The underwired bra accounts for 60 per cent of the market, but women with average or fuller busts must wonder why it is so popular. It is uncomfortable, non-machine washable, and difficult to make, but there has been nothing to replace it - until now. Niki Tait talks to Tony Hodges, brand chairman of the Charnos Group about its revolutionary new 'Bioform' bra.

There have been many new and innovative designs for the lesser endowed woman, one of the latest from Gossard apparently is the Airotec, a blow up bra equipped with miniature versions of the automotive industry's safety airbags which enables the wearer to control the amount of expansion by means of a valve. Little, however, has been developed for the larger woman who needs support, yet wishes to enhance the look and shape of her attributes without adding to their perceived volume.

A growing market
However breasts are increasing for many reasons including improved nutrition and hormonal changes brought about when taking the pill. The average size of bra has risen form a 34B to 36C with 40 per cent of sales now D cup and above, the fastest growing market segment. It is the UK which is reported now to be Europe's biggest spenders on lingerie and bras, purchasing 2.6bn Euros per year, overtaking France's 2.5bn.

It was therefore fortuitous when, during late 1997/early 1998 TV6, an independent TV producer making a series of programmes for UK's Channel 4 using internationally acclaimed designers Seymour Powell to look at different aspects of everyday design, chose bra design as the subject of one of the programmes. The producers contacted Charnos, one of the largest independent textile companies in the United Kingdom, a family run concern with an annual turnover amounting to £90m, which specialises in quality hosiery, knitwear and lingerie, to see if it was interested in working with Richard Seymour and Dick Powell, designers who knew nothing about bras but had designed the cordless kettle and other revolutionary products.

Charnos accepted the invitation, setting the brief that they were looking for a bra that is simpler, more comfortable, particularly suited to bigger bust sizes as this was the unfulfilled part of the market, would sell at sensible prices and yet make a reasonable return.

Engineering feat
Seymour Powell soon discovered that the design of bra needed to address many complex engineering jobs. It needed to support loads that weigh anything between 80gm to 1 kilogram in weight, that are dynamic and exert forces up to 20 Newtons, contain volumes of 500 cc or more, with the breasts acting like a deformable fluid subject to constant changes resulting in size and shape, not only affected by age, but also throughout each woman's menstrual cycle.

Much market research showed the key to a new design for the larger bust necessitated a new supporting structure to replace the traditional underwire which would enhance the bust by directing it into a pleasing shape, gently and comfortably, eliminating the traditionally uncomfortable underarm area where wires often dig into the skin. It should be washable, and the minimum number of graded structures should cover a maximum number of bra sizes.

By June 1998 when the television progamme was first broadcast, the first embryonic prototype of the Bioform had been produced. At this stage the Charnos group made the decision to take this project to the next stage, to invest £100,000 to produce prototype tooling for one size. In all, over the last two years, the company has invested £2.5m to develop one design of bra, available in only two colours, black and white, an investment which should be compared against the normal £500,000 lingerie design overhead to produce a six monthly range of around fifty different designs, of which half are bras.

Revolutionary prototype
To quote Tony Hodges, brand chairman of the Charnos Group: "This is the largest investment in R&D spent on a single product development in the history of the company. Seymour Powell challenged the fundamental rationale of the underwired bra and its inherent problems ranging from discomfort to jamming washing machines. After much deliberation and research they produced a response that was nothing short of revolutionary: a prototype three-dimensional undercup support - Bioform - that would not contort nor distort the bust, but simply shape and support in the most flattering, comfortable way.

"The essence of the Bioform is a two-shot moulding process where the inner core or armature replicates the underwire, but is infused in a softer polymer that holds and shapes the bust. The lingerie market has more than enough pretty underwear. Charnos has a unique reputation for fine fitting lingerie, but every company seeks that holy grail of a unique selling point. Bioform brings us that."

The results of their quest - Bioform by Charnos - was revealed in a follow-up Channel 4 documentary, 'Brand New Bra', broadcast last night (Tuesday October 24th), the day before the official launch of the Bioform, a classic looking bra made from subtle Houle Dentelle nylon lace and lycra fabric.

