Meet Stephanie Devine, Founder of The Very Good Bra - a brand with a mission to create “beautiful everyday bras that are comfortable and fit well but that can be disposed of safely at end of life”.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR OWN INDUSTRY BACKGROUND AND WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO ‘FASHION’?
I started a label straight out of school with a friend which saw us showing, as teenagers, at the British Designer Collections many moons ago. I then went into the corporate world within a few years.
It was only the experience of going through breast cancer in 2006/7 that made me want to do something about the appalling lack of non-wired bras in natural fibres available to young women going through treatment. I waited until I was 5 years out and pretty confident I was clear, and then worked on creating a brand for non-wired bras that were in proper bra sizes, made in natural fibres, and great for ‘every woman’, not at all a ‘cancer bra’. I hadn’t wanted to associate with the disease as a young woman, and I was sure I wasn't alone.
I set up a company called Bras Without Wires, which was fast-tracked in 2014 to the finals of Livestrong Foundation’s BigC competition to improve the lives of people going through cancer. On the back of this I secured a backer and in 2015 went into the business full-time.
HOW DID THE VERY GOOD BRA COME TO BE? WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE BRAND?
My relationship with my first backer fell apart very quickly and I was forced to liquidate in 2016, but during that time I learned about the Circular economy and despite being devastated by losing Bras Without Wires, I realised there was a higher purpose here and an even more important idea. Having learned about the harmful effects of the apparel industry, I realised there was more to worry about than the wire, and I made it my mission to create the world’s first zero waste post-production bra. My vision is to create beautiful everyday bras that are comfortable and fit well, but that can be disposed of at end of life leaving no trace.
HOW HAVE YOUR PERSONAL VALUES SHAPED YOUR WORK?
I absolutely believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that the things we create can be disposed of safely at end of life with no environmental impact. Everything I take on starts from this premise. I didn't get to have kids after chemo so all I can leave is a legacy of creating a product that proved it could be done, and hopefully saving landfill from a few thousand bras over the course of my time here!
TELL US ABOUT YOUR DESIGN AND MANUFACTURING PROCESS?
I’m a tiny brand and I’m self-funded, so for me the way forward will continue to be crowdfunding/pre-sale. This means designing one product at a time and how it looks largely depends on the materials available to me that will be zero-waste at end of life. Simple and everyday is my focus and I’m currently working with an organic cotton knit that our local Liberty of London rep has had created for the bra which will give it some colour - very exciting!
AS A BRAND MANUFACTURING OFF-SHORE, WHAT WERE SOME OF THE KEY CHALLENGES YOU FACED WITH THE LOCAL AUSTRALIAN INDUSTRY?
Manufacturing is offshore as we haven’t had a lingerie industry here really since Pacific Brands moved offshore. There are some small factories with machines, but they don’t have the technical skills to grade a pattern in 26 sizes and ensure fit.
The main issue with lingerie is the technical skill for getting multiple sizes right. The best lingerie factories have been perfecting this for decades, it’s not like making T Shirts or jeans. We also need twin needle and zig-zag machines which most factories don’t have.
I initially made with a swimwear factory here, but I lost a whole run because they couldn't work with the materials and it was a disaster for us both.
I’d love to try and develop that here but that would also mean the bras would be prohibitively expensive, and that’s a factor. The materials I use are so expensive, I already get push back on price. So to manufacture here and double the labour cost would mean even less customers could get access to the product.
WHAT STEPS HAVE YOU TAKEN IN YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN TO ENSURE SUSTAINABLE & ETHICAL PRACTICE?
I’ve been working with my factory in China for 5 years and visit them regularly, they are family owned and they've worked hard to partner me in this crazy idea, but they understand the issues. They too have young families and are acutely aware of the environmental impact of waste in China and its consequences.
All of my materials are GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) or Oeko Tex certified, and I am meeting with Sustainable Brands in June who are working with me to get the bra certified Cradle 2 Cradle (C2C) for materials.
WHAT MATERIALS DO YOU WORK WITH AND WHY?
I currently make with Lenzing Tencel, organic cotton and tree-rubber elastic. I’ve been shown lovely bamboo, milk and soy bean fabric, all natural of course but unless someone can show me certification that says they don't involve forest clearing or caustic chemicals in production, I can’t work with them, I just can’t take the chance.
There are all sorts of developments coming through that will replace elastic and spandex, but they’re not yet commercially available to smaller brands - That will come I’m sure.
I’m attracted to recycled products and there are some great laces and meshes now available which are fantastic for prolonging a material’s life before landfill, and reducing the energy needed to create virgin materials, but for now I love the idea of things being compostable! It’s very limiting, but I only design one style at a time so it’s true ‘slow fashion’.
WASTE & CIRCULARITY IS A HUGE ISSUE IN OUR SECTOR, WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THE VERY GOOD BRA ARE APPROACHING THIS?
