A fitting new career
Debbie Donelle turned her need for a bra into a business opportunity
Debbie Donelle shows an example of a larger-size bra in her Lingerie DEBra store. “Statistics show that once properly sized, 40 to 50 per cent of women are actually a D cup or larger,” she says. Her store carries sizes ranging from D to JJ.
By MONIQUE POLAK, Special to The Gazette June 11, 2012 10:38 AM
Photograph by: JOHN MAHONEY , THE GAZETTE
MONTREAL – A new sandwich board on Monkland Ave. in Notre Dame de Grâce is attracting a lot of attention. It asks: “Are you one of the eight in 10 women wearing the wrong bra size? Come in and find out.”
Lingerie DEBra specializes in bras for the big-breasted. But even women who don’t consider themselves big-breasted may have a different self-image after store owner Debbie Donelle sizes them up. She stocks only bras with D cups or larger, but she’s quick to point out: “It’s not as much of a niche market as you would think. Statistics show that once properly sized, 40 to 50 per cent of women are actually a D cup or larger.”
For Donelle, the business was a perfect fit. Three years ago, on sabbatical in France, Donelle wanted to dress like French women. In hot weather, that meant wearing a bikini top – only Donelle couldn’t find one in her size. A friend mentioned a London lingerie shop that carried bras for full-figured women. Intrigued, Donelle travelled to London to check it out. “I had my first sizing. That taught me I was wearing the wrong size. The new bra totally transformed my physique. My breasts were lifted and properly supported and the bra took pressure off my shoulders – a common problem for big-breasted women,” she said.
When Donelle returned to Montreal, she had difficulty finding a similar bra. Though some specialty lingerie stores carried bras in large sizes, their selection was limited. Donelle tried ordering bras online from London, but they didn’t always fit right and she had to cover the cost of return shipping. So Donelle, a chartered accountant who spent 20 years working in finance at educational institutions, decided to open the kind of store she could not find in Montreal.
Bras in 120 sizes, ranging from Ds to JJs, are displayed at the front of Lingerie DEBra. In back is a boudoir-style fitting room with red ceilings and walls, and changing rooms with swishy red and gold curtains. This is where Donelle and her assistant size customers. First, they measure the band underneath a woman’s breasts, and then the circumference of the breasts at their largest point. “Women tend to wear their bands too big. This creates a see-saw effect – the back of the bra band rides up and the breasts tend to sag,” explained Donelle.
Donelle gives every woman she measures a business card with her correct bra size. “When I come across a woman who wears a B or C cup bra, I say, ‘Congratulations! You’ve won the bra lottery! You can shop at any bra store in town – except here!” Donelle said.
Tanya Maurice made a special trip from her home in St. Lazare to be sized by Donelle. Maurice, an inventory planner, had heard from a friend about Lingerie DEBra. “My breasts shot out between Grade 8 and Grade 9, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I’ve had rings snap on my bra straps from the weight of my breasts,” said Maurice, who learned, during her visit to the shop, that she’d been wearing the wrong size bra, a 38 DD in-stead of a 38G.
Donelle did not take a blind leap into the retail business world. Six months before leaving her job as co-ordinator of financial services at Dawson College, she started reading everything she could about entrepreneur-ship. She and her husband also began living on just his salary so she could save money to open the store.
Donelle also took courses offered by YES (Youth Employment Services) Montreal. The not-for-profit support organization hooked Donelle up with a mentor, Douglas Leahey. “There are so many things to think about when you’re planning to open a business. Douglas helped me prioritize,” Donelle said.
As part of her market re-search and to help build a client base, Donelle organized several “bra fit parties.” A friend would invite over a group of other women friends and Donelle would arrive with her collection of sizing bras. “I’d put the hostess in a bad bra, and then a good bra to show the difference. During my presentations, women would be peeking under their blouses and shaking their heads,” Donelle said.
Opening a store meant two major expenses: leasehold improvements and purchasing inventory. Donelle got a $45,000 bank loan to cover leasehold improvements. “But banks aren’t interested in funding inventory. Having good personal credit saved me. The bank gave me a personal loan,” she said.
Sales in April and May were slightly lower than Donelle projected. But word is spreading. “People who come in are happy with the experience and they’re referring other people,” Donelle said.
By opening her own store, Donelle hoped she’d find a better work-life balance. That, however, may take a while to achieve. For now, she is working 65 to 70 hours a week. But Don-elle is not complaining. That’s because there’s one thing she never factored into her business plan: “What was unexpected is the high level of job satisfaction on a daily basis. I see women in front of me improve their opinions of themselves and of their bodies,” she said.
Lingerie DEBra, 5686A Monk-land Ave., 438-380-8323, firstname.lastname@example.org
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