Of the 100,000 years that the biologically "modern" human woman has existed, the sports bra has been around for just 45 of them. In 1977, a graduate student named Lisa Lindahl teamed up with Polly Smith, a theater costume designer, to invent the first general exercise bra. Initially, they called it the "jockbra," because that's what it was: a bra fastened from two jockstraps sewn together.
Playtex bought the company (which was later renamed "Jogbra") in 1990. Years of research followed by the late Dr. Christine Haycock, associate professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. That's when the category really took off, and that wasn't even three decades ago.
"Brands have been democratized now where you can have women at the helm, making the decisions, being responsible for the whole project. That's leading to more innovation," says Joanna Griffiths, founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer intimate apparel brand Knix. "But for a long time, it was just overlooked. And as long as everyone was making the same kind of crappy products, then no one really had to step up their game."
Griffiths, like Lindhal, came up with her own business model while in graduate school, getting her MBA at a university outside of Paris. Initially, Griffiths aspired to run her own media company. But her trajectory shifted. During an otherwise unassuming conversation with friends, over wine, the idea for Knix — a heavily consumer-centric, research-driven intimates company by women, for women — materialized. Griffiths ran with it.
"I had no background in apparel. I had never owned my own company before. I was probably the least qualified person on the planet to start a business," she says over the phone from her home base of Toronto. "What I did have was this serious, serious passion for women, to change the way women felt about themselves and felt about their bodies."
Griffiths spent a year in business school putting in the legwork: doing research, interviewing hundreds of women and, eventually, putting together prototypes. It was during these early stages that she found women to have two overarching qualms with the underwear market: one being that a vast majority of products were either exceedingly functional, or exceedingly sexy. The other was less tangible: The messaging was, to put it kindly, upsetting.
"Brands, at the time, were making women, myself included, feel pretty crappy about ourselves and our bodies," says Griffiths. She wanted to reinvent the wheel. "We set out to be a brand that really represents women for who we are and communicate with women in a way that treats us as smart, intelligent, diverse beings, which we are."
It's at this point in our interview that, typically, I might ask how the company got off the ground financially. But Knix's story has already made headlines: To kick off the brand's launch in 2013, it ran a successful crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter, and two years later, ran another. The latter raised nearly $2 million in pre-sales; the demand was so dramatic that it prompted Knix to switch its strategy from a wholesale-focused business to direct-to-consumer one. (It also remains the most funded female-run and fashion-adjacent Kickstarter to date.) In 2017, Griffiths turned down term sheets from investors so she could continue to grow the business on her own terms.
"So many of the choices I've made for Knix, specifically the constant, conscious choice to collaborate with our customers, and to listen to women, and to make things they want us to make, always came from the fact that I don't have a background in apparel and I never felt like I knew all the answers," says Griffiths. By crowdfunding, customers became both financially and emotionally invested as shareholders, even if they only contributed $1.
Knix's products exist to help solve real-life problems — or, difficult, universal and patriarchally "unsexy" problems that are rarely addressed by those women-serving intimates companies that are run by men. The standout example is Knix's leakproof underwear, which is also the first product with which the brand launched back in 2013.
"I think I was 26 at the time. My mom's a doctor — she's a huge role model of mine; she's had four kids — and we were having that candid conversation you have about…" She pauses. "You know the talk where you learn everything that no one's told you about?" Yes, I say. "She started explaining all the different things that happen to women's bodies [during pregnancy] and post-pregnancy, and that's when I learned women can leak a little when they laugh, or sneeze, or do jumping jacks, and I just hadn't heard of that before. I felt like it was a secret that everyone kept from women."
Knix's leakproof underwear — which Griffiths says they can't keep in stock — comes in three separate styles, retailing between $22-$24: the bikini and boyshort each absorb up to three teaspoons (or two tampons) of leaks, period blood or sweat; the thong absorbs up to one. Its "Thigh Saver Short" includes a built-in gusset for moisture-wicking and anti-odor purposes. And its best-selling "8-in-1 Evolution Bra," which is fully reversible, is constructed from performance fabrics like quick-dry; at press time, it had 2,664 five-star customer reviews.
On Tuesday, Knix is officially taking on the $3.5 billion sports bra market with its latest product, the Catalyst. Since 2016, the sports bra category has seen more than 20 percent annual growth, and is projected to be worth $30.4 billion in 2025. And yet, a reported 40-60 percent of women still complain of breast pain associated with physical activity.
Enter the Catalyst bra, the development of which took two years, 22 design sketches and 42 prototypes. It features six different "support zones" and 13 ventilation holes, as well as a bonded construction that eliminates visible seams, chafing and molded cups. Its sizing also goes up to a 42G; Nike's only goes up to a 38E, and Lululemon's to a 38DD.
"There's a whole group of women who don't have suitable sports bras," says Griffiths. "So, we're addressing that."
The testing and research that went into creating the Catalyst was extensive to say the least. In terms of testing, sports bra performance is traditionally measured in "bounce rate." The simplified process is as follows: A woman runs on a treadmill bare-breasted, with sensors and motion-capture cameras that document the movement of the breast. She then runs on that treadmill with a bra on, and researchers map the reduction in movement. (Knix's Catalyst bra has had the largest reduction in movement.)
"The concept of running on a treadmill, topless, with sensors on, isn't appealing at all," says Griffiths. "It's not as bad as it sounds, but it does sound sort of barbaric, to be honest."
For Knix's research, Griffiths and company turned to the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth, which has developed its own testing protocols for breast health and, over the last decade, tested more than 800 bras. Knix did all of its testing on a 34D; the larger a woman's breasts are, obviously, the more they move.
Through its research, Knix also found that 87 percent of the 2,000 women they surveyed had complaints about getting stuck in a sports bra when it came time to remove it. For this issue, they turned to yet another facility, the Technical University of Munich's Sport and Exercise Science division, to create yet another new testing protocol. Apparently, this isn't done a lot.
"From a supply chain standpoint, there's a handful of top factories that a lot of the brands work with, so even the design and innovation process is being very centralized. When everyone's working with the same people, it can be hard to have huge breakthroughs because everyone's thinking about things the same way," says Griffiths. "Versus when we set out to make this product, we knew the outcomes that we wanted. We almost approached the design process from the end result and then worked our way backwards."
Knix has other initiatives in the works, as well. Last week, the brand's younger-sister line Knixteen launched with its new BraBoss collection: a range of bras created in collaboration with famous teens like Mo'ne Davis and Jazz Jennings and based on survey responses from young women aged 13-22. (Seventy percent of responders were between the ages of 13 and 16.) Like Knix's original Kickstarter campaign, this survey broke records: It garnered more than 10,000 responses within the first 12 hours, and more than 139,000 responses after the full month, making it the "largest teen survey to date."
There are many more projects and launches and whole entire categories in the pipeline, but Griffiths is keeping mum on details. For now, she's crystal clear about one thing: Knix has plans to reinvent the entire intimates market and become a household name in the process.
"The way we want to get there is by being true to where we've come from — continuing to focus on making wonderful, innovative products that impact how women feel every day, and then [putting] our customers in our photo shoots to showcase how spectacular women are," she says. "It's following the same formulas, just with a little bit more muscle behind us."
The market is already changing, thanks, in part, to women-led businesses like Knix that are creating accessible, wearable, beautiful products that satisfy a woman's actual wants and needs. And it will only continue to change as we continue to have those candid conversations — about anatomy, about fertility, about childbirth, about postpartum — like the one Griffiths had with her mother.
"I think that lingerie will still serve its purpose," says Griffiths. "But in terms of what women wear every day, we're going to look at today's bra as pretty antiquated."
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Knix