I frequently get questions from readers who are excited by full-bust brands and designers, but who are disappointed to learn that their sizes aren’t available. Bras in cup sizes from D-G are becoming increasingly available in an ever-expanding range of styles, but growth for sizes over a G cup is considerably slower. I was therefore delighted to meet Kim Hamilton, a lingerie designer specializing in larger bra sizes. She agreed to chat with me and answer some of our questions about G+ bras, and I had the great honor to get a hands-on look at her graduate collection. Today’s post will get into the nitty-gritty of Kim’s work, and the second post (coming next week) will be all about her glorious silk-and-Swarovski ‘Enigma’ collection!
This is long, so settle in, but Kim is here to drop some knowledge on us, and I find these “behind the scenes” peeks both enlightening and fascinating.
Hi Kim! Just to introduce you to readers of Sweet Nothings, will you tell us a little about yourself, where you studied lingerie design, what you do for a living, what’s your favorite cocktail, etc.?
Hello! I’m so excited to ‘chat’ with you!
Well, I’m Kimberly Hamilton, and my ‘pet project’ is called Kimtimates. It’s an idea that I have for a business that focuses on bras, particularly large cup bras, like G+, as well as bra-fitting knowledge and technical design insight. It’s a name that I came up with in 2011 and I hope that it’s one day sewn into the backs of bras, knickers and any other beautiful things I can create.
I currently live and work in Northern Germany as a designer developing lingerie and swimwear for a retailer that focuses on D+ sizes. I’m Canadian, from a small city on the Prairies, I studied in the UK, and I wandered over to Germany, knowing NO German! But I love it, it’s exactly what I need and want to be doing right now for my career.
Favourite cocktail?! Oh, a Long Island Iced Tea! Bonus, it’s still called that here in Germany!
How did you choose DMU to pursue lingerie design?
De Montfort University (DMU) all seemed to happen by accident. Bras was my part-time job between my first and second year at a vocational school (I have a Business Admin – Marketing diploma). I started there as a seamstress doing alterations, progressing to a bra-fitter and filling a sort of assistant manager-type role. Because I was doing the alterations, and trying to find little bits and pieces to repair or alter bras, I was looking for supplies. This is the year 2002/2003– the internet is still in its infancy and there aren’t too many people buying or selling on the internet. Anyways, I find Beverly Johnson, her bra-making supply company and training classes. Fast forward to 2009 to when I discover the Saskatchewan Stitches Conference, where Beverley travels to Saskatchewan to teach people how to make bras. From there it snowballed and I attended this conference for three summers in a row.
With this obsession with bras, I look at bras on Facebook, Twitter, the internet in general. I’m pretty sure I discovered an advertisement for short courses at De Montfort in the back of Lingerie Insight magazine. I start looking into the cost of the courses, and given my situation at the time, there was no way I could afford it.
Then my financial situation changed – I bit the bullet and took out a $7,000 loan to go to the UK for 2 weeks and attend short courses on how to make lingerie, from the true professionals. I knew that if I wanted to take the degree course, I had to prepare, so I was actually taking some pattern drafting, sewing and drawing night courses on the side…just in case.
It was a crazy two weeks at the shortcourse, filled with reaffirmations that this is what I was supposed to be doing. I was encouraged to apply for the program, and I did, and then I got in. There were so many hoops, jumps, hurdles to overcome, but it was like the stars were all aligned and it was meant to be. Ten weeks after I left the short course…I had moved to England.
Whew, so to answer your question…how did I choose DMU? Well, it does have a strong reputation in the intimates industry. Of course there’s FIT in NYC and ESMOD in Paris, but you don’t specialize in lingerie/intimates for the entire program.
The DMU grads I know of have made a name for themselves focusing on core sizes. Does DMU offer good resources to someone interested in full-bust and plus size lingerie design?
