By Danielle Wong
When Samantha Conover finally found a bra that fit, she was so happy with the store that she decided to work there.
“It wasn’t like other lingerie stores,” she said. “There wasn’t a hushed scary feeling of ‘I can’t touch anything here.'”
Conover, a size 32FF, is now the manager of Secrets From Your Sister, Eye Weekly’s best lingerie shop of 2007. The store, the brainchild of Ryerson costume design grads Jen Klein and Shana Tilbrook, offers one-on-one bra fittings and bras in unique sizes all the way from AA to JJ.
Average lingerie shops only stock bras as large as 34DD.
While there are many stories of Ryerson entrepreneurs starting up businesses that fizzle into obscurity, Secrets From Your Sister has kept its doors open since 1999.
“There’s a lot of emotion around our breasts,” Conover said. “I’ve seen people cry and break down out of frustration, but also out of joy when they find something that fits.”
Most of the store’s clientele are women in their mid-20s to mid-30s, and many customers discover they’ve been wearing up to two letter sizes too big or too small.
Conover recalls one exhausted JJ-sized shopper who ran out of her change room, still wearing a bright teal bra, shouting, “This is the one!”
Tilbrook and Klein first came up with the idea together as a class assignment. They graduated from Ryerson in 1998 and soon opened their aqua-blue boutique.
Brian Moreau, a representative of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, said the biggest problem with most entrepreneurs’ business plans is getting enough financing, so the first year is usually the toughest for business starters. And studies from Statistics Canada say owners of small companies really can’t relax until their business is at least five years old, with less than a third of start-up firms surviving that long.
Tilbrook and Klein had their share of problems in the early years, and the pair split in 2004. Tilbrook opened up a lingerie shop with her mother.
But Klein stuck with it, and Secrets From Your Sister has become a success, moving to a large location at Bloor and Bathurst streets last November.
Another problem, Moreau said, is an entrepreneur’s quality of research, and whether their idea is sustainable over the long term.
“They got a great idea they want to bring to the marketplace,” he said. “But sometimes they haven’t done enough research … [to] try to drill down to see if there’s a want or need for their product or service.”
So far, this particular idea has stuck. The shop’s bra fitters find a customer’s perfect size through a combination of measuring and trying on many bras.
It’s a simple process, yet mainstream stores still haven’t embraced the needs of well-endowed women.
One La Vie en Rose employee said that larger bra stores don’t carry larger sizes because there just isn’t enough of a need.
However, La Senza employee Giseli Perier said if a customer can’t find the right size, she will refer them to smaller- sized stores like Secrets From Your Sister.
Although they exclude women of certain sizes, bra corporations still rake in the money. From 2005 to 2006, La Senza’s sales increased by 16 per cent to $9.7 million from $8.3 million.
She won’t give out numbers, but Klein said her shop has doubled in revenue each year since it opened.
Employees at La Vie en Rose said their bras cost about $35 and are mostly made in China.
Meanwhile, at Secrets From Your Sisters, the cheapest bra costs $38 and the most expensive bra will set you back $180.
Beryl Tsang, a recovering breast cancer patient, has no problem shelling out the extra dough. Tsang loved shopping at Secrets From Your Sister even after her mastectomy. “It’s worth the higher price because you would spend a lot on one product, but then wouldn’t have to buy another one,” she said.
Klein said she gets her products from high-end European manufacturers, while La Senza customers choose price over comfort.
“Sure you can buy a $10 bra, but you get what you pay for,” she said.