A specialty shop off Falls of Neuse in Raleigh wins loyal customers with empathy and expertise.
by Shelbi Polk | photography by S.P. Murray
Between the pink-and-white walls of the Bra Patch lives a world many women think only exists in fairy tales: one where bras fit, and fit well. The store is full of racks of bras and swimwear in sizes that cover an almost unbelievable span of the alphabet (cups all the way from A to O), with bands from 28 to 56.
The store itself is nearly 45 years old, and current owner Ruth Dowdy took over 13 years ago. Department stores, Dowdy says, simply don’t have the bandwidth to stock sizes on the small and large sides of the bra bell curve. Bra Patch gets around that issue with their singular focus. “That’s our niche—we carry the bras stores won’t sell,” Dowdy says. Before buying the business, Dowdy worked for herself for years representing a clothing line through trunk shows. Women would schedule one-on-one appointments for fittings for new wardrobes, and Dowdy noticed a consistent problem. “The one thing that was common with everyone was not knowing which bras to wear,” Dowdy says. “And you have to have a good bra for the clothes to look right.”
Then Dowdy saw an article in The News & Observer about a specialized bra shop going out of business. The last owner was so passionate about the Bra Patch that she was ready to close the store if the right successor didn’t come along. Women were flocking to the store, afraid they wouldn’t be able to find the sizes once the Bra Patch closed. Dowdy stepped in. “One thing led to another and here we are. It was a life-changer,” she says.She’s since quadrupled the business and brought in dozens of new lines and sizes of bras.
Talking to the fitters at Bra Patch, it’s hard to overstate the effect of finding a bra that actually fits. New customers regularly come in spilling out of the largest bras they can find in department stores, double or triple Ds, not knowing that there are actually bras out there made to fit them. Women come in wearing three bras for support, or oversize bras stuffed with socks. They’ve lost weight or gained weight, they’ve had mastectomies, they have body image issues. And for all of these concerns, a well-fitted bra offers a world of good. Three staffers are certified mastectomy fitters who can help create prosthetics for women who need them. No matter the size or situation, it’s immediately evident that the fitters love being able to help every person who walks through the door find a bra that works. “It’s amazing what the right bra will do,” store manager Catherine Johnson says. Johnson, a retired state investigator, initially came in as a bookkeeper, until the employees convinced her she needed a fitting. Now, she’s been working for the Bra Patch for three years.
“People come in, you see their breasts and you’re their therapist,” Johnson says. She helps women address some of their most intimate concerns, and she routinely gets to be the one to tell them that those insecurities are normal or won’t matter in just a few years. “I had one woman come in who had never had the right size bra in her entire life,” Johnson says. “Once we had her in the right size, she burst into tears and just hugged me.” That connection inspires long-reaching loyalty. Customers journey to the Bra Patch from states away, and many beg the store to open another location. Some have been coming into the store for decades, and bring their daughters when it’s time for their first bra. Employee Candice Brown says there’s even one loyal customer who flies in from Venezuela once a year to purchase her yearly allotment of eight bras.
People who aren’t comfortable baring it all definitely don’t have to. Dowdy says the fitters are careful to figure out where each customer’s comfort level lies. “We make it fun,” says employee Jan Ealy. That intuition helps the fitters treat everyone who walks in like their ideal older sister: compassionate and supportive, but also honest. “We’re not going to send them out there wearing just anything,” Ealy says. “We answer the questions you can’t ask your husbands.”
Johnson says she was surprised by just how much there was to know about bras. The employees’ knowledge is hyper-specific; each brand fits differently, and each woman’s body is unique. They put those together to figure out what works (Johnson mentions one bra they nicknamed “the packer,” for its effectiveness for women who have recently lost weight).
And for something that many women wear every day, there just isn’t a lot of education out there. “No one really teaches you except the women who have been here,” Johnson says. One reason for that lack of knowledge is that there simply used to be fewer options. “There didn’t used to be a lot of choices,” says Brown, who is notorious among the employees for trying on all of their products. Another reason women wear the wrong size bra is that there isn’t really any standardization of sizes across the industry. “Every single manufacturer sizes their bras completely differently,” Dowdy says. “I can bring in seven 36 GGs and they’ll all fit a little differently.”
Ealy, Brown and Johnson all admitted to wearing the wrong size bra when they first came to the store. “I came in here wearing the Playtex 18-Hour bra,” Brown says, “and then they got me in a Goddess and I was like, What just happened?” Being armed with the obscure knowledge of well-fitting bras does change the way some employees interact with the world. “We’ll be out somewhere, and my husband will say, Are you looking at other girls’ boobs again?” Brown says. “… I try not to!” Johnson laughs.