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Battle of the Data-Driven Bra Startups

The challenge: Make shopping for intimates online, well, a little more intimate. Here are the e-commerce startups angling to do just that.
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I hate shopping for bras only a little less than I hate shopping for swimsuits. An unscientific poll given to the women of Inc. confirmed that I am not alone in loathing this task. So after receiving a number of pitches from a host of fledgling e-commerce lingerie startups, I decided to investigate. 

According to market research firm Ibis World, lingerie is a $13 billion industry that's growing at a rate of 3.3 percent each year. Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru says women aren't clamoring for lingerie disruption, but I beg to differ. 

Despite the existence of many brands in the space, Victoria's Secret--which reported sales of $1.7 billion for the fourth quarter ending in February--still reigns supreme. 

For older Millennials like myself, this is frustrating. VS just isn't my style. Department stores are inevitably frustrating. Specialty bra boutiques, such as the well-stocked Town Shop and the Bra Smyth here in Manhattan, are expensive. And I cringe at the thought of being measured by a tape-wielding "bra expert."     

This is where these new lingerie startups come in. They're aiming to solve these common woes with data--and by shifting this intimate shopping experience online. But can they scale? Mulpuru's not convinced: "I don't think there's a burning need for another lingerie player," she says. "But if there's an innovative retailer with a new perspective, product, and advertising, it will give them a shot." 

The battle of the indie, online bra sellers has begun. Here's a look at the major players.

True&Co's home try-on program allows women to try up to four bras.

The Data-Driven Bra 

The San Francisco startup True&Co is perhaps the most buzzed-about lingerie manufacturer, thanks to its reliance on data science that matches customers with the right bra. 

Founder Michelle Lam never aspired to become a "bra lady," but, she says, she found the shopping experience so "painful," she was moved to design something better. All she needed was data--and lots of it. Today, the ex-venture capitalist's customers take a two-minute quiz, answering queries along the lines of "How are your shoulder straps?" At the end, they're presented with an array of bras, including some made by Lam herself. "We curate like nobody's business," she says of the 50 or so other brands the site features, "and only accept one out of every seven bras onto our site." 

Since its launch in 2012, True&Co, which has $6 million in funding, has collected some seven million data points on its customers. From stats on cup sizes to the fact that "60 percent of women complain about busting out in the cleavage," the data collection never stops. "We're tracking what [customers are] browsing, putting in the box, and what they choose to return," boasts Lam. Then she adds coyly, "Women do write us novels about their bras." 

"There are 20 different components in a bra, compared to a pair of jeans, which only has six," says True&Co's Michelle Lam. "We're using data to look at those components and make a decision about what style, colors, sizes, and other features we should be introducing."

For shoppers who rely more on images to make decisions, there's Third Love, another e-commerce startup launched by Heidi Zak, a former retail director at Aéropostale and digital marketing exec at Google. Zak and her team developed an iOS app that lets shoppers take a snapshot of themselves wearing a tank top in front of a mirror. (Android will come shortly.) "Originally, we thought of having someone else take the photo," Zak says, "but that defeated the purpose, because we wanted to make it a personal experience."

The visual data, which allows Third Love to see exact measurements, also informs product development. A year's worth of number-crunching went into creating the 24/7 Memory Foam T-Shirt Bra, a $55 garment that fits sizes A-F. Is it cheap? Not exactly, but Zak says most women will pay. "We're offering midmarket pricing with better quality," she says.

With $5.6 million in funding from the likes of Andreessen Horovitz, Third Love's model looks promising, Mulpuru says. "You don't have to go and get fitted for a bra," she says, "which is new and something that could catch on with a small segment of the population, especially if they're able to get it right."   

"The nature of our business model is set up more like an Everlane or Warby Parker concept," says Negative's Lauren Schwab. "We're sourcing the best of the best materials."

Bare Essentials 

Another crop of startups are betting that being a niche seller will be just as disruptive a tactic. Among them, Negative, a minimalist line bootstrapped and launched by two sorority sisters, Lauren Schwab and Marissa Vosper, stands out the most. The Fashion Institute of Technology grads "took an engineer's approach" to designing, says Vosper, stripping the bra of its useless components. 

That means no more itchy tags and slip-sliding straps. Negative, which sources touchable materials from Japan and France, pares down the bras to the "most essential fit," says Vosper. "We wanted something that was unmolded--no ruffles, no ribbons." The kind of thing you could "wear everyday and just forget about," she says.

The result is an edgy aesthetic that's more bare than there, though it signals where fashion is headed. Women crave comfort, but they want to look good and be able to move while they're at it. Even Victoria's Secret recently debuted its own lines of minimalist bras, made with T-shirts, comfort, and function in mind. 

On the other end of the spectrum is a French startup called AdoreMe, which uses the same formula Victoria's Secret has relied on for years: sex sells. Founded by Morgan Hermand in 2011, it has $11.5 million in funding and might be the fastest-growing company in this space, according to multiple industry sources. "We're a global brand, and we happen to distribute online," says Hermand, before noting AdoreMe offers petite and plus sizes, unlike VS. 

Truth be told, he wants to take on VS, unlike startups like Negative or Ampere, a fit-driven company that plans on selling products in small boutiques around New York City to provide another revenue stream. "Product diversity is one part of our strategy, and the second part is distribution," says Hermand, who's been approached by department stores to carry his products. "If we developed our own shop structure, we'd really control 100 of the value chain." That probably won't happen for several years--but take note, VS.   

"The Believability Factor" 

Each of these startups stands out in its way, but Marshall Cohen, a fashion-industry analyst at the NPD Group, says the key to success will be what he calls the "believability factor." "The consumer is saying you've got two shots at this," he explains. "One is to get the consumer to agree that this is a good idea, and two is being satisfied by the experience itself." So even if five e-commerce startups gain traction, the five that don't could hurt the ones that are decent. "Negative feedback flows much faster than positive feedback," Cohen adds. 

Fortunately, they won't have to worry about complaints on their return policies. True&Co allows customers to try on five bras at home, paying only for what they keep, while Negative offers the first return or exchange free, and all returns and exchanges are free through Third Love and AdoreMe. 

To really win over shoppers to the online experience, premarketing matters, says Cohen, and brands will need to communicate their comfort, fit, and value. "Simply being online," he says, "isn't enough to drive women to give up personal contact with brands." They'll have to prove they can beat the in-store experience. "It's a little trickier than selling branded shoes," jokes Cohen, but "I'm a firm believer that something that far-fetched can work." 

Grind, Hustle, and Payoff

Catalina Girald talks about starting and building Naja as a disruptive, empowering lingerie brand for women.

IMAGES: Courtesy True&Co., Courtesy Negative, Courtesy Third Love
Last updated: Jul 30, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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