Yes, the education at DMU is primarily focused on core sizes. All of our projects during our studies were focused on 34B/UK 12. It’s only in our third and final year that we are able to specialize in our projects for size. I was lucky to have an incredible mentor during my studies, so I was always working on larger cups in the background. Plus size or large cup knowledge is relatively limited and it’s not something all of the instructors there have experience or training in. It was frustrating for me to be there as I have no interest in smaller cup sizes and will focus my career on large-cup designs, but in general I hear that the fashion industry is crying for more student designers to be trained in plus size outerwear pattern cutting. Intimates is even more complex.
So it sounds like you knew right away you wanted to focus on plus size/full-bust styles?
I knew from the first day that I arrived in the UK that I only wanted to make ‘big bras’. Being an H-cup in European brands…and paying dearly for my favourite PrimaDonna bras back in Canada and still wanting things a bit different, or shall I say, improved – I thought I should learn how to make my own bras! It was a tough slog the first two years of my degree as we had to make industry standard sample size of 34B.
This is an unfairly broad question, but just to get started: what do you think of the current full-bust market, especially for GG+ sizes?
Things have certainly improved since I first started selling bras back in 2002. At that time, in the boutique where I worked, PrimaDonna was my best fit, and I needed a 36H. PrimaDonna didn’t make cups any larger. That’s when I knew things had to change in the industry because I didn’t feel like my bust was that large.
Curvy Kate, Tutti Rouge, Fantasie, Freya, Royce, Elomi, Charnos, Goddess, Cleo, Pour Moi, PrimaDonna, Affinitas, Ewa Michalak, Comexim, Samanta, Kris Line, Ulla Dessous all make larger cups…there’s certainly more options now than there ever were. Each brand has a different ethos, so we’re getting a whole range of pricing.
I would love to see more interesting and unique designs and detailing in large cup sizes. Something that really makes me feel glamorous or fun. Rich colours, I’m not as much of a fan of prints, but beautiful laces and interesting embroideries.
Are there any brands you think are navigating the challenges of the GG+ market particularly well right now?
Oh, that’s a tough one! I think it depends on what you consider the challenges are. Is it fit? Fashion? Shape? I’ve loved the idea of Tutti Rouge since it launched, and I was a fit model for the first two ranges. It’s something fun and fashionable at a great price point. I do consider it a fashion line though, the fit could still improve. Having worked at Bravissimo during my time in the UK, I think they really have the fit down on a lot of the styles. The Alana, their longest-running style, has both a really great fit and shape in GG+, and it’s one I sold the most. Their Melrose is also a great style, which I hope they continue to make in more fashion colours and similar styles, because it’s a bit fuller coverage, has the side sling, and is lower under the arm. Another I’ve always loved for fit is Prima Donna, it just seems to fit a lot of people and give a great shape. Since they expanded some of their ranges to I and J cups, I’ve not fit them in a retail setting. I tried on the Deauville in a 34I, but settled on the tiny bit too small 34H because I felt that the transition from H to I must have been a size break with different grade rules. It felt like a completely different style with way more coverage and a different shape.
What do you think are the biggest gaps in the GG+ market? I know some people say specialty items like sports bras and strapless bras are most sorely needed; would you agree, or do you think there are shape/pattern/style omissions that are pressing as well?
Specialty items for sure are needed. The Panache sports bra has done incredibly well in the last few years on the market. I’m quite pleased to see that there’s been a small extension in the size range recently, as H+ options were incredibly limited. Bravissimo relaunched their sports bra in the last few months, and I’ve not had a chance to try it out. The Freya Active has been my #1 choice since it came to market years ago.
Strapless bras are a whole other ball of wax. The Curvy Kate launch was fantastic, it’s a really nice fitting strapless. I’ve personally never had much luck with strapless bras. I wore an industrial strength Goddess basque under my wedding dress years ago and the pain actually caused tears and a delay in me getting to the reception to eat!
Personally, I want styles that are colourful, use beautiful materials, but they have to fit. Now that I’m working for a Scandinavian company and paying more attention to design details, I realize how crazy things are in the UK. They LOVE print in the UK. Bows, flowers, bling-details are very British, where I think I’m more minimalistic, with the odd bling bit. Oddly enough, I’m in fashion, but don’t follow it, or trends. I invest in practical, quality pieces, and want beautiful underwear to wear underneath. Fit and shape rule my buying decisions, but beautiful laces and embroideries are what makes me swoon.
