In Style: 'It wasn't just about bras, it was about making women feel fantastic'
Sarah Tremellen got hooked by the bra business in 1995 when, pregnant and ballooning to a G cup, she couldn't find pretty underwear to contain her burgeoning boobs.
A fellow well-endowed friend was getting married and wanted something pretty to wear under her wedding dress but she too was struggling to find what she wanted. "The two of us went from bra shop to bra shop and in the end we said, 'Let's start a bra company'."
She makes it sound simple. Two women with no retail or design experience start a small business at their kitchen table and end up with assets in the region of 42 million. But they did their research. "We found there were a few bras made in bigger cups," says Tremellen, now 44 (in years, not bra size), "but the shops didn't tend to stock more than one or two of them. So we decided to get everything that was available and put it under one roof."
And while they finally delivered attractive lingerie to big girls, they also achieved something much less tangible but arguably more valuable. "It became quite an emotional outlet for people and I don't think we had realised what an enormous issue it was," says Tremellen. "Women felt so demoralised and frustrated and made to feel like freaks. So it wasn't just about bras; it was about making women feel fantastic about themselves."
The company started doing mail order, then after five years it opened the first shop, while the website launched in 2000. Tremellen's E cup friend is no longer with the company, but her husband Mike left his job with Tetley in 2000 to join her. The business now employs 650 people, was voted one of the top companies to work for this year and Tremellen herself has been the recipient of both businesswoman of the year and an MBE for services to entrepreneurship.
As the company has grown, so has the average size of the British bust. "When we started they said the average was a 34B and then somebody said it had gone up to a 36C. We think probably, just through the women we see, it's more like a 34DD. Big bra sizes are certainly getting more common, but a big part of that is that so many women are wearing the wrong size to start with."
Bravissimo stocks sizes from a D to a KK cup, "though we do have some women who can't get into a KK so we are working on developing a bigger size", says Tremellen.
The business has also branched out into clothing, something Tremellen had in her sights from the early days. "Women would come to us and say, 'Now I can get my bra right but I can't wear shirts because I can't get the buttons done up.' We couldn't find anyone to do it for us so we had to just do it ourselves. We developed our own size range using local customers."
The recent economic situation has meant further expansion has been on hold, but Tremellen is feeling more confident and is ready to open more shops and spread the word. "There are still loads of women who don't know we exist," she says.
"I want to champion people and help them feel confident about themselves. So many of us feel negative about our bodies for all sorts of reasons and I find that really sad. You have to love your own body and celebrate it and make the most of it — we're not going to get another one."