Bras are big business – but, while your average woman will admit to spending plenty of time and money in many a chain store lingerie department, few will put their shopping experience in the same category as buying a pair of jeans.

That’s because buying a bra has often been seen as a grudge purchase – despite the fact that manufacturers have poured millions into marketing bras and panties as sexy, feminine and even fun.

According to the statisticians, the global underwear industry is worth over $30 billion. There are no numbers for the local one. It has proved itself far more resilient than other segments of the clothing industry in general, especially during tough times, and consistently delivers higher growth.

Bras have come a long way since the constricting elasticated contraptions of the fifties and sixties. This is the era of the under wire, the push up and the padded bra. Although the standard white and skin colours linger and, behind closed doors comfort is king (or queen), bras are now brightly coloured, patterned and lacy.

This is the image that the name Satin Candy conjures up. Owner of the Kloof and Durban North stores that go by that name, Sandy Thomas, believes that it is possible to pair pretty and practical.

But, to do that, she believes it is time to go back to the very beginning. In days gone by, girls were not only measured up and professionally fitted for their first bras, but for most purchases after that. This hands on approach went out with the advent of mass production and malls, leaving many shoppers floundering in department store fitting rooms with far too many choices and little knowledge about what they should be buying.   

“It’s something that a woman has to wear every day, so why not go get one properly fitted?  If we don’t wear the wrong shoe size, why on earth would we wear a bra three sizes too small?” asks Thomas.

She says that 99 percent of the women who come into her stores are wearing the wrong bras. Not only do they need to find the right size but also the right fit. Then there’s a correct way to put on a bra too.

“We can all have the same size boobs, but we all have a different shape, so what looks good on me won’t look good on you. You can have a size F cup and size 28 chest. Also, as we get older our boobs change shape. Some girls have droopy boobs, some have got very full boobs, so we show you what helps and looks good on you. We teach you how to scoop your breasts into a bra and, once it’s on, we show you how it should look and feel and fit so that you can go into a shop and know exactly what you need.”

Even Italian designer lingerie brand La Perla has recognised the value of a proper fitting and has introduced this into some of its high end stores in fashion capitals. Back in Durban, many customers avoid going for bra fittings thinking that it will cost them extra.

Thomas enjoys “converting” department store bra buyers into customers who enjoy a more personalised shopping experience with plenty of guidance and answers to questions that many women wouldn’t ordinarily ask.

“I’m often told that bra shopping is an unpleasant and tearful experience. But women are thrilled to walk into my shop and find pretty bras in their sizes. I want every woman to have that experience,” she says.

According to Thomas, foil (shimmering fabric) is big right now and will be in store early in the New Year. Lace is also popular.

But even the prettiest bras need to tick the right boxes.

“If your bra doesn’t fit properly, your underwire starts to push into your breast tissue, which shouldn’t happen. The wire should sit flat against your breastbone in front. Your shoulder straps should never fall off. If they fall off, it means your band is too loose. If your underwire sticks out, it means your cup is too small. Your bra shouldn’t crawl up your back, it should be the same level all the way around. These are the signs that your bra doesn’t fit,” she explains.

Then she adds a little humour to what is fast becoming a highly technical topic. “Let’s say you’re an A cup. When you go to a department store, you could be looking in the training bra section and end up with one with teddy bears on it. We supply bra sizes A to N – and we still have customers who are larger than N.”

 

Thomas started Satin Candy six years ago and, since then, she’s gathered more than 8 500 regular customers.

She always thought the path to success in life was to own your own business. “Through the years, I’ve tried it all. From working at flea markets to running a dog food business and even farming! I’ve always been independent and believe in making my own luck.”

She recalls hearing the story of a friend’s daughter’s who had very large breasts and had resorted to importing her own bras in order to avoid the “ugly bra” option. “I saw a new opportunity unfolding before my eyes and, together, we began importing bras. As it turns out, there was a major gap in the market.”

Thomas began selling bras from the boot of her car. Eventually, she opened her first shop in Kloof – a small concept store, the size of a broom cupboard.

“Since then, I’ve increased the size of my shop three times and tripled my turnover. I’ve even opened a store in Durban North.”

She has also seen huge technical advances when it comes to the textiles used to manufacture bras. These offer both comfort and take care of health concerns.

Thomas’s biggest seller is currently the T-shirt bra while the market for highly specialised sports bras is one of her biggest growth areas. That’s because the health issues surrounding physical activity are being widely publicised. Continuous and repetitive movement can result in soreness, pain and sagging. Breasts have no muscle and, without proper support, they do not bounce back, she explains.

“Luckily, most new sports bras use high-tech fabrics, including moisture wicking. This can improve breathability and help remove excess moisture from sweat which can cause chafing. Cotton bras will stay wet and this can lead to uncomfortable skin irritations,” she warns.

Her product range also goes way beyond the conventional. “If you don’t want to wear a bra, you can get nipple covers or barely there, sticky bras so you can wear totally backless dresses.”

She also sells a breast shaper that sticks around the nipple and lifts the entire breast, so you can wear no bra at all.

Satin Candy also stocks Knitted Knockers, a woollen breast that fits snugly into each bra cup. The pack is given away to mastectomy patients for R50 and includes a set of knitting needles and a ball of wool with instructions on how to knit a prosthetic breast.

 

“Traditional breast prosthetics are usually expensive, heavy, sweaty and uncomfortable. They typically require special bras or camisoles with pockets and can’t be worn for weeks after surgery. Knitted Knockers are soft, comfortable, beautiful and, when placed in a regular bra, they take the shape and feel of a real breast. Knitted Knockers can be adjusted to fill the gap for breasts that are uneven and easily adapted for those going through reconstruction by simply removing some of the stuffing,” she explains.

Although Thomas loves living and doing business in Durban, she admits that it is difficult to source her products locally and she buys from across the world, especially Europe and Thailand.

“We would support local product but currently no one manufactures in South Africa,” she says.

But quality comes at a price – anything from  R299 to over R1 100. For Thomas, the idea is to provide value. “We don’t compare ourselves to department stores. We provide a different experience and our bras last because of their quality,” she says.