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Building A Better Bra Market: The H+ Cup Conundrum

Image via Bravissimo

Image via Bravissimo

As the D through G market grows by leaps and bounds, the H+ cup market is limping along and falling behind. This isn't a new issue: it's discussed extensively in forums, on blogs and even in the comments around here occasionally. Today I'm going to cover this issue from all sides. Like most issues that pertain to how lingerie gets made it involves money, consumer demand, design difficulty, and international markets. I'm also going to talk about what upset consumers can do to help this part of the market thrive.

The Consumer Side:

First, let's talk about the issues. If you go to any major lingerie website, check out the availability in two representative sizes, like 34H and 34G. If we're using a site like Figleaves as an example, it's easy to see the difference. Searching for a 34G bra pulls up 24 pages of results, while searching for a 34H bra pulls up only nine pages. If you search for a 34HH (my size) bra, it pulls up only five pages. It's not just the number of bras that diminishes either, but the available styles. Colorful options disappear almost entirely, leaving only the dreaded beige t-shirt bra of doom.

Image via Ewa Michalak

Image via Ewa Michalak

So where can you buy fashionable bras in larger cup sizes? The UK and Poland. While sites like Bravissimo offer a wealth of great options, shipping is expensive and returns are even pricier. Polish companies are still offering lovely options, but there's lots lost in translation and sometimes the language barrier is enough to prevent ordering by email. If your bra doesn't fit, you're still stuck with an expensive return or getting rid of it through a swap/sell community.

This leaves consumers in a bind: if you're in the US, you're forced to choose between some pretty slim pickings and the unknown of international ordering with the possibility of zero returns.

The Retailer Side:

H+ cups and 28 band bras are actually in a similar situation for most retailers. Both categories see lots of returns and both are rarer for small retailers to come across. This means that they may not be worth stocking at all if you're a small boutique. H+ cups can be considered risky stock, which means that both online and brick-and-mortar retailers can have a harder time with them and end up with lots at the end of the season.

Image via Herroom. Part of the limited K cup expansion of Parfait by Affinitas.

Image via Herroom. Part of the limited K cup expansion of Parfait by Affinitas.

The Designer Side:

I know several designers personally who would love to expand their range to include K cups --- and can't because none of their retailers would be willing to stock them. H+ cup bra development is more expensive and more difficult as breast size and shape varies wildly in the larger cup sizes. From a monetary perspective, companies can't afford to spend money developing a new style or expanding into a range that will most likely sell fewer bras than their current bestseller in a new fashion color.

Potential Solutions:

While negotiations between brands and retailers are complex, there are some things we can do as consumers to show that there is demand for these bras.

  • Don't wait for the sale! One way to show demand for a specific bra is to buy it right away instead of on sale. I love sales as much as the next person, but a sale bra is a bra that is risky stock.
  • Show demand in small boutiques. Small boutiques can be great stockists for new brands. The great ones are also pros at listening to what their customers want, so make sure to talk to them about the sizes you want to buy and to special order them if possible through the boutique.
  • Social media can be a powerful tool to communicate with companies both large and small. Use it. Let companies know what you'd like to see in your size, whether that's leopard print or plain white t-shirt bra.

What kinds of bras would you like to see in the H+ cup market? Where are you currently buying your bras?

Holly Jackson

The Full Figured Chest provides creative and elegant copywriting for the high end lingerie industry.

32 Comments on this post

  1. Laura Henny says:

    As a Dutch girl that moved to New York City and has a 34H, I was so disappointed with the choices you can find in Brick and Mortar stores in this cosmopolitan city. Online shopping is not really an option for me because I have to try on 5 bras to find the right fit.
    In Amsterdam it is hard to find anything nice, but easier then here, I discovered. I thought that a city like New York would have everything but that is not the case.
    Because of that I just opened a Lingerie boutique in Bushwick, Brooklyn called The Rack Shack. For now I have 28A until 38HH and waiting for my Panache shipment to arrive and then I’ll have until cup 38J.
    I agree that it is a big risk for a Brick and Mortar stores to carry such a brought size range. I just opened two weeks ago and am terrified.
    On the other hand I don’t really understand that Brick and Mortar stores can’t at least offer some styles. If it doesn’t really sell, it is a one time investment. That way you even have for that one customer with the 28HH some choices and that way you may have gained a new regular.
    I am a new-bee in the retail/lingerie industry and maybe these are very naive thoughts but for now I am idealistic and hopeful that I can help a lot of ladies to find cute bras in difficult sizes.