One reader on Twitter asked about GG+ underwires and their shape, size, materials. Does the manufacture of GG+ bras require investment in different kinds of wires from D-G bras?
There are a few things that are different when we manufacture GG+ bras, and large cup bras in general. Developing a heavier gauge wire for stability is key in larger sizes. There’s more discussion now about narrow underwires too. This is certainly advantageous in GG+ cups and those who want a projected shape. Choosing fabrics is crucial as well. It has to be strong enough to control the shape of a fuller breast, but not be completely rigid. There has to be some slight flexibility in the fabric to give us that nice rounded shape.
Sourcing elastic strapping is a current project of mine. I want something that isn’t too wide in width, but has a lower stretch to prevent bouncing. The minimum order quantity on something like this, especially when you want at least 2 widths (the smaller cups get smaller shoulder straps) is astonishing. It’s like a lifetime supply of bra strap elastic.
Another thing is your factory production. The factory has to have experience making bras in larger cup sizes. The accuracy that goes into the patterns needs to be reflected in the sewing. Our tolerances, so the amount that the sewing can differ from the pattern, is as small as 1mm in some sections. Perfection and precision is what large cups is all about. It’s perfect for those that obsess over the smallest details.
The same reader asked about “wear-testing” GG+ underwires, but I’m not 100% sure what they meant– any thoughts?
I think that this reader might be asking about brands doing more wear testing on larger cups, or using larger busted fit models in general. Brands will have a fit model that all of their patterns are fitted to. All of your fit and pattern adjustments are based around how your garment fits your model. I think the question might also lean a bit towards the narrow underwire conversation where a lot of people are flocking to some of the Polish brands that use very narrow underwires in the large cups. If brands really focused some fitting and research on women in H+ cups, in the 30/32 band sizes, they may see that their underwires may be too wide for many customers.
As people get curvier, there tends to be greater variation in body and breast size and shape. When a brand or designer begins to plan GG+ styles, is there (in your experience), a typical approach?
I don’t think there is a typical approach, but there needs to be a sensible approach. If you’re designing for someone with a fuller bust, you have to consider what some of her issues may be. If she’s a smaller band size, she’s going to want a lot of projection to keep her breasts out from under her arms, but you have to remember that a ‘pointy’ shape isn’t in fashion with many people. Round, round, round seamless padded/moulded cups tend to be in fashion, which are a nightmare for large cup designers. They don’t fit.
At the end of the day, I feel like I design for myself. It’s who I understand the most, and I know what issues I have that want to be addressed. I want coverage for support and lift, but not so much that I can’t wear my tops. I don’t like stretch laces in my bras, I feel too bouncy. I also want knickers that coordinate. Oh, I have so much love for the new Scantilly designs from Curvy Kate, but I loathe nearly every single knicker. I’m not saying that all women in larger cups want coverage, but I have a lot of insecurities about my tummy and something with a 1 or 2 inch side is just not going to work for me. It’s not always about the bras, it’s about the outfit and will your customer want to wear it, and will she feel comfortable and confident. I want to put on my knickers and bra in the morning and feel like I can take on the world! Not spending the day adjusting a pokey wire, hiking up a strap, or fixing a crawling leg opening or waist band slipping under my tummy bulge!
Another question from a reader: Why don’t more bra manufacturers make a few different styles with a few different width wires? I (Sweets) am thinking specifically of Elomi/Freya, who seem to have a very limited range of wire shapes, as opposed to, say, Panache and Tutti Rouge, who seem to have steadily diversified their shapes.