Even prior to the launch, the investment was paying off with the short term order book overflowing with more than £3m orders for the one bra. Exposure at the International Lingerie Fair at Lyon apparently attracted a massively enthusiastic response from all over the world, from manufacturers wishing to licence the Bioform product, a business Charnos is keen to develop with quality licensees, to retailers wishing to buy it. Marks and Spencers, which apparently nets between 30-40 per cent of the UK's bra market, has contracted their own, more lacy version, which will be available in the Marble Arch and Manchester stores from the end of October and a further 100 Marks and Spencer stores in Spring 2001.

Today (Wednesday October 25) is Bioform's official launch day when the bra became available in major UK department stores and independents nationwide in a size range spanning back size 30"-42" and a variety of cup sizes ranging from B to F. From mid-November the size range will be increased to include FF, G and H sizes.

The development
Working with a three dimensional structure, there was no available data as to what size or shape the Bioform should be, underwires are, after all, only one dimensional. As the fuller bosom was to be the target for the new bra, 34DD was chosen as the prototype size. The company put out a request on local radio for 34DD-sized ladies to take part in the development and market research. Several hundred volunteered, but inevitably many women claiming to be 34DD were not. Eventually around fifty to sixty ladies measured up and their bust shapes and sizes were the scanned by 3D laser. This data was analysed, averaged and the data used to generate a revised Bioform CAD database.

The only structural part of a traditional bra design that could be used as reference was the traditional bra underwire. Cross-sections of these wires across a varied size range were measured and comparative rectangular sections of steel underwires and various moulded polymers calculated - all with a view to creating a target weight of half that of the too heavy prototype.

Criteria for selecting the material to make the Bioform included the need for a non-allergenic, odourless material capable of withstanding machine washing without degrading or deforming, with elastomers that were capable of being moulded to a thin edge and which could be sewn through to hold the structure in place. After much research a polypropylene was selected for the structural armature and a range of foamable elastomers chosen for the cup form.

From the CAD database a new 3D surface base was generated and the requirements of the armature in the new form calculated so that it matched the underwire cross-sectional strength. The full Bioform was then solid modelled by Pankhurst Design and Developments (PDD) in London, a product innovation consultancy that has project managed the programme and technical development through to the final product stage.

A matrix of perforations was then added to the cup form to ensure the elastomer was 'breathable' to further enhance the comfort of the wearer. All this information was passed to selected toolmaker SMP Multi-Shot in Torquay. Before committing to prototype tool production, stereolithographic castings of the new database were commissioned, then cast in silicone moulds and foamed castings produced for evaluation. Charnos sewed the castings into bras and evaluated them for shape, support and comfort.

The design team soon discovered that incorporating a large plastic mould into a bra cup challenged many bra construction traditions but, once the design was approved, databases were issued for prototype tool production. The beauty for making this 'soft' tool in aluminium was that it could be constantly refined and modified.

Moulding trials
To establish the right materials for the first prototype tool moulding trials, hundreds of samples were tested for support, comfort, fit, washability, and durability over an intensive and extensive trial period. Following each trial, modifications were made to the Bioform database and bra construction, the tool was updated and more mouldings produced until the design was refined to a point where Charnos felt a wider evaluation of the benefits of Bioform was essential.

Wearer tests were commissioned through independent Nottingham-based research company, JRA. Eighty-eight women were recruited including those originally measured. They were asked to wear the Bioform bra alternately with Charnos' existing best-selling bra as a comparison over a two week period. The survey results revealed that while it took women some time to become accustomed to such a different product, 77 per cent regarded the Bioform as 'excellent' or 'good' for shape and 91 per cent as 'excellent' or 'good' for support. Following these wearer tests, refinements continued to be made, validated by extensive and ongoing in-house trials, and it emerged that the key benefits of the Bioform are considerably improved shape and excellent support.

