ThirdLove’s Heidi Zak on Creating a Better Bra Experience

Heidi Zak remembers the exact moment that sparked the idea for her company: “I was getting ready for a holiday party and the bra I was planning to wear was so uncomfortable,” she says. Heidi decided to build her own bra, and the result is ThirdLove, her six-year-old company that’s revolutionizing the lingerie industry. As the co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove, Heidi walks the walk, offering 78 (!) sizes… and nudes in every shade of nude. Read our conversation below to learn more about ThirdLove’s first-ever concept store in New York City, how she built this brand into a behemoth, the size inclusion movement, and that open letter she wrote to Victoria’s Secret…

Katie Couric: Congrats on your first-ever concept store! What are some of the features people can expect?
Heidi Zak: We really tried to re-imagine bra shopping. It’s a showroom and fit lab versus a traditional store with a lot of racks of products. I also think, bra shopping shouldn’t be so serious, and we tried to bring in elements that make people smile. So in the fitting rooms, if you need assistance, you press a button called “support”— pun intended there—and the breast light flashes above your fitting room.

Katie: Let’s go back to the beginning: They say necessity is the mother of invention and it certainly was in your case! Tell us how a bad experience getting ready for a holiday party led to the creation of ThirdLove…
Heidi: There was one specific moment that really sparked my idea to start ThirdLove: I was getting ready for a holiday party and the bra I was planning to wear was so uncomfortable. It was the 11th hour and I had two options: head out to the store to try on dozens of bras or stick with the ill-fitting option I already owned.

It was a choice between bad and worse. I wanted a third option. ThirdLove is just that — a modern brand women can really relate to, high-quality bras in over 78 sizes (twice the amount of the average bra brand) and an easy way to find your fit with our Fit Finder®. The quiz has been completed by over 12 million women and it gets smarter and smarter the more data it collects.

Katie: Your idea makes so much good sense — women come in so many shapes and sizes after all. Why do you think there hasn’t been more of a selection in the past?
Heidi: When I started ThirdLove, I didn’t understand why so many women fell in between traditional bra sizes. I thought, shoes have half sizes why don’t bras?

Bra measurements are calculated based on your band size (number) and cup size (letter). Traditionally, you or a sales associate would wrap a tape measure around your rib cage (right below your breasts) and bust (the fullest part of your chest) to determine your bra size. But oftentimes, the issue with using this method is that it requires rounding up to the next even number in inches.

As you might imagine, this leaves out a significant population of women who fall in between sizes. Rather than forcing women into a standard cup size that doesn’t fit, we invented our signature half-cups to help you find your perfect bra.

Offering half-sizes means we had to work with a manufacturing partner who was able and willing to break the mold (literally!) and create a new mold for bra sizing. It was an expensive, and time-consuming undertaking, but it was worth it to offer women a better fitting high-quality product. The same can be said for our inclusive sizes, which range from a 30” – 48” band size and cup sizes AA – I. These sizes can cost up to 40% to produce, but we believe that your size is your size and you should pay the same regardless of that.

Our mission is to offer a bra for every body, regardless of shape, size, age, ethnicity, gender identity or ableness. And we’re just getting started.

Katie: I guess I’m stating the obvious when I say that bras are pretty intimate! How does that affect everything you do in terms of your approach and interaction with your customers?
Heidi: Bra shopping is actually the perfect category to bring online. It is a personal shopping experience, it is not a category that a woman usually shop for with her friends. ThirdLove makes getting a perfect-fitting bra easy.

From a marketing perspective, consumers have evolved from wanting to be sold an unrealistic dream, and instead, opt to feel like they’re a part of the dream. They want to see themselves in the brands they support, whether that’s in the products offered or models portrayed in marketing. We believe that each woman has a right to define herself through the brands she supports. This is especially apparent in the lingerie industry, which has been dominated by the male gaze for decades.

We cast a mix of women, both models and non-models that represent our growing customer base, and we try to keep up as this continues to evolve. ThirdLove has always pushed the boundaries on inclusive sizing, and we will not stop until we have created a bra for every body because that is core to who we are as a brand.

Katie: When did you realize that you were making a real impact with customers?  Was there a breakthrough moment when you felt like they understood what you were trying to do and embraced it?
Heidi: We had thousands of positive reviews from very happy customers, but we struggled to get our product in the hands of even more women. We knew we had a superior product, but we needed to convince women to take a chance on ThirdLove.

