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Negative Underwear
Negative Underwear
Driely S. for Racked

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The Astonishing True Cost of Your Bra

The women of indie lingerie on what really goes into making your undergarments

Buying a bra can feel like a fool's game: sizes shame and seduce, with wearers running for cover(age) but blind to what they need to know. Most people go for what is common and convenient rather than what actually fits them the way they’d like. It's considered acceptable to be mildly uncomfortable; most people settle for that and call it quits. For years, the most popular bra size was 34B, but the majority of American bra-wearers don't actually fit that body type. Still, that’s the most common size purchased at the most popular North American lingerie chain: Victoria’s Secret, naturally, land of the pink, polka-dotted, and lace.

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Or rather: land of the pink lace until you hit a DD with a bigger band size. Then, a tale as old as time: beige underwires for all. And for $90, to boot.

This dilemma is threefold: 1) not only do a large swath of bra-wearers not know what constitutes "the perfect fit" (if such a thing exists), but 2) even if they do, it may not be available in their local stores, and 3) when it is, it’s often at a price point they can’t justify. They leave Victoria’s Secret or other big-box retailers in frustration.

Customers aren’t stupid, however: they know how to use Google, which can lead them to independent retailers in less than .44 seconds. The problem is that people don’t understand that the secret of independent lingerie is completely different than Victoria’s. Sure, the frustrations are the same: why is this strip of fabric that barely covers my nipples $95? Why is it not available in all cup sizes? But some issues are even more frustrating than traditional retailers: three weeks to ship? Pre-order only? What? Why? How? Excuse me?

Negative Underwear. Image: Driely S. for Racked

When I bring these complaints/concerns to the independent designer Angela Friedman, I see her shoulders square up in a practiced combination of resignation and defiance. I’m visiting her studio/apartment combination as she’s packing up to move out of state. We’re sitting at the end of a line of sewing machines and thread spools on her living room couch. Why do her bras cost, on average, $100 — twice the cost of a Victoria’s Secret one? Why don’t they come in more sizes? The list of questions goes on.

Simple: though they might be the same type of garment, the situations in which they’re produced are world’s apart. Victoria’s Secret is a billion-dollar company — the rest of the lingerie market is a slice in their pie. An independent brand is often a handful of people: not a multinational corporation. It is priced to scale. That scale, for Angela and many other smaller retailers, stretches to cover the expanse of her living room studio. Chewing on a lemon bar, she breaks down the cost of existing in the realm of lingerie.

"People look at a garment and say, ‘Oh, this is so much more than I would pay at Macy’s’ — and of course it is, it definitely is! Costs in New York to produce something are higher than costs in Bangladesh, where things in Macy’s are produced," she explains. Pricing is based on her expenses, material, labor, hourly rates, supplies, editorial costs, machinery costs — all of which are more expensive in New York. Once the item is actually sold in retail stores, there are a host of other costs. "Marketing, shipping, credit processing, packaging, website costs," Friedman lists, "In every single garment, it is your basic cost of what you actually see in the fabric, plus a little to cover overhead and expenses. And don’t forget all the taxes."

Labor Costs

Hourly local rate for:

  • Pattern cutting
  • Sewing
  • Production rate (standard for NYC)


Basic and import costs for:

  • Fabric
  • Wires
  • Trimmings, etc.

Operating Expenses

  • Catalog costs (editorial costs re: studio rental, photographer fee, model fee, pricing)
  • Overhead (rent, electricity, equipment necessary)

"I’m not even making any money from this," she concludes. We’re staring at her tables of sewing machines. She’s thrown her hands up in the air more than once explaining it all. Her years working as an independent designer in New York for no profit have pushed her to move out of the apartment we’re sitting in. In two weeks, she would be emailing me from the South, where she moved with her husband, showing me photos of her kitchen. It's the size of my Brooklyn apartment and the one next door.

I ask her, as we stare at her furniture she prepares to ship away to her new apartment, if she has any regret. The answer: no, and romantically so. "We all chose to work in this weird, niche industry where there is no opportunity, and you know, how fortunate am I? I get to do what I love every single day. That’s amazing, I’m not complaining. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not a job. It’s not a hobby…. When it is your full-time job, and it’s your only source of income, you can’t necessarily just give something away at-cost. You can’t build a business on that model. There’s a sense of entitlement when it comes to lingerie that upholds that argument. You’re not entitled to luxury goods. Lingerie is a luxury business, not a charity."

Lingerie is a luxury business, not a charity.

The idea of entitlement is something currently circling the independent lingerie industry. Karolina Laskowska, a British independent lingerie designer, expands on this idea in a popular article for The Lingerie Addict, and in an interview with me over email. In the lingerie market, she’s something of a star: she won the New Designer of the Year Award at the UK Lingerie Awards, and had enough of a fanbase to run a successful Indiegogo campaign to fund her brand for awhile. Still, a good reputation for design doesn’t mean much other than the fact more established outlets look to her and allegedly knock off her designs — like many other brands, she’s had her work copied by Nasty Gal, a little under a week after Urban Outfitters copied another independent lingerie brand, Toru & Naoko.

"There’s no point in getting paranoid about people copying you — everything is cyclical," says Laskowska. Of course she’s bothered by these things, but she has more immediate worries at the moment: how exactly to make the stuff that has her label on it sell, so she can pay her rent on time. The problems at this level are multiple: "I spent 90% of my time sewing and the other 10% on trying to grow the business. I don’t have outside funding or investment and that makes it extremely difficult to try to ‘compete’ with other brands at the same market level as me. I don’t have thousands of pounds to throw on advertising campaigns or press events. Most weeks I’m only just able to afford my rent and travel costs and any spare pennies usually get spent on fabrics for new designs."

