How the iPhone Could Help Disrupt the Lingerie Industry

We all know the story about how Apple disrupted the mobile phone market with the iPhone, but have you heard about the startup that wants to disrupt the bra industry using the iPhone? That's ThirdLove, a company using in-house imaging technology to turn two 2D, self-shot images of a woman's breasts to make a 3D model that they use to size a bra.

Why does this matter? Lingerie is a big industry, and bra sizing is a contentious topic with many women. Being a guy, I won't try to position myself as an expert in buying bras. But, I have been on the receiving end of women complaining about the process and explaining why bra size matters, so I do at least understand that it's an issue.

So when I read a piece by Sarah Kessler discussing ThirdLove, it struck me that the company could really be on to something. Using an iPhone app and a couple of selfies, ThirdLove says that it can properly fit a woman from the un-naked comfort of her own home (women can photograph themselves in a tanktop), and that the result will be a ThirdLove bra that she loves.

The company's tagline is "Burn Your Other Bras."

ThirdLove Screen

ThirdLove's "How It Works" Explanation

Those are bold words if the company can live up to them. Their secret is the 3D modeling they do using just two 2D images. Ms. Kessler described the process thus:

As instructed, I stand in front of my mirror with my phone at my belly button. “Slightly raise right end of the phone,” she says. Then “slightly raise left end of the phone.” Then, “slightly raise right end of the phone.” After about 50 more rounds of this, there’s a gratifying “Good job” and a countdown to the photo.

Instructions on the screen ask me to line up a box with the iPhone in the photo and to place a line on my chest. Then the principal voice walks me through the same process for a photo from the sideways perspective.

ThirdLove takes those photographs and makes a 3D model of the woman's breasts. It then uses that model to size a bra using its own sizes—the company claims to have "more sizes" that offer a "better fit"— to offer a "luxury product at half the price." That bra is mailed to you, and you are theoretically good to go.

Note that this stuff is in beta—there is no ThirdLove app in the App Store yet, and you must sign up to be on a beta list to try it out, which is essentially what Ms. Kessler experienced for her FastCompany article.

Contrast this process with either getting hand-fitted for a bra by a stranger in the sterile confines of a fitting room or taking your chances fitting yourself. Add in the vagaries of sizes varying from brand to brand, and from the XY side of the chromosome aisle, being a woman looks complicated and rife with potential awkwardness.

This is where I should mention that one of the women I consulted for this piece dismissed ThirdLove's entire pitch out of hand, labelling it, "So clearly men trying to solve women's problems."

I spoke with another who was similarly dismissive, saying she wasn't high-maintenance when it comes to bras. A third told me that it sounded, "fascinating, but complicated," adding, "Give me that for pants and I'll line up."

While anecdotal only, the different reactions I got speaks to the personal nature of shopping for bras. It also suggests that ThirdLove's success will hinge entirely on the company's results. If women get a ThirdLove bra that they love on the first try, and if the company's designs are appealing, ThirdLove could be a runaway hit, the first of many companies that try to do the same thing, bringing disruption to the market.

If not...well, the road to the future is paved with the shattered dreams born of great ideas.

ThirdLove is still in the startup phase. Ms. Kessler reported that it has raised US$5.6 million in financing, is led by a heavy-hitting husband and wife team from the world of venture capitalism, and has a number of top-notch imaging scientists (led by a NASA contractor) working on their back end technology. The company also has plans to bring its approach to other types of clothing, so perhaps my friend with the pants will be in luck.