A curious anomaly exists in my world of underwear. UK-based lingerie brands pretty much dominate the busty women category. Curvy Kate is one such brand, servicing cup sizes D to K(D12) and band sizes 28 to 44. It’s also a brand that focuses on fun, fit, and feeling fabulous.
I remember being in New York’s Jacob Javits Center with members of my buying team about four years ago. I spied a very buxom model executing a series of cartwheels down one of the aisles wearing only a pair of panties and a strapless bra. That strapless bra never moved. I later learned she was a Curvy Kate operative. Her mission was to show off their just-launched, stay-put Luxe Strapless Bra. Well, mission accomplished! It’s now a top-selling strapless bra in our larger cup size category.
Later that day, Curvy Kate’s owner found me and asked that I stop by. Steve had someone he wanted me to meet. I arrived, and there she was, his new Head of Design, Olivia Wilson.
Since meeting Olivia, the Curvy Kate product offerings have become more elevated and clever. And you, our HerRoom customer, have noticed too. So, it is my pleasure to introduce you to a major talent in the lingerie design world. Her story is unique and her approach to design is refreshing.
TOMIMA: How did you get into the lingerie designing industry?
OLIVIA: I was born into an extremely creative family living in Leicester, England. It’s the epicenter of the UK’s lingerie manufacturing and is also where the first-ever corsetry training course was created back in the ’50s. Today, it’s evolved into a three-year university degree teaching all the technical aspects of contoured garments – bras, swimsuits, sportswear, and corsetry. I also completed an art foundation course where I discovered that I loved life drawing and experimenting with textiles. I’ve always found the female form fascinating and grew up surrounded by the lingerie industry, so my career path in contour garments seems natural in a way.
TOMIMA: What was your journey that landed you at Curvy Kate?
OLIVIA: Following my degree, I moved to China in 2006 to work in the Bogart Lingerie factory. This is where I truly started to understand the complexities and opportunities in manufacturing lingerie. I was exposed to the full spectrum of fabric development, lace engineering, cup molding, sewing techniques, bonding, sonic welding, laser edge cutting, pattern layout, and cost efficiencies associated with product production.
A lucky break moved me to Hong Kong to work for UK-owned Triumph International’s design team where we developed private label products for the England-based Marks & Spencer department stores. This is where I developed my commercial design handwriting.
Homesick, I found an opening developing full-busted products for UK-based Debenham’s department stores, so I moved back to the UK. My next design position was joining the Elomi design team, where I had the great fortune of being mentored by the legendary lingerie designer, Liesl Goodman, for several years. I also spent some time with their wonderful Freya brand team, as well.
Before making my leap over to Curvy Kate, I took some time to become a lecturer for the Contour Fashion Course which I had attended 15 years earlier. I very much enjoyed “paying it forward” and imparting my industry knowledge to the young, new, creative minds who were just fizzing with ideas and questions.
TOMIMA: How do you approach a new Curvy Kate bra style, and are you part of that process?
OLIVIA: Curvy Kate designing is a huge collaboration. Our design team contains women of all shapes and sizes. We have employees and fit models who also participate to ensure consistency in our product sizing.
Once a product concept is confirmed, we begin our 12-month fitting process. If the concept is more complicated (e.g., sleep bra, continuity bra), our timeline changes to 18 months.
Our beginning “base size” is a 32GG(D7), as it’s a sister-size to our best-selling bra size of 34G(D6), and is also the size of our favorite fit model, Phoebe. We then obsess through many rounds of fit-perfecting and wear-testing, which includes daily washing and wearing. This helps us assess the fabric’s performance and comfort. And, this tedious and repetitive process really pays off, as we have several times been able to identify big design change improvements.
With our perfected base size, we now must grade our pattern to create the other sizes that will be made. Our size offering is very wide, so this means creating up to 102 different bra sizes. Again, we go through rounds of fit and wear testing with our army of participants until we obtain 100% fit approval. Once production is complete, we request a full size range be sent to our offices, where our rather famous Fitathon happens. This gives our staff the opportunity to try on the new style, become familiar with it, and learn how to correctly advise our customers.
TOMIMA: Are there any new design concepts we should be looking for from Curvy Kate?
OLIVIA: Our customers are very trend conscious. When they see something new in smaller bra sizes, they then demand that newness from us. Our Girls Night category is our solution for this fashion-forward customer. To achieve the trend in larger sizing, we have a toolbox of hidden elements we turn to, like a lightweight, non-stretch, rigid, net liner, or a specially developed plunge wire that keeps breast tissue forward, or even a special foam thickness to maintain cup shape.