I put some thoughts together on this very topic, it’ll be on my blog shortly if it’s not up there by the time this is published (Ed.- see Underwires 101, Underwires 102, Underwires 103, and Underwires 104). My mentor, with nearly 50 years in the industry, drilled it into my head that when I set up my brand, my underwires should all have the same shape. Obviously there are different lengths – like one for a balconette, a plunge, a half cup, strapless, etc., but that they should all belong to the same ‘family’. At the end of the day, selecting your wire comes down to your breast root shape. If a brand is designing their own underwires, and bras, they have to fit someone. That someone, your fit model, will be used to try on all collections and make the fit and pattern amendments. If you want to design different ranges with different wire shapes, that would be a huge decision for the company. It would require another fit model for sampling, separate stock of underwires (which have large minimum order quantities) and a whole separate range of patterns. All of those bra cradles will have a different shape.
I don’t know the inner-workings of Panache, nor have I owned much of their product. I have the sports bra and the tango in the full cup, and the plunge. I’m not sure if the shape of their wires has evolved over the years, but it’s possible. They do tend to use a more tailored, narrow wire than some of the other brands. Might be in addition to their love of stretch lace why I don’t get on with the fit of Panache as much.
Tutti Rouge only entered the market a few years ago, and there have been numerous changes to the fit and shaping. As a smaller, newer company, it’s much easier to make the change. For a larger company with an established market, changing something as important as the shape of an underwire could alienate a lot of their current customers.
There’s a cost to developing and sampling and fitting a new wire and pattern, and the adage, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. There are certainly some improvements that can be made, but it’ll take a long time to change the direction of a large player in the industry.
Another reader question: What happens between GG and H? G and GG are very common stopping points for designers. Does the demographic seem to drop off sharply? Is it just that little extra weight necessitates a design overhaul?
G and GG are those magical sizes where things start to change. At this point, if you weren’t using heavier gauge wires, you’ll need to strongly consider it. Your fabrics will need to be fit for purpose, ensuring they are strong enough to lift and shape a full-bust, and those strap elastics better be good quality and of a lower stretch.
About grading: there were some H+ theories shared with me during my studies, but it’s not something I’ve been able to attempt and prove, or confirm. These are some of the most guarded industry secrets. There is a method of grading bras in A-D/DD cups, we call it symmetrical grading. From the point of the bust the pattern tends to grow equally at the centre front, and under the arm. In DD – G/GG cups, it is asymmetrical grading where the balance is focused more heavily on the outside of the cup, in order to keep the point of bust more central, so we don’t get that ‘East-West’ shape. The discussion I was having with someone on H+ grading was rather than the wire and bra cradle getting wider, the cup would just get deeper.
Grade rules will only go so far, and then you have to readjust. We can’t take an E or F cup and just keep grading until we get to H, HH, J, JJ, K…there has to be a size break in there somewhere where we start doing things a bit differently. This size break from the D/DD pattern we ended with at our core sizing, is going to top out at the G or GG cup size. We’ll then have to readjust the pattern slightly, apply new grade rules and sample and fit our garments. It’s a whole new size range to consider, and some of the components will differ as well.
Another thing is yes, the demographic does drop off, and yes, sharply. I discovered this through my market research for my final collection at uni, as well it’s been confirmed by my new employer who sells only large cups, and has for years. There are a lot of F, FF, G, GG figures out there, lots of H’s too, but they start dwindling quickly at HH and above. Now, I know that the options are limited, so some of of these women may be in the wrong size and can’t get the H, HH, J, JJ bra they need. Working at Bravissimo, I felt like a LOT of the women I fit were in the GG/H range, which is what my size is (most months). Of course I had fit a lot of HH, J, JJ women, but not quite as many, and we all know that those women have so many fewer options, so it may have seemed like there were lots of them shopping at Bravissimo.
As Holly has discussed on The Lingerie Addict, the H+ bra market is a particularly challenging one. Her article and the comments that followed touched on the difficulties faced by retailers, manufacturers, and consumers trapped in a cycle of confusion, misinterpreted feedback, high degree of difficulty coupled with a high return rate, economic hardships, and more. Not that I’m expecting you to solve everyone’s problems (that would entail magically producing perfectly fitting GG+ bras in every size and shape to suit every budget), but if/when you look towards launching your own brand, where do you see yourself? Do you think you’ll focus on a particular demographic? A particularly underserved niche?
