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<p>Artwork: Hafsa Ashfaque/Dawn</p>

Artwork: Hafsa Ashfaque/Dawn

Pakistani women and the fault in our bras

If you’re a DD or bigger, chances are you’re not going to find a bra very easily.
Updated 05 Nov, 2022 02:12pm

Noreen* could feel the underwire of her bra digging into her left breast. She was uncomfortable. She had to buy a replacement bra immediately. The girls could not wait. Her only option — Hidden, a shop (which, ironically, was not hidden) at Centaurus Mall in Islamabad.

She walked in and asked the girl to give her anything in 40D. The salesgirl looked at her chest and asked, “Are you sure? Do you know your size?”

Noreen rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, of course I do. I’ve been wearing bras for quite a while now.” The salesgirl started walking towards Noreen with a measuring tape and insisted on measuring her chest.

After wrapping the tape under and on her chest, the salesgirl exclaimed, “Aha! You’re a 44B.”

As fast as lightning, the salesgirl went through the stock available in the small shop and came out with three options — all cotton, all ugly and each for Rs1,300 to Rs1,400.

It seemed reasonable, so Noreen bought three and went home.

Three days later, she was pleased with her purchase and was wearing her new bra to work…when the strap snapped. She quickly fixed the situation with a safety pin. An hour later, the other strap also snapped…

Dude, where’s my bra?

Buying a bra should be a pretty simple process. You walk into a shop, look for what you want, find it in your size and you’re out. But in Pakistan, it’s nothing short of an ordeal. As a plus sized woman, it’s near impossible.

In Karachi, for example, women go to Bohri Bazaar, Zainab Market, Triumph or Women’s Secret. In Islamabad, there is Hidden and Lingerie by D. Watson, Lahore has Al Fatah and a few other stores. Many women prefer ordering online via Losha.pk, Daraz or Cherie Lingerie and other pages on Instagram and Facebook. Seems pretty simple, right?

Wrong. In bazaars, bras and panties are sold at stalls which are generally run by men. Women cannot get sized or look through at what they want in a safe and comfortable environment.

 Bras on display at Karachi’s Bohri Bazaar. Photo: Tooba Masood
Bras on display at Karachi’s Bohri Bazaar. Photo: Tooba Masood

At other stores, there is a problem of limited options and sizes — in most stores, 38D is the biggest size available. This does not mean that they don’t have bigger sizes, it’s just that they run out quickly. You might, occasionally, find a larger cup size but not very often. This limits your choice in style and fit of the bra, material, comfort, support and colour. Triumph/IFG does have cup sizes E, F and G but the bra cut/style is limited to one or two bras — the Doreen and the delicate Doreen and both are minimisers.

I remember going with my mother to buy my first trainer bra or BD/BEEDEE as it used to be called then. We went to a bra store in Clifton called Intimate. The bra itself was just a short vest type of thing with no real support. It was made from cotton and was extremely uncomfortable. My first real bra wasn’t much different. I just remember that it had three colour options — black, white and beige. My mom wanted to buy all three but the saleslady at the store insisted that young girls should only wear white or beige. I truly wish I had told that aunty to sit down.

When asked where they buy their bras, some women said that they begged and ordered to friends and relatives living abroad or bought bras when they travelled abroad. Some said that they ordered via online pages but many said that they bought locally. Here is what they had to say.

For Karachi-born Khadija, who buys bras from local stores, there are very few options available. “The bras here aren’t cute and tacky sexy but they offer comfort for everyday wear,” she said. “The market needs to have more options for women who are not frequent travellers and don’t want to ask favours from relatives to get them from abroad either. They need to include T-shirt bras, less padding, all sizes, and the right material given Pakistan’s weather.”

Recently, she said that she bought trainer bras for her daughters, “But they were not great comfort and choice wise.” A brand she likes these days is Tuhura Athletics, which she says does great sportswear and sports bras.

Zehra says she hates going to buy bras and prefers to order them online. “I grew up going to Zainab Market, Bohri Bazaar, Sunday Bazaar with my mom and hated the way bras were displayed there. So I prefer buying through Daraz.pk or Instagram pages. Sometimes you find a good deal and quality. On Daraz, I’ve seen bras from Iran, Turkey, Korea and other local brands,” she said.

According to Zainab, she spent many years looking for the perfect bra. “My mum, poor thing, was quite clueless about what type to get for young girls. So I just started with some random ones and spent a good two to three years trying everything from M&S, La Senza, Victoria’s Secret till I found this one from Triumph. I had the measurements done there as well and was told I’m a 36D,” she said.

 Victoria’s Secret Body By Victoria Lightly Lined Full Coverage Bra
Victoria’s Secret Body By Victoria Lightly Lined Full Coverage Bra

She shared that she prefers a bra that offers comfort and support because “being heavy already means discomfort with bras. I’ve given up on my finding cute or colourful ones for my body type. I like bras which don’t have an imprint [through your] clothes, like a silk dress, for which I use my M&S one sometimes.”

The only thing Zainab hates more than underwired bras is bras with conical shaped cups.