Recently, we are finding our design work pivoting more towards comfort products. We recently launched the Wonderfull 4 Part Bra that has a Cushion Comfort™ tab on the ends of each wire. It’s been quite successful for us. We are also creating more non-wired bras with a great look and fit. They require very specific materials: with soft yet firm underband elastics and technically complicated inner construction to achieve great support and a great shape under clothing.
TOMIMA: In your stats (above), you claim to wear two bra sizes. This is quite interesting. Can you elaborate?
OLIVIA: Yes. On those days when I know I’ll be in front of my laptop, travelling or generally sitting, I opt for a 32E(D3). It offers me enough support while feeling like my bra is barely there. On the days when I might be presenting, attending an event, needing extra support, or want my optimal silhouette under my clothing, I opt for a 30F(D4); especially in a strapless or a solutions bra like our Superplunge Bra when I need a low back or am using the halter/multiway strap options.
TOMIMA: Do you have a personal favorite Curvy Kate bra style?
OLIVIA: Personally, I am a huge fan of our Lifestyle Sheer Plunge Bra. It’s a product I wish I had designed, but I have my predecessor Charlotte Davies to thank for this one! On my days off, if I am relaxing at home, I have recently been wear-testing our new Get Up and Chill bralette, which is so comfortable, I barely know I have it on! HerRoom will be shipping this style in October.
TOMIMA: How do you keep your designs exciting with each new season?
OLIVIA: It is impossible to get bored with product design. There is always a new fabric, manufacturing innovation, fashion trend, or print technique to look for. And most importantly, our customer feedback never stops! We also design into many different spirited categories, so if I’m in the creative flow I might choose to devote time to a new style we are designing in our Scantilly category. I always cherish a technical challenge, so may opt to further research an innovation for a new continuity style (a basic bra offering always available in black and latte). Or, an exciting new color crosses my desk that inspires me to create a fashion style for a season. One of our core values at Curvy Kate is ‘always be better’. It drives our design process. Every day we tackle new issues and our team is passionate about finding solutions.
TOMIMA: Is it true that once a Curvy Kate bra style is on the market, no future design changes are made?
OLIVIA: Curvy Kate never changes a style once launched and in production. If we weren’t happy with it, we would not have launched it in the first place. I’m not saying every product is absolutely perfect, but should we identify an improvement, it will be implemented in a brand-new product with a new style number. We know our customers buy the same style year-after-year and they should expect it to always fit the same.
TOMIMA: What causes a Curvy Kate bra style to be retired?
OLIVIA: We have categories within the Curvy Kate collection. Our continuity category includes products that are always available in basic colors and will be around for many years. These products will run until we decide they either need a refresh or the sales start to show a steady decline
Our fashion category will launch for a specific season and include colors which are key to that season. These seasonal products and colors naturally retire as the season changes.
TOMIMA: Does a strapless bra have design limitations sizewise?
OLIVIA: At Curvy Kate, we offer up to a 40J(D10) in both our Luxe and our Smoothie Strapless bras.
We developed a new mold for our recent Smoothie Strapless bra. Having now worked with this mold, I feel confident it can be used to make larger cup sizes. So, stay tuned….
In general, as long as the underband of a strapless bra is firm, it’s all about the sturdiness of the cup material and the cup shape. I tailored the new Smoothie cup shape to put more breast volume higher than the natural breast position. Its finished silhouette is, therefore, nicely lifted and forward.
I don’t believe there are limitations in bra design. With the right materials, engineering and time, anything is possible!
TOMIMA: How are the bras you design today different from the first bra you designed?
OLIVIA: This is a fun question for me. I entered and won a design competition sponsored by Topshop (a multinational fashion retailer). They subsequently produced and sold it in their stores. It was sized S, M, L and was a boho-inspired silk bralette with a beautiful wild floral print and ruffled underband. I was still a student when I won and knew very little about bra fit and function; winning was pure naïve pleasure!
Fast-forward to today and I’m currently working on a front closure, padded plunge product for Curvy Kate called Superplunge Kiss, which will be available up to a HH(D9) cup. This bra is designed to have ‘easy, throw on, do it up at the front and go’ appeal, but there is a lot of technical work that goes into its fit success. In my experience, front closure bras only work with a super low center front, so the wires can still be brought close together to achieve forward projection.
