe their training clean to restart them with what we call the Brava way. It’s a more holistic approach. We always ask women how they feel in their bras, because there are fundamentals of fit, but they’re not going to wear it if it doesn’t feel good to them. Our training is very intense. Our employees always get their fits checked before they can go out on their own.
IR: They’re really just the basics of retail: listening to your customer and having empathy.
MW: If there’s one word that we use a lot, it’s ‘empathy’. Sometimes these women have just had babies, or they’re going through menopause, or they may be a teenager looking for their first bra, or they may be trans. There are so many things that they’re going through that we don’t know. Sometimes you may get a rude customer, but she could have had such a bad day before she came in and she just needs a little bit of understanding and care. That’s the approach we take, because these women are standing in the mirror half-naked, with a stranger helping them. And a lot of them don’t even like looking in the mirror. So our choice of staff is so important to us and quite often we will employ people based on their empathy and how they feel about working with women.
IR: Let’s talk about Brava’s Bra Fit Finder.
MW:This was fast-tracked through Covid-19. Because we had to close all of our stores, we had to find a way to help out customers. But we also have customers in regional areas, we have customers with disabilities with social anxiety, and mums with kids who can’t always come into stores. And then on top of that, during the pandemic, bra habits changed. A lot of women were wearing more wire-free bras, going without bras or just having different styles of bras. We had to look at ways of keeping our connection with the customer and replicating the in-store experience as much as we possibly could.
So we launched Zoom fits. In-store, we fit by eye, we don’t use the tape measures. So when we’re on a video call, we’re doing the same, we’re asking the customer to show us the fit of the bra, we’re speaking to them about their needs. They may have purchased a bra from us, and then they want us to check the fit or we’re just talking to them, asking them about their bras and what they need. And then we send them a link to our recommended bras, which they can then purchase online. The conversion rate for our Zoom fits is between 80 and 90 per cent.
And then we have Bra Fit Finder, which is based on an algorithm. Our average online conversion rate is 3 per cent, but with the Bra Fit Finder, it’s 10 per cent and that’s without a human. It’s an algorithm, but it’s based on years of knowledge. We’re trying to get a suite of services, from our phone fittings to virtual fitter, when they upload a form and images. That’s paused at the moment. Now we’re looking at other innovations, whether it be artificial intelligence, virtual fitting applications. Consumer behaviour has changed.
IR: I know that the whole sports category is starting to focus a lot more on women and a few are coming out with sports bra offerings. But they don’t often cater for larger sizes. Why is this customer base being overlooked?
MW: Oh, I have lots of thoughts on this. Bras are a very challenging industry to be in. In our particular size ranges, there can be over 100 sizes in one style. That’s how many SKUs there are and that’s from size 6 to size 22. And each of those bands will have from D right through to a K, right? For Adidas or Nike to do that, that’s a big cost for them. It’s a big, big size range, it is a very specialty area.
The recent Adidas campaign showed a lot of different breasts and different body sizes. In a media release, they talked about their most inclusive range and they have 72 sizes, even though they say that they cater to all sizes. I don’t have an issue with them not being able to do all the sizes but don’t say you do if you don’t. A woman will see that promotion and say, ‘Adidas is doing my size, I can finally get a sports bra!’ Then they walk into the store, but they don’t go above a DD. It’s just disappointing that these corporations are still saying that they cater to all these body shapes and sizes and women are walking out, feeling like there’s something wrong with their bodies because they cannot get a bra to fit.
IR: How do you guys choose which brands to stock in-store?
LW: We’re trying to stock brands that aren’t available everywhere else, so we deal mostly with European brands from Germany or Poland, where they have a fabulous reputation. These are brands that are working really well for women who need a bigger cup; they seem to understand it much better than the more local ones.
We are supporting some local companies, like swimwear brands that we’ve helped get their product right, and we’re very, very happy to have them as part of our offering. These people have put their lives into getting the right swimwear, so we do want to support women in business who are getting it right. But it’s not easy.
MW: For the first decade we were in business, we didn’t have any Australian brands, because we do not stock any department-store brands, as they don’t reach our standards for the fuller cup.
LW: We would love to be doing our own brand. We’ve touched on that, and I think we will create the perfect bra. But it’s a long time proposal.
MW: We do have that in the design stages at the moment. We started off with one bra to put into our chain of stores to address customer needs. I can’t tell you too much about that right now though!
We’re in a position where we have worked with thousands and thousands of women above a D cup so we know what they need. There’s not one bra that suits all women, so it does need to be a range of bras. We also need to be more savvy now. Some of the brands that we started with 15 years ago are now going into the department stores and online for everybody to purchase. That point of difference and that gap is closing in on us, so we really need to look at innovating.
LW: The other thing we’re doing differently is we opened a store in Brisbane just a few months ago that’s totally different to our other stores. It doesn’t have a whole lot of stock for people to plough through. Each bra has a QR code where customers can get all the information. It’s a very personalised service. It’s a very different concept for us. We’re analysing what’s working and what’s not.
MW: It’s a more European model, where the store is not cluttered with racks and racks of bras, but you can still see what’s available. Because we do the fittings and we help customers one on one, we’re grabbing the bras for them anyway. This was just a way to further fine tune our existing process.
It’s a more practical way of setting out stock. At the back there, you know, they’re all in size ranges in rows. So once we fit the woman and we know her size, you’ve got it all out the back rather than trying to find the size on the floor. You can fit more in when they’re on rows. but the customer doesn’t have to look at this clutter.