All my materials are botanically circular. Plus, this week we had a super outcome from commercial worm farm WormTech that has had our bra in with worms this year. The bra was consumed by the worms in 8 weeks which was fantastic news! There was some elastic left (bit chewy for the worms) but that is now going into commercial compost to see how long it takes to break down. This means that after a conversation with council, I’m likely to be able to recommend customers put their bra in the garden organics waste bin at end of life which is a great outcome.
ARE THERE ANY BUSINESS MODELS OR WAYS OF APPROACHING SUSTAINABILITY THAT PARTICULARLY IMPRESS YOU?
There are great innovations in footwear coming out with design for disassembly, as well as circular brands like MUD jeans that take their product back to recycle into new fibre.
I love what Tentree does in planting trees for each product sold.
I’m a great admirer of local designers who also make locally like A.BCH and Annie Hamilton, they also don’t over-produce and so operate sustainably in that sense. I’m also a fan of Good Day Girl for limiting waste by making to order seasonally, and for being a BCorp!
LINGERIE HAS IT’S OWN CHALLENGE IN CATERING TO A DIVERSE POOL OF SHAPES AND SIZES, HOW DO YOU TACKLE THIS AT THE VERY GOOD BRA?
It's really hard. No matter how many sizes we make we often get complaints that we are excluding sections of the market.
The truth is there are over 180 possible bra sizes and the big brands rarely even cover what we do. In the end you have to choose what to start with and how to grow once you have your customer base in place and a viable business that can support and fund further growth. Because we don’t use spandex, foam or underwire, larger sizes are harder for us to support although we do go up to E cups.
Also, only 40% of all commercially available bras in the same size fit women of the same size, we are all so different and so inevitably there are women they don't work for but we’ve had great feedback across the size range to date.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT IN YOUR BUSINESS?
I keep in touch with my suppliers and agents and also Cradle 2 Cradle and Fashion Positive foundations to keep close to what's going on and any new material developments.
I try to get to Interfiliere every year to see what new materials are coming onto the market, there’s been a great push towards sustainable just in the last 18 months which is wonderful to see. It just takes time for these innovations to filter down and be available to smaller brands in smaller quantities, but at least if I know about them I can keep watching and hoping.
TELL US ABOUT THE SUSTAINABLE BRANDS CONFERENCE IN DETROIT, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED?
I was approached by Sustainable Brands via my Kickstarter campaign. They have a panel about brands creating zero-waste everyday items that they were keen for me to be a part of. It’s very exciting, I’m nervous about public speaking but I do want to tell my story and know people are interested. I’m excited to see all the other speakers and learn about innovation across the board. I’m also meeting William McDonough and his team at Sustainable Brands who are helping me work towards C2C materials health certification for the bra which is a huge honour.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE VERY GOOD BRA?
I’m excited about the new Liberty print design, and I’m also currently working on samples with a new factory which could potentially bring the cost of the bra down and make it more accessible to more people. It will also enable me to develop a wholesale model.
Along with this I’m working on a new sizing structure with a smaller range covering the same ground in a new way. I found that after the Kickstarter, so many boutiques wanted to stock because I made in 26 sizes, but then they became paralysed by the choice! I want to make it easier for boutiques to buy and stock the bra. I will again launch via pre-sale or crowd-fund to fund and also minimise over-production.
RECOMMEND 5! WHO/WHAT/WHERE ARE YOUR LOCAL TEXTILE & FASHION GO TO’S?
For designers and brands I love Jac + Jack. Whilst sustainability is not front and centre for them, the quality of the product and the simplicity of design mean that I keep their pieces for years and years.
There are great bloggers and newsletters out there. In particular I love Ekko World and Tommie Mag, and Faye Delanty does great things for Vintage. Also Emily Syme’s Ecoluv is a brilliant idea for quality vintage clothing on consignment.
I have the greatest respect for Mel Tually who took on Fashion Revolution for Australia off her own bat and has run it pro-bono for years. Mel is a great supporter of local sustainable brands and really takes time to check us all out and assist in whichever way she can. She recently ran the Legacy Summit in Sydney which was an amazing and inspiring conference on sustainability within the industry. She’s an absolute hero in our world.
I’m a fan of Cotton Australia as a trade body. Cotton growing is hugely controversial in Australia but they work hard to overcome misconceptions about the industry, and also to bring together people from all aspects of the apparel industry in regular and informative sessions. I have made great contacts through that, including WormTech and also Dr Oliver Knox who has our bra in soil right now. It also gives me an opportunity to meet and regularly connect with the larger brands which is great for someone who works alone.
Good On You is a fantastic app for researching the good, the bad and the ugly in fashion brands.
All images provided via The Very Good Bra, with credits to Robyn Lawley, Carlotta Moye, Wayne Chick and Laura Wells