If Lauren Schwab and Marissa Vosper had known they would spend a year trying on “every bra in every department store” in New York, standing half-naked in dressing rooms for hours, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten into the lingerie business in the first place.
But the founders of Negative Underwear, a lingerie brand that just turned one year old, had a theory they needed to test. “We had this hypothesis that women didn’t like their underwear drawers,” is how Schwab put it when the three of us met one afternoon in Washington, D.C. Surveys, more anecdotal than scientific, confirmed the hunch: women “either felt passively or negatively” about a garment just about every post-pubescent female needs to wear every single day of her life.
The University of Pennsylvania grads (they met during freshman year) were working in New York — Vosper in consulting, Schwab in finance — when that mid-twenties “what am I really doing with my life?” angst set in. So they started taking night and weekend classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and wound up in the intimates market by “looking at the fashion landscape and thinking about it from a white-space business opportunity perspective,” said Vosper. They both loved fashion and never had trouble finding ready-to-wear brands that they loved. “But we felt the world of underwear was not really the same. We always felt quite bad about the underwear brands that were available to us.”
At first, both women kept their day jobs, subsidizing their passion project with those salaries and working on what would become Negative piecemeal. Negative officially launched in February 2014; by the end of April, the two quit their jobs and committed to Negative full time. Their goal, Schwab said, is to make “something for women by women that helps women feel empowered and good about themselves.”
Go figure, most lingerie isn’t comfortable. The person designing it isn’t wearing it.
Think, just for a minute, about the casual, resigned acceptance that bras will be terrible. It calls to mind Jia Tolentino’s perfect line about her early, miserable experiences on the birth control pill: “It Sucked, I Took It Anyway: A Universal Memoir of Female Young Adulthood.” Think of Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl, rejoicing in the silver lining of being out of work: “My boobs are loving this unemployed thing. They don’t have to go to boob jail every day.”
Bras are the worst, but so is all the paraphernalia of femininity, from the mundane (tampons, high heels) to the hygienic (shaving, waxing) to the physical (childbirth, all related pains thereof). Yet it is the rare workplace or classroom that would not object to women going braless. Why is something so essential so universally disliked?
Schwab and Vosper headed to Paris to scope out lingerie trade shows only to find that they were the two of the only women in attendance. “It was certainly an eye-opener for us,” said Vosper. “It alerted us to the fact, go figure, most lingerie isn’t comfortable. The person designing it isn’t wearing it.”
Lingerie designed by men is, almost by definition, “designed for aesthetic purposes, as opposed to functional,” said Schwab, and are driven by a male fantasy of what it means to be a woman. At the trade shows, “Lauren and I would sift through thousands and thousands of fabrics that were all pink, floral, polka dots. It was the same thing over and over,” said Vosper. “That just goes to show that the industry has been dominated for so long by the notion that lingerie has to be hyper-feminized to be marketable.”
Vosper recalled the overwhelming amount of “bows and rhinestone appliques and embroidered flower collages” available to lingerie manufacturers. “We look at the contemporary girl,” a skinny-jeans-and-leather-jacket type of city dweller, let’s say. “And that girl is not wearing that.”
Part of the bra problem, as Oprah famously told us, is that over 80 percent of women wear the wrong size bra. “Because we’re all fitted at Victoria’s Secret as teens,” said Vosper. Ah, the time-honored American tradition of being dragged to the mall by your mom so a stranger can get to second base with you in a hot pink dressing room. “All the women we talked to thought they were a 34B,” said Vosper. “Clearly, they weren’t.”
Take this for whatever it’s worth, but Vosper and Schwab report that their clientele all cite unhappiness with Victoria’s Secret, listing a host of issues ranging from the lack of quality of the merchandise to the off-putting, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue definition of what it means to be sexy.
Bras are still seen as a taboo, private subject. We’ve been asking presidential candidates for decades if they prefer “boxers or briefs,” but we’d probably never ask a female candidate about her choice of bra. Because even though bras are something nearly every woman wears every day, the garments still carry with them the second-order significance of sex.
“The way lingerie has historically been marketed,” said Vosper, referencing Victoria’s Secret’s branding, “is lingerie is made to make you sexy. Sexy for someone else. Pushed-up and angelfied and blinged out. And I think that aspect of lingerie marketing made it feel like it was all about seduction and sexiness, and that’s uncomfortable.
The reality is, most women wear underwear every day because it’s functional, not because they’re trying to seduce someone.
“But the reality is, most women wear underwear every day because it’s functional, not because they’re trying to seduce someone. So if you think of underwear in a more normal light — that we’re all wearing it, and it’s normal, it’s quotidian — that’s the way we’re approaching it. Taking away that voyeuristic, lecherous side. Every girl wears underwear. You dry your hair in your underwear. You make scrambled eggs in your underwear. It doesn’t have to be about seduction on a bed. That’s part of the way we see the dialogue shifting.”
And even when a woman is looking specifically for something “sexy,” her definition of sexy doesn’t necessarily align with Victoria’s Secret’s. “There’s been a big shift in how we think about, what is sexy, what is confidence, what is the body we want to present to the world,” said Vosper. “And Victoria’s Secret hasn’t shifted much, even as the society around them has shifted quite a lot, where you see ‘fit is the new sexy’ and no airbrushing on Aeries campaigns and ‘I’m no angel’ from Lane Bryant.”
“We think, often, underwear is neglected,” said Schwab. “It’s the first layer you put on, and it can provide self-confidence and make you feel good about your body, regardless of what shape and size you are. You should feel proud.”