Ask any woman and she will tell you that most of her bras do not fit her optimally. In fact, a majority of women end up wearing the wrong size. A large part of the problem is that sizing is standardized, unlike women’s bodies. With every passing year, more people are also shopping online, meaning fewer opportunities to actually try on bras — a trend that’s only accelerating given the shutdown the world is experiencing right now.
One particular problem, and a widespread one, according to entrepreneurs Jaclyn Fu and Lia Winograd, is that bras are generally too big for small-chested women. It’s the reason the former co-workers came together to found Pepper, a three-year-old, Denver-based startup that’s expressly focused on creating bras that fit smaller cup sizes.
As Fu explains it, most bra companies use a size, say 36C, then apply that same design to other bra sizes, like a 32A. While the step is logistically sound — applying a standard base design to other sizes — it doesn’t translate well into actual fit.
“It means a person who is a 32A is wearing a design that was intended for a 36C, causing fit issues like cup gaps,” says Fu.
Usually, women try to resolve the problem by tightening their bra straps or changing sizes, but Pepper’s solution is to create its own, smaller cup molds from a factory in Medellin, Colombia, where Winograd grew up.
Fu made the first prototype for Pepper based on her own chest size. Since then, she’s gone to customers’ houses to conduct fittings and research. Beyond cup size, Pepper also addresses underwire woes, making its products less curved and shorter to follow the natural size of a smaller-chested woman.
To increase customer engagement, Pepper started virtual one-to-one fit sessions for customers who are buying a bra online for the first time, and like other companies has a “fit quiz” for people to take online, too.
Pepper now sells a wide variety of sizes, all the way from from 30A to 38B, and prices range from $48 to $54.
Pepper certainly isn’t the only startup trying to fit into the bra industry. Companies like Kala, SlickChicks and ThirdLove all tout comfort and inclusivity in sizing and fitting.
The biggest of the three is ThirdLove, a San Francisco DTC bra and underwear company that has raised $68.6 million in known venture capital to date, per Crunchbase. ThirdLove brands itself as a brand that sells a “bra for every body” with inclusive sizes, and is now expanding into retail, international markets and swim and athletic wear. The company was last valued at more than $750 million.
It’s unclear how many new brands the market can support, or that can survive this pandemic. Even companies with meaningful market share and fresh capital are struggling to stay afloat as shoppers reduce their spend right now. Earlier this month, ThirdLove laid off 30% of its staff, citing COVID-19’s impact on business.
Even still, Pepper’s founders remain optimistic. Pepper’s Kickstarter $10,000 launch campaign — staged in 2017 — was separately funded in less than 10 hours, Fu notes.
The success of that campaign just helped the company secure $2 million in seed funding from investors, including Precursor Ventures, New York University Innovation Fund and Denver Angels. Others participating include the co-founder of MyFitnessPal, Albert Lee.
Fu adds that the company, which employs three people, is “close to profitability” on a $3 million revenue run rate. In 2019, most of its sales came directly from consumers on their site — a good sign that its growth ties to user loyalty versus relying on partnerships with retailers.
The nuance of buying a bra has long been an in-person ordeal. But now, because of COVID-19’s spread and the resulting shut down of many brick-and-mortar stores, those who need a new bra might have to turn online for the very first time. It’s an opportunity for companies like Pepper to prove that they can master fit without measuring tape and a changing room.