Your breasts deserve the best, but they don’t always get it. And honestly, with so much attention on why breasts deserve a place on Instagram and breastfeeding in public, you would think we’d be treating our girls a little better.
Alas, that’s not quite how it goes. Nearly 70% of women are wearing the wrong size bra. About half of 11- to 17-year-old girls in the U.K. admit to avoiding sports or physical activity because of embarrassment about or pain in their breasts. And it’s not only teens. Almost one in five women consider their breasts a barrier to participating in physical activity, most often citing difficulty finding the right sports bra and shame over “excessive” breast movement as their reasoning.
These are among the statistics that inspired Danielle Witek, senior innovation apparel designer at Reebok, to embark upon the quest to build a better sports bra. Along the way, she enlisted her colleagues and fellow transformative thinkers Emma Stableford, senior product developer innovation apparel, and Lauren O’Brien, senior manager materials innovation apparel, to devote the bulk of the past four years to developing the PureMove sports bra. Their commitment to creating something that would improve the lives of women paid off with a biomechanically evaluated, rigorously lab-tested product that uses chemical compounds in new ways and — spoiler alert — is the sports bra we’ve been waiting for.
Inspired by their tenacity, not to mention their creation, we spoke to the unstoppable trio about their inspiration, their challenges, and how their big thinking and perseverance is paving the way for a more equal future for women — in sport, in fashion, and beyond.
How — and why — did this project come to be?
Danielle Witek: “As a new member on the innovation team about four years ago, I started a couple of different sports bra projects, this being one of the larger ideas that I had. I felt like there was a very strong need for a true innovation within sports bras. We had all, as an industry, been coming to the table with failing solutions. That’s reflected in the statistics you see around sports bras and breast biomechanics. You can open up any women’s magazine on a monthly basis and find some sort of map to finding the right sports bra. I never really understood why it was so complicated. There are a million brands. Anybody who makes any kind of apparel now makes some sports apparel. Yet there hasn’t really been anything to help people find the right one with the right amount of support.
“A sports bra is just as important as sneakers. If you go to the gym and you forget yours, you’re not working out. I felt like we had this huge opportunity to get that one woman out of the five [who isn’t working out because of breast-related issues] out of her house and into the gym, out on the street running, or whatever it is she’s inclined to do — and help her feel comfortable doing it.”
Preach! Where did you go from there?
DW: “I didn’t want to just look at what our competitors were doing and figure out how to make it better, or even to look at what we were doing internally and come up with a different iteration. I also didn’t want to go to the factories, try pull something off the shelf, slap some sort of cool name on it, and call it an innovation. So I did a lot research on breast biomechanics. I discovered one [very small] study that looked at bare-breasted women swimming in a body of water. What it found is that even though there was breast movement, the women weren’t experiencing any pain. The researchers attributed this to the amount of support that the water was providing. It created this buoyancy and antigravity effect. I thought, That’s incredible. If we can recreate that feeling in a sports bra, that would just be gold. “
I imagine there were people who expressed doubts and that the going got tough sometimes. How did you push through?
Lauren O’Brien: “It’s really funny, because one of the doubters was me. But it’s really worth capturing that we had a weird mojo with this project. We had moments where we, as a team, were freaking out about assorted roadblocks, especially on the execution side. Emma and I had some challenging times, but luckily, she has a fantastic sense of humor. We all have a pretty good sense of humor. I think that’s one thing we all had in common as a coping mechanism. Putting it in perspective. And being super tenacious.”
DW: “The amount of failures and hurdles actually kept this project going. It demanded constant attention, and every day there was a new problem to solve. At a point, it became comical because the failures were so frequent and things we couldn’t even have imagined would pop up. We laughed a lot, got creative with solving problems, and were shameless about asking for help. I reached out to everyone from textile students to chemical physicists in search of the answers to keep the project moving. You hustle like that long enough, and it just becomes par for the course.”
Emma Stableford: “We all have a really strong desire to have some impact in the industry, to change the way people are thinking about sports apparel, and to help give women the ability to participate in sports without some of the current restrictions they face. Working towards solving a real-life problem faced by so many women was a huge driving factor in helping us push through any obstacles. The further we got into it, [the more clear it became that] there was never an alternative but to deliver the product. You just have to adopt the mindset that nothing is ever really complete and there will always be things that could be done differently, but things are constantly moving in the right direction.”
