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Lingerie designer Elma Valerio grew up feeling self-conscious about her small chest. Born in Japan, Valerio was raised in Hawaii, where the default outfit — a swimsuit — made her all too aware that she wasn’t as developed as other girls. She wore padded bras to hide herself, thinking that she’d fill out when she got older. But even in college Valerio felt insecure about her chest size, especially with guys; when she took off her bra, her boobs weren’t the same size as the bra.
Three years ago, Valerio solved that problem by quitting her job at a scrubs company to launch Elma Lingerie. The label caters to petite women who can’t fill out standard A and B cups with pretty, vintage-inspired bralettes and other luxe underpinnings. “It’s about removing that level of self-consciousness,” she said. “I don’t think you need to pretend to be something you’re not.”
Valerio, who studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing, makes nearly 90 percent of the garments herself by hand in her Bay Area studio. Her signature line is crafted from silk, lace, mesh, and soft knits sourced from Italy, France, India, and other places around the globe. According to Valerio, lightly padded bralettes are key for those who don’t want bumped-up cup sizes, but would like subtle shaping and nipple coverage. Most of the bras she makes come with light padding or optional lining, and some feature removable pads.
While it seems like scrubs and lingerie couldn’t be more different, Valerio says her experience designing medical wear gave her an appreciation for comfort, practicality, and durability. “My garments always have to be really comfortable,” she said. “You can wear it all day, just as you would a medical uniform.”
Part of the reason they’re so comfortable is the special attention Valerio pays to the fit needs of petite shoppers. When most traditional brands make bras for smaller sizes, they take the base size of medium and shrink it down, Valerio explained, which results in awkward proportions and cups that are too close together. Most petites “still have wide frames, but their boobs are smaller,” she said. Elma’s designs are tailored for petite proportions, providing the proper spacing needed for the right fit.
There’s an illustrated fit guide on her website for shoppers who need more help finding the right style. There’s also the option of bespoke services, should you want something crafted to your exact specifications and measurements.
Recently, Elma Lingerie has also expanded to include into sleepwear, loungewear, and bridal wear, as well as a capsule collection of more accessibly priced bras and undies made by a small factory in Philadelphia.
Valerio suggests that new customers try the factory-made Essentials bralettes ($52), the delicate handmade Adelphi eyelash bralette ($77), or the Sophie, a Y-back stunner with a front closure. Her own favorite is the Sylvia ($70), made in a soft ribbed knit with a caged back that’s a nod to vintage style. “It’s easy to wash, great for travel, and really comfortable.”
Although Elma Lingerie focuses on serving petites, Valerio has designed for customers of all sizes and shapes, including a post-mastectomy customer who didn’t think she could ever wear pretty lingerie again.
“When I’m able to help someone feel beautiful, that’s everything to me,” Valerio says.