Leaders in Lingerie

Shopping for a bra can mean different things to different people.

For adolescent girls, it’s a rite of passage. For single women, it can be about gearing up for a big date. For others, it can be part of the quest to still look one’s best, sometimes after divorce, childbirth or surgery.

Yet there’s one aspect of the bra search that, at one time or another, most females have found themselves wrestling with—finding the proper fit.

And bra-fitting expert Terry Levine, founder of clair de lune lingerie boutiques, wants to help. Levine and husband Clair Keizer’s two stores in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas offer an impressive variety of undergarments for the female form, mostly from European manufacturers. But the overarching success of clair de lune’s business model is built on removing the anxiety that too many women have when trying on a bra that they just want to look and feel right in.

“Women come in here and say, ‘I hate bra shopping. It’s like going to the dentist. I’ve put it off as long as I can,’” Levine said. “The experience they’ve had in the past has not been a pleasant one.”

But even the most downtrodden bra shoppers feel revitalized after being served by Levine’s well-trained female staff at clair de lune, where a careful eye always determines the best fit and empathy is never in short supply.

“The women open up to you in the fitting room,” Levine said. “I think part of it is because we’ve tried to make them comfortable. We always introduce ourselves by name. It’s like, if you’re going to be taking off your shirt in front of me, let’s be on a first-name basis.”

Customers are often amazed at how much better they appear in their clothes once they’ve got the correct bra.

“Oh, yes,” Levine said, “if you were able to eavesdrop on what’s going on in the fitting area, they literally exclaim: ‘Oh, my God, the girls look great!’ Seriously, we get hugged.”

‘I Like Lingerie’

In 2004, Levine embraced the idea of opening a lingerie store. To do so, she walked away from what had been a fruitful career in advertising, including 15 years as a media planner and strategist at Bernstein-Rein, where she met her future husband and business partner.

“I was ready to do something else, and I liked lingerie,” Levine said. “It wasn’t just that I wanted to open my own business; it was always going to be a lingerie store.”

Levine, a seamstress, had become increasingly attracted to lingerie boutiques while vacationing in Europe.

“I would find these beautiful bras by these wonderful European brands, and you couldn’t find them around here,” she said. “So I just started nosing around and looking into it.”

That alone might have been enough to convince Levine to become a bra-selling entrepreneur. But it was her daughter’s experiences that likely clinched the deal.

“My oldest daughter has had two breast reductions,” Levine said. “She was extremely large-busted, and it was something that was very, very difficult for her as a teenager. And she thinks—and she may be right—that one of the reasons why I opened this store, and why we carry such a wide range of sizes, was the influence it had on me of seeing her go through that and not being able
to find a good bra.”

‘That Looks Good On You’

According to the lingerie industry, Levine said, 85 percent of women in the United States are wearing the wrong size bra.

“It’s almost like they don’t know any better,” she said. “They stopped developing when they were somewhere between a senior in high school and their junior year in college. And for some women, whatever bra size they were at that time, that’s what they’ve stuck with.”

Levine recommends that women be fitted for a bra at least once a year, “even if they haven’t gone through any change that they would recognize,” she said. Unfortunately, many women feel burned after bad experiences at other shops.

“I don’t want to bag on department stores,” Levine said, “but you go in and most of the time there’s not anybody there to help you. It’s not fun to be trying to figure out what bra fits. You have to go to the rack, kind of guess at what you’re doing and go into the fitting room—and when it doesn’t work, you’ve got to put your clothes back on and go back out.”

At clair de lune, bras are brought to the changing room until the ideal fit is found.

“We take the work out of it,” Levine said. “We really try to focus on being positive, and don’t get hung up on the size. The way we do it here is we actually look at the bra on her body. We don’t even have a tape measure in the store, because you can measure the distance but not the terrain.

“Women are used to being measured and being told, ‘OK, you’re this number and this letter.’ Instead, we say, ‘That looks good on you, do you agree?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, yeah, it does.’ Well, then don’t worry about what size it is.”

Cup size may get the hype, but Levine said the real key to a good fit is getting the band—sometimes referred to as the bra’s foundation or bridge—as level as possible.

“Most women wear the band too big, and so it rides up their back,” Levine said.

The Bra Whisperer

Levine didn’t pick up her bra-fitting smarts from a book or video. She had a fabulous mentor in Susan Nethero, known in the industry as “the Bra Whisperer.”

Shortly after Levine wrote her business plan for clair de lune—which she entered in an online business plan writing contest, winning the top prize of $25,000—the budding lingerie retailer reached out to Nethero, whose chain of Intimacy lingerie shops was all the rage in Atlanta.

“I was trying to find out everything I could about bras, and she showed me her method of bra fitting,” Levine said. “That’s where I first learned that it was better to do it without a measuring tape.

“Learning how to fit is not difficult. It’s how you finesse it, essentially, and that’s by knowing the different styles and brands and how they fit: That one fits you, but that one doesn’t necessarily do everything that it should. This one might fit you better, because there’s a different shape to the cup. And you have to have the right product mix.”

With her gratitude to the Bra Whisperer in mind, Levine tries to pay forward her good fortune. Her prize-winning business plan is still online, and 10 years later she still gets calls from women wanting advice on how to start their own lingerie shops.

“I typically steer them toward some aspect of bras and bra fitting, because it served us so well,” Levine said. “Having that focus on bras has allowed us to weather the economy much better than if we were just a lingerie shop.”

The original clair de lune location has had double-digit revenue growth every year, except for 2008, “because, even in a recession, women are still going to need a bra,” Levine said. “They may not come in and buy three at a time, but they’ll still come in and buy one.”

Buoyed by their ongoing success, Levine and her husband opened a second clair de lune location in mid-2013 in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue, where a former manager of the Kansas City area location, Ana Martinez-Bishop, was rehired to run day-to-day operations. So far, business at the new store is growing, but hasn’t yet met the high expectations Levine and Keizer had.

“It comes down to having to earn the business,” Keizer said. “And this is what we have to keep reminding ourselves, because we have not yet earned that business in St. Louis. We have here. We’ve demonstrated to our customers: ‘We’ll take good care of you.’
And they need to have that experience in St. Louis, so they can start coming back and bringing their friends.”

In addition to showing great care for customers, sharing important information with them can also help grow the business, Levine said.

“There’s also an educational aspect to what we do,” Levine said. “When we’re fitting women, we want them to understand why that bra fits and another doesn’t—not that we want them to take that knowledge and go someplace else and shop. There’s that risk, but we’re talking to them.

“We’re saying: ‘The bra that you have on doesn’t work and here’s why.’ It’s important that they know that, because it gives them more confidence in what we’re doing. If we share our knowledge with them, then they know that we’re not just pulling something over on them. And they want to come back. And they trust us. It’s trust.”