Like Zainab, Sara looks for comfort first. “I don’t wear padded ones and don’t buy Pakistani brands or the brands with mixed/non-breathable/nylon type material. There may be cotton bras available at popular brands like IFG but I really don’t like their designs,” she said. “Naheed has a limited collection of brands, so I have to make do with that,” she said.

“Most of the time my size is out of stock, though I’m not heavy-breasted but I try to buy a couple in one go in order to avoid that. I may find a bra here for the sole purpose of why they’re bought and worn here but when it comes to the design/style aspect of it, I don’t think I have found the ones at local stores which I’d like to wear,” Sara added.

Similarly, Kashifa shared that for sports bras, she goes to ONE but for daily-wear bras she goes to the British Lingerie Studio, which has stores in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Rahim Yar Khan, Sialkot and Multan.

“The bras here are reasonably priced and comfy. For me, when I buy a bra, I look for something that fits well and is comfy because I’m someone with a lot of sensory overload so I don’t want anything in lace, wire or mesh or super tight stuff. But I’m not at a point where I can pay Rs5,000 for a bra yet so I look for easily washable but durable stuff,” she explained.

Ghausia prefers bras from Primark and orders them from a woman who lives in the UK. She explained that she does so for two reasons — “it is not ugly because I wear a D-cup and those are always made ugly and it actually fits comfortably because the ones here are usually really, really shitty.”

 Triumph’s best-seller, Doreen.
Triumph’s best-seller, Doreen.

Shazia, a university student, shared that she had never bought a bra for herself. When her mother goes shopping to Naheed Supermarket, she gets them for her when needed. She has accompanied her mother a few times though. The ladies’ undergarment section is located on the fourth floor of the building and is cordoned off with sanitary pads.

“It is a floor dedicated to men’s undergarments, which are openly displayed, baby items and women’s undergarments. My mom buys bras and panties from here because of the quality. She has been using the same products for a long time so she is comfortable with them and knows all the sales girls and it’s a very safe space for her,” she shared.

For Hina, finding a bra with her cup size is really difficult. “I need plus sized bras, which don’t really exist in Pakistan. I’m a 36H/I, and while that’s never available, in some instances, one can find up to a G cup. There’s just one extremely hideous style called Doreen in Triumph that goes up to a G and gives everyone conical torpedo boobs a la Madonna,” she said. “Losha has one style that goes up to a G — I have them in both colours — and Floraison Intimates allegedly has G cup bras but they’re always out of stock — I know, I’ve been checking every few weeks for at least 1.5 years,” she said.

Shaping the ladies

Since 1971, International Foundation & Garments (IFG) has been the leading manufacturer of women’s undergarments in Pakistan and has been producing under the same label. They are also the sole distributors of Triumph in Pakistan.

The business was started by the Bhimjee family back in 1971 as there were no undergarments available in the local market. Roshan Bhimjee saw the need to start a lingerie manufacturing plant in Pakistan. He set it up in Pakistan in collaboration with Triumph International. His wife, Bano Bhimjee, played an integral role in setting up and running the business which is currently run by the second and third generation of the Bhimjee family.

They currently have seven stores and 1,500+ retailers across Pakistan. IFG representative Sana Lakha spoke to Images about the brand and its bras — which go up to 44G.

IFG is manufactured locally. The components, however, are sourced from both local and international suppliers. Triumph is entirely imported and is not manufactured in Pakistan anymore. It used to be made locally and also exported back in the days when IFG setup its plant in Karachi in collaboration with Triumph and the Germans were here throughout the entire process of training, R&D and production.

 Floraison Intimates’ Pumpkin Spice Bra
Floraison Intimates’ Pumpkin Spice Bra

“As a brand our [unique selling perspective ] is that we make bras especially for Pakistani women to suit their figures and the climate of Pakistan and every bra is designed according to their needs. Our products are special because they’re made for South Asian bodies and all our fabric and colours are made as per their preference. Another USP is that we have a huge size range and we cater to women of all shapes and sizes. We are known for our quality and sizing,” shared Lakha.

Talking about what kind of bras the Pakistani woman prefers, she said: “In Pakistan, the mature segment opt for cotton bras as they are the most comfortable to wear in our weather all year round. Women like full coverage bras, which are comfortable to wear all day long and provide support. For special occasions, these women prefer full lace bras or even polyester bras with lace detailing. The younger segment prefer seamless cotton bras, T-shirt bras, bralettes and other fashion bras.”

And what do most women buy — “Doreen is Triumph’s best-selling Minimiser. It’s also one of the highest selling bras internationally. Some of our hot sellers from IFG are Comfort 15 (Rs1,200), Corina cotton (Rs600) and Vision (Rs1,280).”

The most expensive IFG bra is Comfort 15 (D,E) for Rs1,300 while the most expensive Triumph bra is T-Shirt Bra 60 WP for Rs5,100. The cheapest is the beginner bra for Rs800.

IFG also has another line called Poppy — which has bras ranging from Rs920 to Rs3,200 as well as nightwear.