  2. Vicki McCrary says:

    I’ve been thinking about full bust and plus full bust . Goddess Lingerie has successfully brought their bras to N cup . I know they are geared toward plus size bands , but a lingerie brand could successfully do the same with 34 / 32 band and under to N cup or more in the U.S.

  3. Sophisticated Pair says:

    As a retailer and H+ customer, I find so much to love with this article. Jeanna who owns Bluestockings Boutique said in a recent post (and I paraphrase) that she can’t keep sizes around for representation sake when they do not sell. This is something every retailer will face at one point. Our desire to help and fit everyone becomes at odds with the very demanding needs of slim profit margins, large overhead, and slow turnover rate. As much as I would love to carry every single size in our store, I simply can’t justify it at the moment, nor can I justify carrying multiple products in sizes we see so rarely. There are some seriously underrepresented markets out there (whoever mentioned 28B is spot on, for example), and it’s essential to show support of good products by purchasing them at full price. Now, having said that, I also think in some of these markets, there’s a cyclical problem where manufacturers products are *not* what they need to be for the price in terms of fit, and when people only purchase them on sale or not at all, manufacturers then judge the demand as not being high enough to justify the size. So, they either make no changes or cut back what they offer. Opening a dialog between retailer, consumer, and manufacturer can really help everyone bring about change, but consumers need to be ready to show support when good products become available.

  4. Penny says:

    I just resign myself to shopping ONLINE from the UK and wait for Royal Air Mail to bring me my bras. The site is correct, the Polish or Lithuanian companies bill in US dollars to make the conversion easier and sometimes offer free shipping, but there unless you’ve physically shopped in Poland or Lithuania (as I have in the UK) you’re pretty much guessing as to fit, and stuck with whatever you ordered if it doesn’t fit right. Another issue is why the H+ cups are never on any kind of decent SALE or clearance. As for the comment that you can’t find weird colours in H+ sizes, check Nordstrom Rack. On their clearance racks, that’s ALL you find. I was beginning to wonder if these bras I get at the Rack, even COME in normal beige, black or white so I went in to the nearest Nordstrom regular store to see. The worst part of the pricing is, it seems that the H+ cup sizes are in the brands that just happen to cost more – not the cheap “drugstore” brands sold at Target, Wal-Mart or K-Mart. Even Sears, JCPenney or Macy’s don’t seem to carry the brands that come in H+ cups or they don’t stock the H+ cups. The best I can do even at Kohl’s is a Lilyette minimizer in a 38G cup. (I’m a 36H).

    • Vicki McCrary says:

      Walmart has Urban Intimates to G cup In store . Target has Curvy Studio to H cup online , and they may be in store now. Curvy Studio is a sister sub brand of Curvy Couture. Kohl’s Online has Parfait , and Curvy Kate

  5. Laura says:

    Sure, but how is this NOT body shaming at an economic level? It’s frustrating that you’re essentially shrugging your shoulders and going “oh well, capitalism!” instead of acknowledging that the lack of availability hurts people and offering additional advice other than “make more money”.

    • Cora says:

      What kind of additional advice would you recommend? That’s not a sarcastic question. I’m just curious about what your solution would be to the very real economic pressures presented in this piece.

      Lingerie businesses are not charities. They are capitalist enterprises that need to make a profit. Acknowledging that fact isn’t about “shrugging your shoulders.” Instead, it is essential to understand that piece if you want to have a comprehensive conversation on the sizing issue. Because when companies are looking at where to spend their money for the next season, they’re looking at what made them the most money this season.

      If the other side of the conversation is, “You should just make these products in these sizes at a loss and sell them at a loss” (which, I’ve found, is genuinely what some people seem to think), no business owner is going to for that. Because that is the definition of self-sabotage. I would genuinely like to hear what your additional advice is – for manufactures, retailers, and consumers – on this issue.

  6. Stacey says:

    While this was a great article, it can be difficult for the H+ market to buy full price bras, I’m a 36HH living in Australia and if I head into a local store I can usually expect a price of $80-100 AUD for a single pair of bras. Basically when I need a new bra I have to give up something else to afford it at full price, it makes it pretty appealing to wait for a sale.