It began with a meeting. This wasn’t just our weekly brainstorm. It wasn’t a meeting to think about how we could completely rethink our marketing strategy. This was all hands on deck. We had everyone sitting around the table, searching for something different. Drastically different. The status quo wasn’t working, and while I wouldn’t say we were desperate, we were getting pretty close.

We’d used most of our seed money by that point. We’d spent two years building our product, getting a manufacturing partner, figuring out high quality production. It wasn’t easy, but we felt that we had a really great product for women. So why weren’t they buying it?

We had started off with some standard “10% off your first bra” ads. Women weren’t biting. We knew we had to stand out in some way. If we didn’t figure it out in the next few months, none of us would be at that table the following year.

So we decided to take a risk and start our “Try Before You Buy” program. Women could order a bra, take the tags off, and wear it for 30 days. If they didn’t like it, they could send it back and we’d donate it. Now, that sounds risky, but we had faith in our product. We had put in two years of hard work, and we were sure that if women could try the product, they’d love it. We just needed to get them over that hump to say, “Okay, I’ll try a $68.00 bra from this company that I don’t really know.”

And it worked. In all honesty, it probably saved our company.

Katie: You took out a full page ad in the NYT to write an open letter to Victoria’s Secret’s CMO Ed Razek responding to some disparaging comments he made about your company and the idea of having a Victoria’s Secret special for plus-sized models. Talk about that decision.  What inspired you to make such a frankly badass move?
Heidi: I believe women deserve more than Ed Razek’s appalling comments. What kind of leader and what kind of man would say such discriminatory things? Each time I read it, it has made me more and more angry. I couldn’t help but think of how my 5-year-old daughter would react to his statements ten years from now.

I felt it was the right moment to respond to Ed’s comments about ThirdLove directly and demand more from Victoria’s Secret. I believe women deserve to be treated and marketed to in a more authentic, realistic way. My hope is that 2018 was the last one for the fashion show — that enough public pressure will be placed on VS to make some real and meaningful changes to the marketing they produce.

Katie: ThirdLove has been at the forefront of size inclusion—you’re now offering 78 different sizes! How far along do you think we’re really at in the size inclusion movement?
Heidi: The original mission of ThirdLove was to help all women feel comfortable and confident in their everyday lives. When we said all women, we really meant that. Personally, I just think it’s kind of funny. A lot of brands say they’re inclusive, or have this marketing that shows they’re inclusive, but then they don’t have a very robust size range at all. Inclusivity isn’t just a showcase of what you believe it to be, it’s an actuality. Do you produce inclusive sizes? Do you have an inclusive size range?

At ThirdLove, it’s not like we were doing it because we wanted attention. We were doing it because we felt like it was the right thing to do. Definitely, we were one of the players who helped push it along, especially in an industry that has been so backwards like lingerie for so long. Overall, there’s definitely been a lot of progress. That being said, I think we have a long way to go as well. We’re in the first quarter!

Katie: You started ThirdLove with your husband, David Spector. I started my company with my husband, too!  How do you make a business partnership work along with a personal one?
Heidi: The most important decision you make at the beginning is who you choose as your cofounder. You have to trust them completely, communicate well and balance each other out. Having a spouse as a co-founder was a huge advantage when it came to making it through all the peaks and valleys we experienced.

Dave always pushes me to do more, to be better — and he would say the same about me. He’s also the type of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. There were definitely low points for us in the earlier days where I thought — we’re never going to be able to close this round. We’re going to run out of money. And he kept saying, “We’re going to do this.”

It took more meetings, more pounding the table, through people telling us no. And I can say honestly if it had just been me doing this, I probably wouldn’t have made it through. It’s a great support system that works for us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Katie: My feelings exactly! You also have two kids. Are there any productivity hacks that have helped you get everything done every day?
Heidi: As a woman who has kids and a career, I think anything you can do to make your life as convenient as possible can help alleviate stress.

One example, I made this decision to not have to commute, right? We live in this city, our office is in the city, but it means that my kids don’t have a big backyard.

Another example, I work out from home. For me, my Peloton bike is a savior, because I can get on and off the bike in 20 minutes. Saving time so that you can actually hang out with your kids.

You’re never going to be the perfect mom and the perfect CEO. So sometimes it’s like, Just be a little bit easier on yourself! Cut yourself some slack.

Katie: Agreed! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Heidi!