So why is Doreen popular? According to Lakha, Doreen is made from 53 components and gives excellent lift and support to even the most difficult and heavy figures. “It is a corrective minimiser and visually minimises the figure to appear one cup size smaller. It supports breast tissue and uplifts sagging figures. It’s the world’s best-selling bra, not just Triumph’s,” she shared.

“Gynaecologists recommend women wear it after childbirth and while nursing to support sagging breasts so it appeals to postpartum moms too. It is available in sizes 32-46 cups B-H, which is why it caters to all shapes, sizes and plus sized women too,” she said.

The price for the Doreen ranges from Rs3,900 to Rs4,200. The cheapest bra available is Rs2,250.

Nismah Jahahzeb, a consultant at Doha’s Blue Salon — Qatar’s first luxury online store — said that Doreen is also popular there. She shared that women above the age of 40 love Doreen and usually purchase 10 to 12 in a go.

BeBelle Lingerie has been around since 1996 (and are the second largest manufacturers of women’s undergarments in Pakistan) and prides itself for focusing on women’s comfort. Their bras and panties range from Rs500 to Rs1,800/Rs2,000. Talking to Images, BeBelle’s representative Bisma Tariq, who heads the retail side of the company, said that all their accessories are imported from Thailand and China — the bras are designed and manufactured locally.

BeBelle has stores in Karachi, Multan, Sialkot and Bahawalpur — we know what we are selling, we know what we are making, she said. She claimed that most brands are just importing from China, Turkey or Thailand — they don’t know what they are buying to be honest. They don’t know what the Pakistani woman wants or needs to wear or what their requirement is, she said.

 Everyday Essentials 1 by Poppy
Everyday Essentials 1 by Poppy

Tariq said that most brands — locally — do not take what a woman wants into consideration. Over the years, she shared, BeBelle had upgraded. “I wanted our women to have the perfect bra,” she said.

Local clothing brand Sapphire also started a lingerie line at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 but it shut down quite unexpectedly. Many women said that they liked the lingerie that was available at the store, which catered to everyday, Prima, Curve and Bridal.

Recently, Khaadi started producing panties — sets of threes in midi briefs, high leg and full briefs. Many women also order from BeBelle, Flourish, Floraison Intimates and Losha.pk.

To understand the market better, Amami Clothing, an undergarment manufacturer in Faisalabad, hired an Italian expert to survey the market.

“We are a manufacturer of inner-wear, but we are not (yet) a brand seller. We work with established brands like Khaadi, Breakout, Cambridge etc to provide them their own brand of inner-wear,” said Amami’s spokesperson.

“We have done a lot of work (and research) on many aspects of this work including the Pakistani “shape”. We believe we have more insights on this than local retailers and brands,” he added.

“It is difficult for men to research on this…it is considered improper. So we partnered up with an Italian lady who was working in the fashion industry. We had an understanding with her. She carried out research for us across Pakistan,” said Amami Clothing’s Mansoor Shah.

The initial feedback, he said, told them that there were a few categories available in the market. “There were premium products that are imported or smuggled into the country — which are expensive, then there are copies of these products, then Chinese, Turkish, Indian and Bangladeshi products — various countries have different qualities. Then we learnt that there was no one dedicated manufacturer — there’s IFG but no one else was focusing on undergarments. And this is when we decided to come into this,” he explained.

 The FB-002 from Triumph
The FB-002 from Triumph

“The shape is something we are still researching. Recently, we started discussion with an internet based inner-ware retailer to gather data. This is the first time we will actually get real data. With our theoretical collection of data, we learnt that price/size segment is very basic. We are also focusing on that. We have realised that Pakistani women are a bit larger.

“The largest size we have is 42E, we haven’t gone to G as yet but it is something we are looking into. It has to be about quality and comfort.”

At the end of the day, Mansoor said, we need to realise that a bra, is just a part of clothing.

Food for thought: Considering that more than half of this country’s population is women, there is little to no creditable research being done on undergarments. This is an untapped market — if anyone even captures 1% of the market that is almost 1.1 million women.

Dude, here’s your bra

 Artwork: Hafsa Ashfaque/Dawn
Artwork: Hafsa Ashfaque/Dawn

Looking for the perfect bra? Here is what you need to know:

First of all it is important to remember that all cup sizes are not the same and they change depending on the band size. The best way to look at the bra size is to look at your dress size.

“So say you’re 8 30/32, 10 32/34 cup wise, I would say try a couple to get a better idea, basically you have to look at the five for points when you wear your bra,” says fashion consultant and brand executive at Blue Salon in Doha, Qatar, Nismah Jahanzeb. “In Pakistan, women should opt for cotton bras but at the end of the day, the perfect bra should make the woman feel comfortable and her silhouette look much better.”

Jahanzeb said there are five things every woman should know before buying a bra:

  • The under band has to be parallel at the back, so it should be sitting horizontally not riding up etc

  • The centre front of the bra should be flat against the chest with no gap

  • No double busting — the bust should not be spilling out of the bra at the front and/or on the sides

  • Wires should not be digging into any breast tissue/underarm

  • Straps should be secure but not tight aka digging into the shoulder