It’s really tough to think where I’d focus my brand. I want to help everyone. Everyone! The market is lacking bras for small busted women with small bands AND large bands, large cup bras are more incredibly rare, and expensive in North America, post-surgery options are lacking, and bra fit education is dismal in most countries around the world. I’d love to see a product that is more economical, yet of good quality, in larger cup sizes. I can’t even convince my own mother to buy a better fitting bra because she’s thrifty and can’t justify the price, but she also hates underwires. We need more bras without underwires! There’s gaps all over the market that need to be filled. Can one retailer do it all? It’s an investment in inventory like no other!
I design for myself. What I would want to wear. I want to invest in good quality pieces that fit and shape and look beautiful. Invest is the word. I’m not aiming for luxury, but it’d be a small investment, like a good pair of leather shoes. This wanting to buy a good quality bra in a large cup size for $30 – $40 is just not going to happen in North America any time soon.
I would want my product to be accessible to anyone, so it is important that it’s economical, but it also wouldn’t be cheap. This means that having a more minimalistic approach to design and choosing quality and fit over fashion.
Are there any retailers, either online or brick-and-mortar, who you think do a good job of buying and selling GG+ styles? In my experience (with the exception of Bravissimo), D-G sizes are becoming increasingly easy to find in-store, but G+ styles usually tend to be bland, beige, and banished to a back room. What do you think would make the retail experience more valuable and enjoyable for the GG+ consumer?
This is another toughie! I think retailers are doing the best they can with what’s out there on the market. There’s some big players in the UK – Freya, Fantasie, Panache that have done GG+ cups now for a number of years. While I was doing my research, Curvy Kate had a tremendous amount of name recognition in larger cup sizes and has established a strong foothold in the GG+ market in only a few years. The fit has been improved over the last few seasons, thanks to a DMU graduate from a few years back. This brand will get stronger and stronger.
I think a big issue is stocking the variety of sizes and styles needed for a brick-and-mortar store is becoming incredibly difficult. Having worked at a retail shop in Canada catering to all sizes with a slightly similar retail model to Bravissimo, and working at Bravissimo only focusing on D+, it’s a huge, huge investment in stock for an independent brick & mortar retailer. I really do think retailers are doing the best they can. Until something incredibly new and different hits the market, I think retailers are stocking what they can get their hands on that is quality product and has a good fit. The same goes for internet retailers who see huge return rates. I came across some statistics that anywhere from 25 – 40% of clothing bought online is returned. For online lingerie retailers, that number is much higher with averages of closer to 60% and some product lines at 70+%. I think there also needs to be some innovations in bra fitting technology or methods for people to get a better idea of what brands or styles or sizes will work best for them.
There is a lot of interest online for large cup bras from the Polish market, but they aren’t widely available. Kris Line exhibits in Paris at the Salon International de la Lingerie, and is available from a few retailers, including Bra Stop. Ewa Michalak has built quite a name for herself, and she has a past design career with Kris Line. Her bras are not widely distributed, and product is mostly ordered direct from them. She designs an incredibly large range of sizes and styles and is a true innovator. I hope to see her products more widely available.
I think as new players enter the large cup market, it’s likely that we will see them try to attempt to retail on their own. Katherine Hamilton Intimates (formerly Bosom Galore, and of no relation me) in the UK wants to expand to K cups, and appears to be positioning itself as a retailer of its own product and bespoke service. As a designer involved in developing a new collection for a retailer, I can certainly see the benefits of selling your own branded product to the end customer. If you’re wanting an EU/UK made product, which is what most indie designers are going to be doing because minimum orders in Asia just aren’t going to work, by the time you make and wholesale your product, no one will be able to afford it. The product itself will not be 4-5x better than a Freya or a Panache, but it will cost that many times more.
What are the challenges facing an independent designer who wants to focus on the GG+ market? Many core-size indies launch with easier-to-fit pieces like bralettes and accessories to build their business before expanding into wired bras. Do you think it’s even possible to bootstrap a GG+ lingerie brand as an individual, or does the manufacturing environment require partnering with an established brand?