    • Cora says:

      I totally understand what it’s like to be on a budget, and I buy many of my bras on sale. However, I think it’s also important to talk about how that influences what retailers choose to carry and what brand choose to make. The industry piece is a necessary part of this conversation. It’s absolutely your right to only buy bras in your size on sale, for whatever reason. It doesn’t need a justification. At the same time, companies are going to make decisions that are the most likely to result in profits for them. After all, they are in business. And if bras in a a particular size grouping are only moving when they’re on clearance prices, then companies understandably look at that data and wonder if that’s the best investment of their resources.

  7. Krista says:

    Thanks, Holly. This was a great read! Lots of great perspectives, too. It’s really difficult to balance consumer needs and business profit. Cora raises some really great points that add to the complexity of the issue.

  8. Laura says:

    So is there ANY good news here? It’s extremely discouraging to literally here over and over and over again “nothing for you because it’s too hard and too risky and oh well maybe you should get plastic surgery or lose weight you fatty” (okay maybe not that last part but that’s pretty much what it feels like after hearing it so much.

    It’s 2014 and you’re telling me that I have to spend $80-200 USD on a 40I bra for at least 2-3 years so that the industry pays attention?

  9. Ms. Pris says:

    As to where I get my bras: I usually get them on eBay, and usually from UK lingerie shops who have a presence there. I do however sometimes buy from Bravissimo or Figleaves, if they have something that fits me. Lately I’ve bought some through Amazon.

    I would love to patronize locally-owned bra shops; supporting local businesses is a big deal to me. But most of them don’t carry anything that fits me. I will sometimes do a special order, but because I am very hard to fit, I really need to be able to try a bra on BEFORE I order it, and most shops won’t give refunds, just store credit, if a special order doesn’t work out. Thus far, I have not yet found a bra that fits me at any local bra shop. If I did, I would buy it, and pay full price if I could.

  10. astrid says:

    I’m not US-based, so that might impact my opinion, but based on my personal experience and discussions with my readers (most of them in the J+ cup range), I don’t believe the “buying on sale only” phenomenon is typical of larger cups. As someone who has bought full bust bras since I was a teenager, I’m used to pay good money for it. It’s only recently that I’ve had access to cheap bras around my size on ebay or brastop. Still, I’m more likely to support my local boutique (provided they have something for me) or a retailer like Bravissimo, which has a history of supporting women like me. My guess is that someone who got re-fitted from a 34D to a 30F is more likely to complain about the price of bras that someone who’s been outside of straight sizes all their life. I (and lots of women in the very large cup sizes) am thrilled when I find something that works and I know better than to wait for the sale, because it might sell out by then. Whenever Bravissimo has introduced a style up to an L cup, it has sold out in those sizes long before the sale. Anything in K+ tends to sell out fast.
    I try and support designers and manufacturers who produces larger cups by purchasing at least one item and mentioning them in social media and/or on my blog.
    As far as small boutiques go, to me the appeal of a brick and mortar store is to be able to try a variety of styles in my size. I’m ready to pay extra for that. But if they must special order anything I might want to try, I usually go for a cheaper option.

    • Evija says:

      And, to add, I started out as an unknown size back when Mum bought me some (I was the first one in my 3rd grade class to wear a bra), and since we weren’t at all a rich family, even as a teenager and even with me working part-time and summers, my choices were, generally speaking, limited to 36 and 38 B/C cups (80-85 European), and I got somewhat frequent “Dear-why-dont-you-get-a-bra-that-fits” comments from my then-boyfriend. More due to the lack of fitters and education on the matter.
      It was only around my 18th b-day when I some spare money of my own and decided to order some lingerie from the Internet, but no Bs were available in a 38 back.
      So I went for a 38C and then, with Internet on hand, and lots of added research realized that yup, the so-called “bralphabet” is much larger. I did “splurge” on that set for my 18th birthday, but, considering the incredible amount of knowledge that just sort of snowballed around that experience, that damn set was worth much more than it actually cost. I can’t remember, yes I might have gotten it on sale (or a special offer, more likely), yes whatever; I’m still loyal as hell to the brand simply because they make such epic things and run such awesome concepts I *am* willing to scrape the last of my money and to get all falcon-y on times when I *can* afford it.
      Naturally, it’s very understandable when people get frustrated over how much things cost, we’ve all been there!!!! Luckily, even though we all have bills to pay, I do think we *all* have the power to educate the community of, well, anyone who has a set (mind you – NOT a pair) of breasts that the person wants to cover.
      TL;DR = went from 36B/C -> 38C -> somewhere around DD -> now a 34H/HH most likely. Still happy, because even at hardest times, I do know anyone can find anything with patience and research.