Range development
Seven sizes of Bioform were concurrently being developed at the same time as the first prototype tool and wearer trials were being undertaken. The key issue was to ensure that the structural performance of the armature, which took so long to refine for the first prototype size, could be repeated at smaller and larger sizes.

A theoretical analysis programme, simulating the behaviour of the fabric when sewn together and incorporating the elastic properties of all the fabric sections in the model, was developed. A torso model developed from the digital scan data was also created to replicate the loads applied to the bra by breasts both statically and dynamically. Many tests were carried out to determine creep characteristics at various temperatures and loads particularly to determine the behaviours of extreme sizes in the range.

Structural engineers Ove Arup were commissioned to undertake theoretical analysis of the loads and stresses of the prototype size to compare with the physical findings. The same mathematical analysis was used to evaluate the extreme sizes, eliminating the need for further prototype tooling.

Following this research, a second wearer test, plus constant trials with in-house employees, by February/March 2000 the company had sufficient confidence in the product to go ahead with the sizable investment for fourteen tools to be made (seven sizes, left and right breast). The final Bioforms were to be produced mainly by Denroy Plastics in Northern Ireland and some by SMP themselves.

Lewis Moberly was chosen to create the Bioform brand identity and define a new approach to packaging in line with the uniqueness of the bra. Breaking away from traditional brand packaging for bras, which generally lacks distinction and often features a model promoting an end benefit that bears little resemblance to the reality of the product, Lewis Moberly decided to break all the rules.

The bra packaging shows the invention itself; the marque echoes the distinctive shape of the Bioform and the logotype is moulded into the plastic form. An easy open/close structure was developed to assist at point of purchase. Charnos has chosen MBA to develop a unique advertising format, which will break in the New Year.

According to Hodges: "You would not believe the specialists who have come on board all to enhance the bust. They have all approached the subject with a degree of single-mindedness and devotion that they appear not to have shown to previous projects - I wonder why?'

Production
The majority of the production of the Bioform bra is taking place in Sri Lanka. However as the bulk of the Bioform supports are being produced in Northern Ireland, and the Bioform is inserted 70 per cent of the way through the manufacturing cycle, the part made bras are being shipped for completion within Northern Ireland, rather than sending the Bioforms out and back, with the considerable resultant time delay. The first production run will amount to 100,000, rising to quarter of a million within six months.

The future
A further £1m investment is planned to produce duplicate tooling to double the number of Bioforms which can be produced. In recent years the bra market has become segmentalised with bras for the sports market, the luxury market, T-shirt bras, plunge bras, and so on. The Bioform transcends these sectors and by next autumn there are likely to be two or thee different types of designs to cater for some of these areas. Currently 85-90 per cent of all Charnos production is bought and sold within the UK. The Bioform opens up tremendous export potential and the company will be actively looking to licence Bioform design and manufacture to key quality manufacturers around the world.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the Apparel Industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology, quick response, etc. Tel/Fax +44 (0) 1237 423163, e-mail: NikiTait@compuserve.com

About Charnos Group
Founded in 1936 by Charles Noskwith, Charnos initially manufactured fine gauge, fully fashioned ladies silk stockings at Ilkeston in Derbyshire, England, which remains the location of the head office. The company maintained its position in the market through embracing new technology developments such as nylon after WWII and the more recent introduction of lycra. Today, the company is recognised as one of the main UK manufacturers of hosiery, producing over 1 million pairs of tights per week and having a prominent presence in the leading UK department store groups. It then moved into the area of knitwear producing mainly for Marks and Spencer. Charnos diversified into lingerie in the 50s, mainly producing slips using fine woven and knitted laces. Bra production quickly followed and now accounts for over 50 per cent of the lingerie company turnover. Today, the Charnos brand is widely recognised as a superbly fitting, fashionable and feminine lingerie collection. One of the largest independent textile companies in the United Kingdom, annual turnover amounts to £90m. Members of the founding family still own and direct the company. For more information, visit the company website at www.charnos.co.uk or telephone +44 (0)115 850 8000.