On July 12, 2023, The Underfashion Club went online for a Zoom webinar named “BreakOut Brands: Niche Brands on an Upward Trajectory.” This panel is a presentation of the entrepreneurial spirit and where it lives. Like lingerie, it’s all about strong, confident, and unique women, each of whom tackle the issue of inclusivity in the intimate apparel business. Thank you to the wonderful founders of 3 niche brands for joining us!
Karyn Bello, Founder and CEO, Zhe by Karyn Elizabeth
Dana Donofree, Founder and CEO, AnaOno
Bree McKeen, Founder and CEO, Evelyn & Bobbie
Bree McKeen didn’t originally come from the intimates industry, but is grateful for that because it allows her to bring an outsider’s perspective. She’s from the heart of silicon valley and specialized in finance, working with an early stage investor. It was a very male-dominated industry that required intentionality to be taken seriously. The difficulty in finding really comfortable bras that supported large-breasted women made it a struggle for her look professional.
Bree actively worked on her posture, but standing straight would cause underwires to dig into her ribs and the pain would condition her to continue slouching for comfort. This sparked her realization that something wasn’t right. Witnessing high-tech pitches at work had her thinking, “How is it that artificial intelligence is possible but a comfortable wire-free bra for my size isn’t? Maybe it is and maybe I could make that.”
After spending 20 years trying to find a bralette that’s actually comfortable, the need for gear for life brought her into the intimates industry. Her initial quest was to make a bra that felt great for herself, but then she began speaking to other women about the issue and learned that so many others can relate. Curvier bodies really were looking for more comfortable products, so Bree noticed a big opportunity and began creating her brand Evelyn & Bobbie in 2017. She raised capital and had an intellectual property-focused angle for the fully-laminated 3-dimensional sling design that lifts, separates, and provides substantial, pain-free support for up to a K cup. This patented technology is called EB Core® and is proud to out-perform and solve the engineering issues of the 91-year-old underwire!
Bree McKeen never would’ve guessed that she’d be a bra entrepreneur, but it was truly born of her experience to just be more comfortable every day. The irony was that she wanted to never think about her bra again, and now she thinks about bras all day long as an intimate apparel industry businesswoman and the CEO of Evelyn & Bobbie!
Dana Donofree is a breast cancer survivor whose inspiration for creating The AnaOno brand began after being diagnosed at age 27. She’s been a long-time fashion industry professional and knew exactly what she was stepping into when deciding to launch her own fashion business. What catapulted her into launching her brand was not only her background in fashion design, but addressing a need that was mostly based and focused around breast surgery options.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age, Dana realized that this segment of intimates was designed for much more mature women than she was at the time. When getting fitted for a mastectomy bra at the medical equipment store, she felt that the world was going to view her in a different way. Mastectomy bras have been a specialty in the intimate apparel industry for over 40 years, but was vastly ignored and misunderstood with a focus as purely a medical device. Dana stepped back and thought, “Though it is a medical device, does it have to look like one?” This was the premise of creating AnaOno.
Dana woke up with a hot flash in the middle of the night and struggled through the pains and turmoil around the fit and offerings that were available in the market, but was mostly entrenched with how she felt emotionally. When you have a body where you’ve had to amputate your breasts to save your life, everything is different. The reconstruction process, scars, and treatments are vastly different per individual as each person determines what the best pathway is for saving their life. She really truly believes that you are in such “patient mode” during all of those breast cancer procedures, surgeries, and life engagements that, if you could just keep some version of normalcy in your life, you could really focus on allowing your body to heal without worrying how you’re presenting to others.
The goal of AnaOno, when launched in 2014, was to provide something that’s adaptable to every single phase and stage of the patient’s life, whether they’re newly diagnosed, going through additional surgeries, or living with chronic pain. This brand is striving for a chest-inclusive environment in the intimates industry. It’s not just about size and colors, though those matter, but it’s also a matter of whether the customer has breasts, one breast, or no breasts. The multi-way stretch properties of modal fabric in AnaOno’s garments accommodates for asymmetries and is soft enough to relieve skin sensitivities post-surgery. Dana Donofree truly believes that people going through breast cancer surgery should have every right and option to feel just as beautiful and sexy as they did before their surgery.
Providing chest-inclusive lingerie options is the DNA of the AnaOno brand. Their motto is “Two boobs, one boob, no boobs, or new boobs, we are here to support you!” That’s for any stage of post-surgery recovery and hopefully into the life beyond. Dana Donofree’s been honored to use her skills and talents as well as her passion and advocacy for treating and evolving breast cancer through many different aspects of outreach. One of her favorite sayings is, “You didn’t ask your doctor about a bra before breast cancer, you shouldn’t have to ask your doctor about a bra after breast cancer.” That’s the gap that AnaOno hopes to shrink by being a beautiful, sexy option for those living with and without their breasts.
Karyn Bello, upon discovering that one of her children was a trans woman, made the parental decision to stand by her daughter and help her feel as feminine as possible. Though not originally from a fashion background, Karyn began learning to sew soon after her children became old enough to be on their own. She was taking classes at Parsons when her daughter came out at the age of 20, inspiring her to go towards the realm of lingerie. Originally, she began sewing garments for her daughter. Then, it snowballed into an actual business.
The Zhe brand launched in 2021. Noticing the lack of lingerie for trans people and knowing that everyone deserves to have garments that fit them properly, Karyn entered the world of lingerie to help find her daughters’ community some underwear solutions. Zhe’s underwear has a tucking mechanism in the gusset to comfortably support the trans women who wear them, accounting for the difference in anatomy and keeping everything in place. Having properly constructed gender-affirming foundations is not only great for psychological wellness, but helps in supporting physical wellness and hygiene for the wearer.
Karyn also supports the parents of trans people as a co-facilitator of The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that focuses on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ+ communities. 47% of trans youth between the ages of 18 and 24 experience suicidal ideation. When they’re supported by their family, that statistic goes down to 4%. The efforts of The Trevor Project help in providing social support for trans people and their families. Feeling loved and supported as you truly are makes a difference for all people in this world.
Karyn Bello hopes that intimates for trans people will not be considered niche for long and can soon hang in mainstream stores along with everything else. Being able to uplift this small community doesn’t take anything away from society, nor negate the womanhood of cis women. The future of this industry could be so special and help people feel truly good about themselves, just by allowing these women to feel like our sisters and affirm that they, too, belong in feminine spaces.
Thank you to the CEO and Founders of these special lingerie brands for sharing their stories and being integral parts of making the lingerie industry more inclusive than ever! The passion and dedication required to create a brand, especially when it’s so unique, is inspirational. You’ve opened our minds and helped us see the limitless potential in the intimate apparel industry. We’re grateful to have you in our ranks and wish you the best of luck going forward!