This one is for all my ladies out there. For all of you who know firsthand the pain of going bra shopping—wanting something simple but not too simple, rifling through piles of underwear that say "sexy thang" across the rear or come adorned with gobs of charms and lace, going home empty-handed or with an overstuffed push-up bra that leaves you feeling uncomfortable in your unmentionables. It's a pain point that Lauren Schwab and Marissa Vosper stumbled upon in 2010 and that led them to found Negative, an uncomplicated, considered, minimalist line of intimates for women.
I met Schwab and Vosper last month at PopTech, a social-impact conference and idea incubator that brings together 600 "thinkers and doers" in Camden, Maine, each year. There, Schwab and Vosper told their story—their own frustrations over what was currently on the market and how they set out to change it all with Negative. (You can watch their talk below.) The story struck a chord with me.
The two women met in college and stayed friends after graduating; a few years into their respective careers (in consulting and finance), they each realized that they really wanted to pursue work in fashion. Taking night classes together at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, they turned their eyes to the world of undergarments and saw room for something different. "When it came to outerwear, ready-to-wear, couture—there were so many brands that we loved," Vosper says, "but when it came to lingerie and intimates there was such a lack of brands in general, both in terms of brands that we actually felt were the everyday wearable, but also brands that you can fall in love with, that you would advocate for."
While both working full-time jobs, Schwab and Vosper slowly began dipping their toes into the fashion world. "If we had quit our jobs right then and there and focused on product development, I'm confident we could have pushed things across much faster," Vosper says. "But because we were both working at pretty demanding careers, we spent our nights and weekends learning about the product category, working to find a sample maker who knew a pattern maker who knew a mill, learning about which textiles worked for lingerie and which didn't, learning who made the best textiles, learning who made the best elastic." With so many components, the learning curve was steep. But Schwab and Vosper used that ignorance to their advantage, questioning every element and its role in the final garment.
A look at the construction of one of Negative's bras
Early months were devoted to first-person market research. "I think we literally went to every single lingerie store in the island of Manhattan on our weekends and tried on as many bras as we could get our hands on," Vosper says. The duo spent hours talking to salespeople, asking them about their best-selling items, what women liked and didn't like and then trying out those items themselves.
Those countless hours spent in cramped changing rooms squeezing in and out of lingerie revealed several pervasive annoyances, from excessive detailing to ostentatious patterning. "In most lingerie there are so many silly components that are superfluous that get baked into this design and construction process that absolutely do not need to be there," Vosper says. "Think about anything from the bow in the center to bows on the strap to little, teeny, polka-dot eyelets on elastics, to tags, to little hardware-branded elements, to seams, to pads, to ruffles. There's so much that goes into typical lingerie construction that all felt so archaic to us. We felt like there was this mentality that because it's intimate apparel it has to be hyper-feminized."
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So Schwab and Vosper began by taking away all the elements they felt did not need to be there, reducing the number of components from over 37 (seen in a typical luxury bra from France) down to 16. "We made sure that if we got rid of all the fluff, what remained had to be the best, most exceptional pieces we could find," Vosper says. "I think that's a misnomer a lot of times, that simplicity is easy and basic. I actually think simplicity is quite complex and that if you're doing basics in a brilliant way, every single piece in that garment needs to be exceptional."
Piece by piece, the founders went through every essential item, from bra straps and their respective hardware to core fabric and trim and lesser-known parts. "There's a teeny little piece that exists between the two cups of a bra called a gore, and that piece is the only part of a bra that has to be rigid in order to keep your cups in place," Vosper says, citing one example. "If that part stretches, you're most likely going get a bra that's not supportive."
“In most lingerie there are so many silly components that are superfluous that get baked into this design and construction process that absolutely do not need to be there.”
The biggest challenge? Finding a simple, high-quality elastic for the band. "You'd be amazed at how hard it is to find an elastic with no embellishments," Vosper says. "Basically, we looked through reams and reams of elastics. They had these binders full of elastics at trade shows and every single one of them has a teeny little flourish or a little polka dot or some glitter or a stripe." Schwab and Vosper scoured trade shows for the simplest, highest-quality, thinnest, softest elastic, occasionally finding one they liked—only to discover that it didn't work with the rest of the design. "Having no experience in this category, it was really trial and error," Vosper says. "We had to learn fabric compositions and fabric weights and what was appropriate for a bra cup versus a elastic band versus a body suit."
Networking played a big role when it came to sourcing materials, as Schwab and Vosper found themselves flying to a large lingerie trade show in Paris year after year to make those connections. "People are very tight-lipped with their contacts, because fashion is just a competitive place," Vosper says. "People are generally not willing to help you." At one point, the women even turned to Craigslist to find a sample maker. "We tried a lot of angles and we finally found someone in the garment district, not without challenges, but they at least knew how to sew bras, had the equipment to make bras and we had a pattern maker for new lingerie," Vosper says.
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After samples were made, tested by the team and approved, the team had a physical paper pattern and fabric swatches, which then had to be "graded"—scaled up and down for different sizes. Many brands don't do any additional fitting from there, but Schwab and Vosper were careful to ask themselves what makes a good bra at each size level. "We took samples of all of our sizes and asked all the women that we knew in New York City to come and try them on and give us their feedback," Vosper says. Incorporating that feedback, the duo made adjustments and established their final patterns.
On the manufacturing side, the founders were ultimately fortunate to find a factory that could do fit-approved samples and patterns across all sizes, as well as manage material ordering and quality control. "We're pretty amazed that any garment actually gets manufactured and fits, because so many hands have touched it by the time it becomes the real thing, from sewing fabrics that go into the making of your garment, to sewing your garment, to getting them to the U.S. and in a package and on a shelf," Vosper says. "There's so many places that it can go wrong and so many people that have to do their job perfectly to make sure it's right. It's crazy."
But for now the Negative founders have a product line that they're proud of, available through their website and their first retail partner, Steven Alan. And they're thinking about further products to develop, while keeping in mind that any new pieces must meet the same strict standards of their debut collection. As Vosper says, "We don't want to just introduce something new unless we can have a different point of view on it."