There are challenges there for any brand that wants to develop wired bras. It’s an inventory nightmare when you think of all of the sizes that need to be produced. Factories have minimums of how many per size, style and colour they will make. If you’re only focusing on GG+ there’s still a large range of sizes to produce, and you’ll want different options for styles and colours, so you’re looking at a huge investment in stock. The alternative to that is sewing each piece yourself as needed, but then you likely can’t take returns as a designer, nor will it be as affordable as the commercial brand already widely available, and you’ll need to invest in all of the equipment to make the bra to a professional standard yourself. You need to consider the stronger wires, stronger shoulder strap elastics, which all have high minimums, and the costs add up really quick to get your designs into production. You need to have a clear path to retailing the product so there’s room for more and new product for the next season, if you’re keeping to the traditional fashion season model.
Let’s put this example together: ABC Bra Company wants to make 30 – 42F, FF, G, GG, H, HH, J, JJ & K. That’s 7 band sizes and 9 cup sizes, so that’s 63 bra sizes. Chances are, you’ll want different strap widths on your 30F vs. your 42K, as well as different widths of hooks and eyes, so more components for your inventory, each with a minimum order. Not to mention, your factory has to make, say at least 5 bras in each size, in each colour you want to produce. So, for one style and one colour, we’re looking at 315 bras, up that to two styles in two colours each, and we’re at 1,260 pieces. As an indie, can you sell all of those? Keep in mind you probably had to buy your wires in 500 or 1,000 pairs, in the 15 cross-grade sizes to make your collection. A big investment, where in some sizes, you’re only going to use a handful of the wires.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we did find a perfect manufacturing environment and you were able to begin designing your first collection tomorrow. In a dream scenario, how would you get started? Do you see yourself focusing on fit first, then fashion styles, or would you like to integrate the two from the beginning?
Ah, I’m learning so much right now about this, and I feel like I’m getting closer to laying the foundation to figuring out what my brand will be. I think my first step is to build a retail base, so likely retailing competitor product, whether that’s online or brick and mortar, I don’t know yet. It’ll allow me to understand my market and my customer a bit more and know where the gaps are and what is selling. I can then tailor my product to suit. I don’t have a particular design aesthetic, and I’m a fairly safe, commercial designer. My passion lies in getting good quality product, that fits well, into the hands of the customer, at an affordable price.
To me, fit is everything, but it has to have some style before someone will even try it on. I’d like to investigate alternative materials and detailing, like the laser cutting I did in my final collection at university. Not so many florals and feminine details, but pieces that are beautiful, timeless investments. My brand will never be fashion. Of course it would follow colour trends, but I don’t think I would ever consider it fashion. I’m too practical for that!
You’re busily working away at your current job, but what’s next on the horizons for Kimtimates?
It’s really tough to see what the future might be for me and Kimtimates. I’m in Germany on a 1-year visa, which may have me packing my bags and returning to Canada by the Fall of 2016. My life is still in the UK, with all of my supplies (any my partner!) there, so it’s a back-up plan, with a whole other set of immigration issues. The long-range plan is that I can return home to Alberta, Canada and pursue a retail-design hybrid. It’s getting pushed further down the road with the turn in the economy. It’s complex, but I need to be smart. I’ve spent my life savings on my degree. But with that said, I have some incredibly exciting ideas for products and retail concepts that I’m developing and can’t wait to share with the world one day. Truly revolutionary for this industry.
Finally, just for fun: what is your dream lingerie ensemble? This doesn’t necessarily have to be for your brand, but in terms of your personal desires– if you could wear any lingerie set in the world, what would it look like (mine involves feathers and a train, obviously)?
Oh goodness, I really like this question! I’ve not put a lot of thought into this until now! I love, love basques. I love the feel of the body, holding me in. I love stockings and suspenders as well! It’d have to be grey, that’s my favourite colour, or wait, should it be purple or teal…or maybe it could have those colours in a detailed embroidery. I don’t know!! I just picture myself dancing and twirling around the flat in a matching dressing gown in a sheer silk chiffon. Just something utterly glamorous and luxurious that I can wear time and time again.
Be sure to check out part 2, coming next week!