CMU industrial design grads take on the battle for better-fitting bras
Finding a bra that fits is an elusive and vexing female retail rite.
Years of frustrating fits led Sophia Berman and Laura West to re-engineer and upend a bra design more than 100 years old, rooted in an era when women were wearing corsets and not allowed to vote.
In September, the pair started Trusst Lingerie, an East Liberty-based company specializing in bras for women with larger busts, focused on achieving a true, customized fit.
The pair, both industrial design grads from Carnegie Mellon University and avid sewers, were looking to work on a side project together when they realized a market opportunity to build and sell a better bra.
“We were brainstorming and, all of a sudden, we were like, ‘Hey, you know what really stinks? Bras,' ” says West, the company's chief product officer.
Berman, the chief executive officer, nods. “There's just so many problems with bras,” she says.
Demand for bras that fit bigger busts is growing, according to market research data. The average bust sizes have more than doubled over the past 20 years, jumping from a 34B to a 34DD, according to a 2013 study from Intimacy, a lingerie retailer. Trusst is among a growing tide of e-commerce companies promoting better fit in the $13 billion U.S. lingerie industry.
Both women have stories from opposite ends of the fit problem.
West outgrew conventional off-the-rack bra sizes in high school and searched for years, online and in specialty boutiques, to find a bra that worked.
“The way I've felt is just terrible, forever,” West says. “It became a hunt to really find something that actually fit me. What there was was really limited — aesthetics and support-wise.”
Berman wore the wrong size for years, and after she learned her true size, couldn't find it on the shelf.
“All of a sudden, I'm just like Laura: I think a bra will fit, and it will turn out not to be comfortable and I'm popping out,” Berman says. “There are a lot of options out there, but they're just not sized well, and they're not available, and it's hard to buy a bra online and figure out if it's going to work.”
Trusst, named for trusses, the support structures for a bridge, draws breast support in much the same way.
The bras are designed to hoist larger, heavier breasts from the core and rib cage, rather than the shoulders. Instead of traditional underwire, Trusst's bras have a truss-like support piece underneath its cups, designed to support 80 percent of the breast's weight.
They brought Britta Ulm, a product engineer, on board to help with technical design.
The company has its own sizing system that goes A through F and measures cup size in terms of breast volume, instead of the traditional band-size measurement, plus AA through DD cup size.
“We're very focused in getting women into proper sizes because a lot of women think DD is the highest there is,” West says.
Even when West could find bras that worked, she was relegated to ugly styles, she says. Trusst's bras will come in a variety of colors and styles, offered with matching panties. The bras are made with anti-microbial athletic material overlaid with laces and delicate fabrics to make bras that are sexy and fun to wear, the pair say.
“Women of all sizes should be able to wear fun bras,” Berman says. “Not just the small sizes.”
The company has more than 100 testers and 25 paid beta wearers who submit feedback on style and function, Berman says. The design will be updated and tweaked before officially sold online and in a few Pittsburgh boutiques next month. Trusst's bras will range from $100 to $125 depending on style.
Women can pre-order bras during a 40-day online Kickstarter fundraising campaign the company is launching on April 22. Men, or women who don't fit into a Trusst bra, can pledge to donate one to a woman in need at a local shelter.
As the company seeks capital, the reactions Trusst gets from male and female investors is stark, Berman says.
“The women say, ‘This is so amazing, when can we buy?' ” she says. “And men say, ‘I don't really know anything about breasts, so I can't really help you.' But then they'll start giving their opinion anyway.”
The company is housed in the robotics-centric Alpha Lab Gear incubator in East Liberty and uses 3-D imaging engineering principles in protyping its designs.
Bill Besselman, an Alpha Lab mentor and vice president of strategy and consumer insights at Under Armour in Pittsburgh, says he was impressed with Berman and West's technological approach to an industry traditionally steeped in fashion.
“I think it's a great story about women trying to solve a problem that only women can understand with their really unique technology that I think is going to work really well,” he says.
Heather Geiger of Friendship is a Trusst bra tester. She found a bra in London that fit in 2007 and has been buying them online since.
“It would be nice,” she says, “to be able to go to a store in Pittsburgh and get fitted and not have to go to Europe to find out what bra size you wear.”
Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or email@example.com.