Have you, in your careers, found it’s harder to get buy-in for a female-focused product compared to one geared toward men?
DW: “In this case, we had buy-in from the very beginning. People were supporting us. But previously, I worked in licensed sports [creating products for] the NFL, NHL, and NCAA — a very male-dominated group. Everything started in men’s product and uniforming, and all the women’s products were kind of an add-on. It was unfortunate.”
And this is different.
DW: “I’ve always said that I hope that this is the start of more things to come. I don’t want this bra to be the be all and end all. Like, that’s great, we did an innovation for women. Let’s celebrate it, and then let’s get back to what we normally do. I want this to spark a fire not only within Reebook but also within the industry to really start to drive innovation through women’s products. There’s a huge need for it. Going back to the statistics and all the struggles that women have to live a fit life, there’s so much potential there and so much room to do new things. As long as the demand is there, I think as an industry we need to wake up and start to think about ways to create products for her.”
LO: “In support of what Dani’s saying, another thing that’s really interesting right now is that things are becoming simpler and more comfortable, and innovations, like the one that we’re talking about right now, they’re really, truly integrated. They’re not gimmicky. I’ve seen some of this in fashion — swimwear, lingerie, and even ready to wear. Everything is changing at breakneck speed, in my personal opinion for the better, because health, fitness, and comfort on your own terms are super relevant right now. We got support around here for the PureMove bra because it’s just right.”
Speaking of the PureMove bra, I know it’s available in double the amount of sizes as traditional sports bras — you’ve added XS/S, S/M, L/XL, and XL/2XL. What else is special about it?
DW: “It’s the motion-sense fabric above everything else. It’s the first of its kind that responds to the body’s movement. We’re adding support through a fabric treatment that is integrated into the fibers of the material instead of adding multiple layers, glue, hardware stitching, interfacing, or even screen-printed applications. Because the extra construction isn’t needed, we only need one layer of fabric on the upper part of the bra, and it fits to your shape and feels weightless, like a second skin. This material also activates when under strain to stretch slowly and give you support when you need it.”
If I understand correctly, the bra is made with some pretty innovative technology.
DW: “Yes. In my research, I came across a company called STF Technologies and saw that it made this thickening fluid with a similar chemistry to things like silly putty and cornstarch and water, where it went from a liquid state to a solid state. I had actually seen it in the foam that’s used to make protective gear. It’s soft, kind of molds around your body, and has great protective qualities for impact. But this was the first time I’d actually seen it in a fluid state, so I immediately thought, Can we take this fluid and apply it to a soft-knit fabric, start to control the stretch of the fabric, and provide a similar kind of protection and support? “
ES: “We then started prototyping a bunch of different designs in different fabrics and went out and did the biomechanical testing.”
LO: “We then took that lab scenario and moved it into a real-life production scenario. This is a fabric that requires a very unique finishing process, so sourcing the right partners was key to the success. Not to mention, there’s a pretty remarkable difference between making something in a beaker and making it in 500-kilogram batches with real, mechanized equipment.”
Wow. Are you going to be able to reuse the technology going forward?
DW: “We didn’t go the traditional route of using two to four markers to measure breast movement while developing this technology in the lab. Instead, we ended up covering the entire bra in these reflective markers. It turned out that we were able to detect 2.28 times the amount of movement compared to the traditional way of doing breast biomechanics. That was really cool, because our partners at the University of Delaware were able to publish a paper. We were then able to use the learnings of this type of biomechanics to help redesign a lot of our sports bras to increase the support level without changing too much of the design. We were able to improve every single bra that we had in our hero collection.”
You can’t argue with that! Do you have any advice for other women who are looking to make a change, particularly in the athletics and wellness space?
DW: “Make a really good argument for the need of a product. I think that this project in particular has come to fruition because you can’t really argue with why we’re doing it. If you’re really trying to solve a problem and you can do that in a true way and a real way, then you’re always going to have people behind you.”
Given that wisdom, what’s next on your agenda?
LO: “We can’t share all of our secrets! But it’s really good. We have a couple of really cool things in the hopper.”
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