Negative Underwear. Image: Driely S. for Racked

Laskowska wants to  support local industry, even though it sometimes costs her. The UK used to be the center of the lace industry worldwide, but now there’s only one Leavers lace manufacturer left in the whole European state. "If I sourced from Asia, costs would be down," Laskowska says, "But the quality would differ, too. And getting samples made elsewhere to your standards can often cost you 10 times the cost of the actual garment." Larger brands like Victoria’s Secret can eat that cost, place larger minimum order requirements that would cripple smaller companies, and make more mistakes — all without destroying their profit margin. The consequences of doing so for small businesses with often only one person behind the label? Catastrophic.

The slow degradation of the garment manufacturers worldwide in the UK, the US, and elsewhere have limited the options available to designers drastically, making finding and using locally sourced, ethically produced materials harder than ever.

"There’s no point in getting paranoid about people copying you — everything is cyclical."

Friedman explains it from her Upper West Side studio: "The Garment District in New York is about 3% of what it was 20 years ago. It’s a huge challenge. There are stores closing every day, vendors are leaving — that’s kind of become the norm. I moved to New York six years ago, and at that point there was still enough happening that you felt like you could do something with it. Now, the resources are so extremely limited, the factories are closed, a lot of the designers have moved elsewhere as well. It’s more intimidating, because you don’t know where to find the things that you used to be able to find."

To be able to find those fabled, perfect rolls of fabric, you have to know people. And in the business of breasts, that requires a combination of time clocked in and money rendered. There are a few new designers who have managed to do both quite well: Negative Underwear being one of them. From day one, they had press in The Wall Street Journal, customers almost immediately, and a partnership with mobile-shopping app Spring to sell directly via mobile e-commerce, the fastest-growing platform in sales today. Before they launched, they had a considerable amount of self-funding compared to the others in the field (Lauren Schwab worked in finance, Marissa Vosper in branding) — and they put in four years of research before they sold their first bra, going to trade shows abroad and building relationships as they went along. That’s a lot of initial investment that many other brands simply don’t have the bandwidth for.

What helps Negative succeed is that they launched knowing they didn’t want the lace and frills that up the base cost of their competitors' bras. Their minimalism was a smart aesthetic choice in the market, but it was also a brilliant financial one. Whereas many independent lingerie brands focus on niche, luxury frills and laces in the tradition of beautiful underthings, Negative gambled and filled in a gap of everyday minimalism. It’s working well — and they don’t have any brick and mortar stockists or outside retailers to attribute that success to.

Negative Underwear. Image: Driely S. for Racked

Their success in comparison to other brands is fascinating, particularly in light of lingerie retail trends right now, which have the odds stacked against newer brands breaking in. As lingerie boutique owner Jeanna Kadlec of Bluestockings Boutique explains it, surviving as an independent label is harder than ever before: "The trend [in retail] is towards ‘drop ship,’ which sucks for designers and cuts out much of the labor for the store; they place an order with a designer only once it's been placed with the store. There is also ‘sale or return,’ which is when stores order items from designers on condition that stores only pay for them if they sell. This is livable for larger brands — really big brands, only and exclusively, but for people without capital, it can't happen."

"I don't do drop shipping or sale or return because I couldn't carry half of the brands I stock if I did," Kadlec says. "I believe in financially supporting indies, which means paying them for their labor. This means the items have to sell before I can order new ones. Items that only sell when on sale will not be restocked. And brands that only sell on sale will not be reordered from. If I can't sell things at full cost, I will close. It's that simple."

Press nods and industry awards, don’t matter if people don’t know why precisely your bras cost so much.

Independent brands with a significant following often find themselves stuck in drop shipping hell. Press nods and industry awards don’t matter if people don’t know why precisely your bras cost so much. Even if you’re the first — and perhaps, only — brand delivering your product to the market, if it isn’t at a competitive price point, reflecting Victoria’s Secret’s (or cheaper), brands are set up to hear an earful from angry consumers. The most common complaint about up-and-coming brand Nubian Skin, a lingerie line dedicated to women of color, is that they aren’t accessible to fuller bust sizes and they sell at too high a price point (similar to Victoria’s Secret, at $60 a bra). Never mind that they are the only brand in the entire industry thus far to market entirely to women of color; women who don’t find their skin tone to be a beige shade of "nude" offered by other companies — Victoria’s Secret included.

Cora Harrington, bra expert behind The Lingerie Addict, has seen both sides of the issue blossom as a consumer and consultant to brands. As a black woman operating as a blogger in the lingerie industry, she has a particular investment in the success of the one brand that is producing bras for her skin color. "Fast fashion always offers a discount and it makes people think sales are the norm. There’s a secrecy in the American market: you should get whatever you want, this should be on sale, the customer is always right. That’s not the case in lingerie. Let’s stop this trend of penalizing minority businesses because they don’t have access to the same resources as majority-owned corporations. If your budget can only stretch to Target, petition Target to carry bras in a range of hues. Ask Wal-Mart to carry some brown bras. Hit up the H&M Facebook page, and start tweeting at Forever21. But while we’re being honest, let’s talk about what’s feasible for a new brand, and acknowledge the business reality that cheap bras are something only a few global conglomerates can actually afford. Independent design is a different world, and the story is so much more complex than it’s given due."

I’m flipping through the catalog on Journelle’s website now, looking for some bras for the fall. Knowing all of this — the struggle of designers and the reality of lingerie — does that make my wallet any more generous? Yes, actually. But I still click, faithfully and practiced, "sort from lowest price" and see my options. Admittedly, with a little less of a sigh.

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