  11. strangedays says:

    A H+ cup friend of mine who recently moved from Canada to England has lamented the fact that all these years, she would’ve spent significantly less money on bras if she’d just gone on bra shopping trips to England (~ $1300 return flight). That’s how much cheaper and how much more widely available her size is over there as compared to here. Sad.

    • Cora says:

      Well…in fairness to retailers, part of the cost in bringing bras over from England to North America has to do with duties and import taxes and the value of the dollar as compared to the value of the pound. Those costs can add up quickly, and companies can’t just eat them as they affect the already narrow profit margins that exist in the lingerie industry. You see similar markups in American brands sold in Europe; a big chunk of that increased cost is money that’s sent to the government.

    • Catherine says:

      As a rough guide, for every bra we import to the UK, we pay an extra 30% to the government which we pretty much have to pass on to the consumer. Additionally the cost of transport has gotten so expensive, so for example for some of our styles, transport from the factory to the UK is half the cost (and yet its still cheaper than making in the UK!). I’m less sure of the figures the other way round but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if most governments charge similar figures, and if anything we’ve found that transport from and around the US and Canada are actually more expensive.

      Free trade is a myth and logistics are a pain in the rear end :D

  12. Shana says:

    I can’t help thinking that part of the reason there are more returns in the sub-28 bands and H+ cups is due to poor scaling on the part of manufacturers when they make those sizes. I usually wear a 32J in UK sizes, but I’ve been migrating towards Polish brands because it’s so hard to find UK bras that are narrow and projected enough for me. Freya tends to run narrow in smaller sizes but gets super wide and shallow when you get to J-cups, even moreso than some Panache bras. I used to buy 34HH but the bands stretched out too quickly, and for some reason, many bras actually have cups that are *wider and shallower* and even sometimes have wider-set straps in a 32J than a 34HH, when it should be the opposite. I think similar problems with scaling tend to occur in 28, and especially in 26 bands with wires and strap-placement scaled improperly for smaller rib cages, leading to lots of returns.

    • Cora says:

      You are right. Scaling becomes more of an issue the further a brand moves away from the pattern a range is built on. And also, once you start getting into H+ cups, you need to create a new pattern. All of that represents money, time, and labor that contributes to the delay in getting brands at the tails of the size range (in either direction, both small and large) to market.

  13. Hannah says:

    While I can understand the frustration at not being able to find pretty bras in your size, I am rather jealous that when you search 34HH you come up with 5 pages. I have both a small band size and cup (28b) and can’t even search my size in most retailers. Even companies like Lula Lu that cater to small busts do not make 28 bands. The only US based company I can find that carries my size in the Little Bra Company.
    I suspect that part of the issue with my size is that many of the people who have both small bands and small cups are even younger than me and with even less disposable income than me (I’m a student in my 20s) and companies have a hard time making a profit. However, at the same time, I know people who thought that 32A was the smallest bra size and would have liked a smaller size, so I think the market for smaller bras has the potential to grow, but I’m running out of patience.

  14. Cora says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this! I think it’s also important to note that brands talk to each other.

    If a company tries a 26 band or an H cup and it doesn’t sell (or it gets a lot of complaints/returns), the takeaway for other brands won’t be “Oh hey, we should try this size range too.” It’ll be, “This is a risky market that could ruin our bottom line.”

    Lingerie brands, like any other type of business, need to make money. When the most vocal and visible consumers in a particular size range are talking about how they never pay full price, never buy from boutiques, or never purchase from the websites that move the most product, companies notice. And that’s a signal to them to stay away.

