The Support Gap – How to fit a Sports Bra

Sports bras are an infinitely expanding commodity.  As we continue to embrace the new and exciting activity options, you can bet your bottom dollar there is a sports bra (or sports brand) that can offer exactly what our heart desires.

Yet with choice comes challenge.  No longer is the consumer simply searching for a bra that ‘fits’ but one that is suitable for multiple activities.  From Pilates to kick boxing, consumers are looking for the ‘golden egg’ that can power up and absorb their extra demands. 

Photo Credit : Nathan Cowley

The difficulty in finding ‘the one’ is not explained away with conventional under band and cup size.  There are a raft of varying factors that make up a person with breasts; body shape, age, stature, and weight to name a few.  This one small garment has to fit around these factors and as any women knows; this can change on a monthly basis. 

So if women are captive audience, why should they not be afforded quality advice on their purchase? Why is this information in short supply?

My own experience in bra fitting comes from working on the construction of garments from the paper up.  This practise tells me what features or pattern lines will work when made into garment form. 

However the real magicians are those that can reverse engineer this process; start with a person and assess from the garments on the market, what will be successful.

 Bra Fitters are really a hybrid of Structural Engineer and Emotional Therapist!”

Catherine Gualdino Maule

The Bra Fitter

I spoke with Catherine Gualdino Maule who is trained in the exclusive and transformational art of bra fitting. Rigby and Peller trained, Catherine’s utter passion for the fitting process is only eclipsed by her extensive knowledge and advice on the subject.

Photo Credit : Running Warehouse

So how do you approach sports bra fittings?

To begin you are assessing on the basis of size and shape.  All fitting is done by eye and feel.  Is the wearer fuller figured? Do they have a prominent ribcage? Are they thin fleshed around the under band? 

This evaluation happens while also discussing what they are currently wearing and how this meets (or does not meet) their needs.

When it comes to trying on a new bra, the first question is, how does it feel?  Do they feel safe and are they secure in it? 

Comfort is always priority, however, if the bra doesn’t meet the customers expectations for any number of reasons (colour, expected size, look) then it is rejected and the process starts again. 

Bra fitting, although a practical science, is also driven by the expectations of the wearer.  Catherine likes to define this as a structural engineer with a side of emotional therapy!

Zumba meets Cat-Cow

When it comes to sports bras, the fitting process is more involved as focus is on the practical application. Conversations around the type of exercise and selecting the correct level of support are crucial and will instantly engender confidence in a products performance.  

But how the consumer truly knows if the bra is suitable for running or a gentler yoga-flow is by turning the fit process into a test drive!

Photo Credit : Gymshark

Catherine asks her clients to bounce around in the fitting room much as they would in a Zumba class or PT session.  She encourages them to maximise a full range of movement in order to identify any pinch points or areas that become uncomfortable.  

Practicing Cat-Cows and taking large deep breaths are also movements that Catherine would suggest as a way to replicate the activities our sports bras will be worn for. 

The aim is to eliminate the trial and error that can often go with sports bras.  Catherine’s job is to find the bra that can perform for the exercise, complement the body shape of the wearer and finally meet their emotional needs. 

Catherine says, you could have 10 women, all 30F’s but they will all fit differently. If a woman were naturally round shouldered, hard wires would be incredibly painful and could irritate issues with acid reflux. 

Similarly if a woman is short, providing bras with fancy front strap details simply means the straps can’t be adjusted enough to allow the bra to support sufficiently.

You could have 10 women all 30F’s but they will all fit differently”

Catherine Gualdino Maule

Because of the numerous nuances of all boobs, Catherine would often custom-fit bras for clients.  Sewing out excess under band lengths or manipulating the shape of bra wires by hand.  She would even educate clients in how to unpick and adjust their own shoulder straps, all with the goal of fit perfection and to prolong its useful life.

Catherine’s Sports Bra 101’s

Some aspects of a sports bra are understandably non-negotiable; good material choice, cushioning straps, clean finishes, etc.  But others are more technical and are often overlooked by consumers and brands alike.  Fitting thousands of bras for a job however helps clear the path to some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Catherine is quick to point out that a must for well fitting sports bras is a high centre front gore.  Sports bras that bestow cleavage are not really sports bras at all!  They may look good but spending your step class staring at your girls rather than the instructor is not really serving its purpose.

Next on the list is tightness of under bands.  Sports bra’s are commonly cut too tight on the under band.  There is no valid reason to make the bottom band a size too small compared to a conventional bra.  As Catherine states it only serves to confuse the consumer further. 

With more shopping taking place on-line, it will increase returns and worse still lead to lost sales.

On a similar topic we need to go easy on compression. Heavy reliance on the ‘plated armour’ look (cut high on the neck and into the under arm) will make a sports bra un-comfortable very quickly.  It’s unlikely to garner much enthusiasm from fuller cupped women too, as mono-boob is definitely not an attractive choice either!

Last on the list are racer backs and zips.  While racer backs can offer instant support, any bra that requires another pair of hands to get it on or off is going to have limited shelf-life.  An answer to this could be a zip front bra but as Catherine explains, once the bra is worn and washed a few times and it begins to loosen out, there is no further adaptability or adjustment left in the garment. 

How does all this knowledge help if you are a brand trying to improve your sports bras?

It’s important to recognize that the fit process of a sports bra doesn’t stop at the design phase. It doesn’t stop at manufacture, and it doesn’t stop when it’s sat on the shop floor.  The process isn’t complete until a woman has successfully (and happily) completed her first activity in it.

So really the question is, what can brands do to control the reliability of their product?

Wearer Trials

Customer reviews are a great tool but they only provide feedback at the end of the process.  So if the reviews are not favourable there is little that can be done to affect a solution or mend the customer relationship.

Similarly running fit sessions on fit-models, in house only gives you basic information on its success.  Getting the garments out far a wide to a range of people, age groups and activities will truly confirm the pros and cons of a style. 

Arranging focused groups of wearer trials will provide true and honest feedback.  Run them in the development phase prior to production, and you have time to iron out a lot of the problems that crop up. 

Photo Credit : Danii Coughlan

Educate Continually

Being able to steer consumers at the point of sale will also yield a positive outcome and bra fitters like Catherine, are the mini-marketer’s!

It is their sole mission to bestow a woman with a successfully fitted garment.  They are taking the time to listen to the consumer, identify their needs and meet them with a satisfactory product.

So while we shop on-line more than ever (and Covid keeps us distanced from our customers too) why not take the opportunity to go a step beyond in customer service. 

Virtual fit sessions in collaboration with bra fitting experts is a perfect way to secure a sale.  Going beyond this and creating fit parties or live Q & A’s on social media are all opportunities to gain the undivided attention of your ideal customer, while explaining the benefits of your product in a way they need to hear it. 

Trust is Key

Athleisure and sports wear is a mushrooming market that is becoming fiercely competitive.  Fundamentally however, bra wearers are loyal repeat purchasers.  They don’t expect ‘reinvention of the wheel’ every time they need a new sports top; instead they expect consistency.

Product development for these wonders is a costly and time consuming process so wringing the value out of a style and running it continually is prudent for investment. 

If you plan to perfect a quality sports bra as part of your collection, make it worth-your-while.  Build on the trust focus on bridging the gap by sealing a partnership with your customer.

Emmaline is a designer and product developer in the field of intimate apparel for almost 25 years,  In particular her career has focused on garment construction, manufacture and development.   She feels strongly about passing on this experience to others, either within our industry or to newcomers embarking on their own journey.

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