My design handwriting has evolved and adapted quite a bit as my knowledge of fit has grown. My construction, seam positioning, material choice, and proportion have developed. I enjoy developing technically challenging products that the customer views as simple, understandable, and uncomplicated.
TOMIMA: What customer complaints do you hear that you simply can’t fix?
OLIVIA: Our customer feedback can sometimes feel a bit like yin and yang. Yin wants fashionable looking styles with skimpy straps, less coverage, but also great uplift and support. Yang demands more substantial components, taller sides and back, and more coverage. There is never going to be one product that can satisfy both.
To address our variety of customer wants and desires, we work hard to offer three types of products.
1. “Everyday” products are timeless and modern, often available in neutral colors and a fashion color hit each season.
2. “Solutions” are products designed to also solve problems. They are the “go-to” staples in your lingerie drawer. Our Smoothie molded range includes an amazingly uplifted and supportive strapless bra. Our multiway style, Superplunge, answers the demand for a low back solution and goes up to a J(D10) cup!
3. “Girls Night” is our fun, fashion-forward category offering sassy styles with lower coverage and lighter support.
Our most common customer complaints occur when she has simply purchased the wrong size. We try to counter this by offering as much information as possible about how the band and cup should fit (e.g., firm band, encapsulated breast). To HerRoom’s credit, their team really knows their products and how they fit. So, HerRoom is a great resource for me. Every day I read customer product reviews on both HerRoom and our Curvy Kate site. And, I’m always interested in your Tomima Tips.
TOMIMA: Thank you!
TOMIMA: What is a full-figured woman’s capsule lingerie wardrobe?
OLIVIA: 1. An everyday lightweight underwire bra. Victory and Lifestyle bras have been in our collection for many seasons now. They are reliable and comfortable for all-day wear. I also love the new Daily collection, from our Girls Night category, for its ease.
2. For our fuller customer, wanting everyday support, I would recommend our wonderful Superplunge Multiway Bra, and either our Luxe or Smoothie Strapless bras. These styles are essential for your outerwear that demands a different neckline.
3. And, of course, a lingerie drawer deserves plenty of pretty, indulgent lingerie. My personal choices would be the Scantilly Indulgence Stretch Lace Bodysuit and Unzipped Plunge Bra which work great throughout the size range.
TOMIMA: What lingerie product are you still trying to master to perfection?
OLIVIA: This is why I can never be bored with designing, because there is always so much more to do: perfect, reflect, and do it even better with new materials next time.
I take inspiration from films, exhibitions, music, and books. However, I have a recurring vision from the folktale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The story is all about being fooled due to pride, but the concept of being adorned in an imaginary fabric lingers in my mind. I would love to create an ethereal piece of lingerie that feels lighter than silk on the body and effortlessly supportive, thus creating ultimate comfort that feels (and possibly looks) invisible.
I was delighted that Olivia shared with us that she wears two bra sizes. I do, as well, and for somewhat similar reasons. There has been this long-standing statistic floating around in the media that 70%, 80%, or even more of you are wearing the wrong bra size. Well, the correct size for you should ultimately be determined by you.
I’m an avid reader of all your product feedback. I’ve noticed that around the age of 60, many of you are opting into bras that are wirefree with more coverage. And, you are also increasing your band size. I’ve discovered why; you’re trying to find more comfort and reduce skin bulges which inevitably appear due to loss of skin elasticity.
Wirefree bras have come a long way in recent years with much improved support. But, your ultimate silhouette will always be achieved with an underwire. Bras with more coverage and devoid of any “thin” features do reduce bra lines and thus bulges. However, moving up a band size reduces your breast support. Going up too many band sizes will also cause your bra to creep up your back. So there are trade-offs between comfort and support with a bra size change.
Having two bra sizes – one for comfort and one for an optimal silhouette – is a great solution. So, how do you do this? Both Olivia and I sister size up in our bands from our optimal bra size. For example, you look best in your 40D, but you can move to a 42C for more comfort but with relaxed breast support. When you move up a band size, you also need to move down a cup letter to maintain your same cup volume. And, it’s a fact that while sitting, your diaphragm expands. So, if you sit most of your day, a larger band size will feel better. And, this is the perfect segue into a shameless pitch for our exclusive bra, The Robin, which gives you on-body band adjustability. But read its reviews to see if it’s a bra that will work for you.
Tomima Founder & CEO HerRoom.com