    I also want to mention that it takes at least 2 years to bring a bra from development to market (and then about 6 months after market for that bra to reach customers). That timeline is for ideal circumstances (i.e. no hiccups of any kind). So consumers also need to be patient with brands. I’m already looking at product that’s going to be at market 2 seasons from now (roughly 1 year), which means it’s been in development for the past six months…maybe even longer. And these are continuity items!

    That means if you’ve just now approached a brand about expanding their size range, it would be completely unreasonable to expect them to have something brand new for you within the next year. Bras, particularly in the higher cup sizes, are a feat of structural engineering. They take time, more time than the average customer thinks, to develop.

    Anyway, like I said, I’m so glad you wrote this.

    • Holly says:

      Both of these are extremely good points! I also think new brands need to be willing to rethink their assumptions about the full bust market – look at how many changes Tutti Rouge made from season one to season three. They literally reinvented their bras in a way that worked for more people in terms of shape and sizing. While I have no idea what their sales statistics are, I would bet large amounts of money that they’re selling better now than the old models did. Curvy Kate did something similar even after they were established to capture more of the market and it was really smart.

      I’ve heard stats from several companies that it took 4+ years to develop good bras in larger cup sizes, so it really is an expensive and demanding task. And there’s no reason to do it unless you believe you’ll sell them. You make a great point about brands working on things for a long time and not talking about them. Look at how Parfait by Affinitas released those limited K cup models with almost no buildup! They’d clearly had them in the works for ages but hadn’t talked about them or said they were working on them. Patience is definitely a huge part of it.

      • Cora says:

        Curvy Kate and Parfait by Affinitas are both great examples! They’re also very large brands with tremendous manufacturing and purchasing power. And even with a practically guaranteed client base, it still took them a long time to make changes and bring new sizes to market. More than anything else, this reinforces how much patience is key with smaller brands.

    • Ms. Pris says:

      It’s too bad that getting a lot of complaints/returns doesn’t inspire labels to do a better job in the supposedly unusual sizes, rather than just deciding to scrap it completely.

      If a size range gets a lot of sales, that should tell brands that there’s a market for it. If it gets a lot of complaints and returns, that should tell them they are doing it wrong.

      • Cora says:

        There’s a few moving pieces here, and I kind of want to address them separately.

        First of all, I can understand your point of view, and I think if resources were unlimited, more brands would probably do that. But all it takes is a bad season or two for a lingerie company to go under. If they’re making a product which gets a lot of returns, not only does that product represent a loss for that season, it also means even more losses if they invest money into fixing it and it still doesn’t sell because, say, everyone thinks it’s “too expensive” (a complaint I see very often when it comes to full bust bra pricing).

        A high returns rate also makes it less likely for a brand to find stockists for future seasons. No retailer is going to carry a product with a high return rate. It costs them money and it devalues their brand. So even if the bra is redesigned and comes back 100% perfect, it may not get any orders due to issues from previous seasons. Not every brand offers direct sales, remember, so the stockist pipeline is essential for getting a new product to consumers.

        In addition, a “lot of sales” is a very subjective number. Despite how vocal certain segments of the bra community are on the internet, many of the sizes they share still represent a very small percentage of overall sales. And that small percentage can’t be explained away as “everyone is in the wrong size.” From a company’s perspective, it makes more sense to go after say, the 60% of their market that’s bringing in all the sales, as opposed to the 10% of their market that’s not making any.

        Finally, full bust bra creation is expensive, and I think a lot of consumers don’t know that. It’s not about just grading up your 34B if you’re a standard size brand or your 34DD if you’re a full bust brand. You need new patterns, a new design team, new materials, new factories, and new stockists. That represents a significant investment. Every company doesn’t have access to that kind of capital to take on those kinds of risks. There’s a reason you’re seeing size expansions from vertically integrated companies like Ewa Michalak, Curvy Kate, and Affinitas first…controlling the factories lets you take more risks. A company that’s outsourcing their production just doesn’t have that kind of wiggle room. They need to make things that they know are going to sell so they can finance the next season.

  15. Kim Hamilton says:

    As someone who borders on the H+ fence frequently – I know this issue well. I’m a lingerie student at De Montfort in the UK and I would like to specialize in H+ sizes for my final project this year. If there’s any H+ women in the UK who would like to be involved, please contact me through my Facebook design page (search ‘Kimtimates’). Thank you!

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