Although we love shopping and lingerie, combining the two isn’t always pretty. As any woman will tell you, finding a bra that truly fits your body and is comfortable can be a difficult task, and requesting help from salespeople often adds to that discomfort. After all, you’re on an especially intimate shopping mission—one that you don’t necessarily want to share with a stranger.
Michelle Lam, a former investor at Bain & Company, was all too familiar with this experience when she decided to disrupt the industry and launch the online-only True&Co. a few years back. “I had wanted to start a brand for women for a really long time,” she explained to me over the phone. “It was the result of working for 17 years in male-dominated industries where I was often the only woman in the room. That motivated me to [want to create] an amazing brand for women—one where they would feel like their true selves, they would feel intelligently sexy, they could walk into a boardroom and embrace their femininity at the same time, because that hit very close to home for me.”
Scroll down to keep reading and learn about the fit therapy experience that Lam developed.
Once she left her job, she drew up a list of potential opportunities—including everything from makeup to athletic wear to spas—but it wasn’t until one particularly dreadful bra fitting that an idea really stuck. “I needed to get a bra fitting when I first moved to San Francisco in pursuit of creating this brand, and I was stuck in the fitting room for two hours, just for a strapless bra,” she tells me, echoing my own tedious personal experiences. “I don’t [usually] put my body down—I know I’ve got good points and bad points, like anyone else, and I’m not perfect, but by and large, I’ve been pretty happy with who I am, and yet, in that fitting room, when I looked at myself in all these things they were bringing me after measuring me, I had never felt so unattractive in my life, and that was a weird feeling—I really didn’t like it,” she laughs. It may have been the worst shopping experience of her life, but it also led her to the lightbulb moment she’d been seeking: She’d try to transform the bra industry.
Her plan? To do away with the authoritarian measuring tape, the fitting lady “telling you exactly who you should be,” and the sense that a painful fit was acceptable as long as it looked great. What she discovered along the way might surprise you: “For most people under a D cup, there’s no science to back up the claim that the underwire has to be excruciatingly tight or even that a specific bra size is the right bra size.”
In short, the system was broken, and starting out with just 500 bras in her apartment, Lam set out to fix it. What she eventually landed on was a process called fit therapy, which she’s now showcasing across the country with the Nomadic Glamping Lingerie Experience—a tent traveling (alongside True&Co. experts) to hip stores in various states so that customers can experience fit therapy firsthand. After the launch event at Concrete + Water in Brooklyn—where you can currently book an appointment—Lam told me more about the unique fit method below…
WHO WHAT WEAR: Can you tell me about the launch of True&Co. and how it led to this nomadic fit therapy experience?
MICHELLE LAM: Well, I started the business as the original fit therapist. I invited women over to my apartment and I asked them to fill out this quiz, which was based on a Cosmo quiz, and I said, “Okay, I’m going to help you select five bras, you’re going to put them on, and I’m going to gauge how it works for you, and I’m going to pit myself head to head against a bra fitter so that you can still get the right technical results.” My success rate was really high because we were engaging in conversation; there was never any measuring tape.
WWW: Had you already designed bras yourself at that point, or were you using other brands?
ML: Nope, other brands—I didn’t know a single thing about the bra industry. It was also the first time I had touched a business with physical goods, the first time I had run a brand, and when we launched the quiz online there was an incredible reception because women were like, These questions totally make sense. So we decided to be online only because it was very efficient and the Silicon Valley way.
[A few] million women later, we were like, okay we have all this data about a woman’s body, and that’s great, but do we really understand who she is and what she wants, and does she really understand our products and what we’re going to do for her? We were missing that emotional moment that’s so important in intimate apparel, that connection with the customer—seeing her eyes light up. We wanted to bring back that beautiful, intimate experience from the start of the company, because although we were making good money as an online player, in terms of really changing the industry and how women feel about their bodies, [we needed something more]. The quiz provided 75% of the answer, and the other 25% was to be found through this intensely personal interaction that’s almost an unrolling of a woman’s history—like the time when her mom called her fat in high school or the time a date didn’t go as planned and she felt like she wasn’t a desirable human being; you know, those kinds of moments. Those are things that people talk about, in addition to, Oh hey, I love how this looks on me (or I don’t).
WWW: That’s really smart. I’m curious what you’ve learned from both the data and this experience with the try-on tent about women’s lingerie preferences today? What are some of the larger trends you’re noticing?
ML: Well one really large trend that everyone’s been talking about is athleisure really bursting onto the scene. We actually saw some pretty clear insights [on that] in the data about a year ago, before anyone was talking about it—for example, between March and April of last year, the number of women wanting push-up bras precipitously dropped. You know what they were picking instead? Unlined bras. And that trend has only grown. We even released a whole easy-fit category based on those insights and seeing the look on women’s faces when they try on these bras is really amazing—that’s the thing that data doesn’t give you. Customers are always a little skeptical when they see them because they have this conception of what traditional lingerie should be, but when they put it on and see how it contours the body and how comfortable it is, it’s like a sigh of relief.
WWW: So how do you select the other brands that you sell on the site?
ML: We fit-test them, recording 30 pieces of metadata about each bra, whether it’s our own or another brand’s, and ask, Does it meet our fit standard? Will it do what it’s supposed to do for enough women of diverse body types? Is the footprint big enough? We only accept one in seven, namely because in the intimate apparel industry, there’s one veteran, fit model that everybody uses, and we refuse to use her because she does not represent what normal American women are like. When you’re making a T-shirt, there’s room for error, but when you’re making a bra, there’s no room for error.
What’s your favorite bra style these days? Let us know in the comments!