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Marketing images for ThirdLove feature models of many shapes and races.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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A pivot from tech to empowerment at bra startup ThirdLove

How a woke brand is made.

Convincing 100 women to show up at a warehouse and take photos of their chests is no easy feat. Convincing them through a Craigslist ad is nearly impossible. But that’s what lingerie company ThirdLove did in 2013 while developing a proprietary app that was designed to predict better bra sizes.

“The app was problematic, to say the least,” said a former engineer we’ll call Ben. “It basically only worked if the photos were good.” When people tried out the at-home instructions exactly — take two pictures in front of a full-length mirror in good lighting while wearing a tight tank top, making sure the phone is at waist-height — the results were reliably accurate. But getting people to do that was difficult.

Then there was the matter of data security. Co-CEO David Spector told Inc the company never “recorded” people’s images, but no one was clear on what that meant. Once the photos were submitted via the app, where did they go?

After securing $8 million in funding, ThirdLove stopped developing the app. The technology was complicated, the data difficult to get right. In its wake, the founders doubled down on a narrative that would help set them apart in the competitive but old-school lingerie market: diversity and female empowerment.

To co-CEO Heidi Zak, these tenets had been there all along. “We set out to build a brand for all women of all sizes,” she told Vox. “Look at what we’ve done in the past year or two” — the company has featured diverse models in almost all of its recent marketing campaigns — “We wouldn’t do all these things if that wasn’t core to who we are.”

Many employees aren’t buying it. “It’s all about the money,” said a member of the marketing team we’ll call Liz. Interviews with 10 current and former employees, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, paint a picture of ThirdLove’s transformation, from a data-driven bra brand to a bastion of diversity and inclusion, as one of keen opportunism. The gap between their viewpoint and the founders’ suggests that while the company has succeeded in pushing the lingerie industry to be more inclusive on multiple fronts, it has a long way to go to convince the workers who helped build the brand of its motives.

David Spector and Heidi Zak founded ThirdLove (then called MeCommerce) in 2012 to improve the bra shopping experience. Both came from big tech backgrounds — Zak worked at Google, Spector at the investment firm Sequoia Capital. Early documents list Spector as the CEO and Zak as the president, although today, they co-lead the company and ThirdLove is touted as “female-run.” Their first hire, Ra’el Cohen, continues to head up the design team.

The initial concept was to use computer vision technology to predict more accurate bra sizes. People took photos of themselves using ThirdLove’s proprietary app; computer vision technology then processed the images, and suggested a personalized fit.

To alleviate privacy concerns, Spector was careful to highlight the company’s data sharing policy in interviews, noting privacy was of the “utmost importance” and leading reporters to say the images were “processed without ever being recorded by ThirdLove.”

This was 2013, so a computer vision underwear app was revolutionary. “Want a bra that fits perfect? This billionaire-backed app helps with just your iPhone,” wrote Forbes. “How a NASA scientist helped size my bra,” added Fast Company.

ThirdLove did have a scientist helping them develop the technology. Ara Nefian, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon who contracted at NASA, worked on the apps and nights and weekends, and even he said the technology presented difficulties. “It relied heavily on accurately following the directions and that was a bit complicated,” he explained.

Regardless of the complications, when a woman we’ll call Natalie joined the company in 2014, she was immediately blown away by the technology. “The story was that the app could size you better than a sales rep in a store, which seemed pretty innovative,” she said. “I was really excited about the idea of working at a startup.”

Unlike many of ThirdLove’s recent employees who thought they were joining a female-led company and felt blindsided when they realized Spector’s involvement, Natalie joined for the technology, not the feminist credentials.

Three months into her tenure, however, she was told they were abandoning the app. Computer vision “was just a buzzword,” she realized, even though the tech stayed on the App Store. When she began to ask questions (How would they know people’s sizes? What was going to happen to all the data?), she was told not to worry — the company had stopped using data from the photos anyway.

The reality was slightly more complicated. By late 2014, Nefian had stopped working on the app, and the technology quickly went defunct. It had been finicky when he was involved. Without him, it was almost unusable.

Privacy was also a concern. Women were writing in asking where their photos were going, especially since some had included their faces in the pictures. Employees didn’t know how to respond, but it was clear the app was “freaking people out,” Ben said. Were the photos stored by ThirdLove? The employees themselves still aren’t sure today; the company vehemently denies the photos “were ever stored on any kind of server of any kind,” or even on a “camera roll.”

Nevertheless, ThirdLove began asking users questions about people’s current bra size and fit to get a more reliable read. It was a method that ultimately led to the Fit Finder quiz they now use.

Screenshot of Thirdlove’s AI App
Thirdlove via The Daily Mail
A screenshot of Thirdlove’s AI App.
Thirdlove via The Daily Mail

By the end of 2015, the computer vision project had been more or less scrapped, and the media story around ThirdLove began to change. Over the next few years, they became the brand that actually understood breast shape. The company that called out Calvin Klein for sexist ads. The founders that fought for LGBT rights. They called themselves the “antithesis of Victoria’s Secret” and championed inclusivity in terms of both skin tone and size. It was a narrative that would ultimately stick.

ThirdLove’s 2014 marketing bears little resemblance to that of the company people know and love today. Their initial brand persona — the fictional customer they designed their products for — was a heterosexual white woman in her mid-thirties living in Brooklyn, according to three former employees. “She’d meet her co-workers at rooftop bars for drinks after work. It was like Sex and the City,” Liz said. “That’s how ThirdLove started — it wasn’t about being inclusive.”

These employees also recall getting pushback when they tried to use diverse models. “We liked to feature models of color in emails and on the homepage, and they [Spector and Cohen] would just ask us to change them. Sometimes they would say it was because white models sell better,” Liz said.

Four recent employees echoed these claims, saying they have had to re-edit entire campaigns — including one titled “to each her own” that celebrated women’s uniqueness — because there were “too many” models of color. “You’d hear comments from Ra’el Cohen that a model of color ‘looked tough’ or that ‘she looks like she’s going to slap a b,’” a member of the marketing team told us. Zak, who said she has been at every photoshoot produced by the brand, said this was untrue.

Tensions around race and identity are still running high inside ThirdLove. Last month, leaked audio provided to Vox revealed Zak apologized at a company meeting after she and Spector appeared in traditional Mongolian wedding garb on Halloween, offending employees. “As a few of you know, Dave and I were so fortunate this summer to go to Mongolia,” she explained. “We really just wanted to highlight something we felt was really beautiful.” She then asked people to “assume positive intent,” and moved on.

Other aspects of the brand have evolved, employees say. While Natalie remembers Cohen originally not being enthusiastic about offering larger bra sizes — saying “we will never be a plus-size company” on multiple occasions, when asked why ThirdLove didn’t carry larger bra sizes — more recent employees say she has become a strong advocate for bigger bodies. The company now carries over 80 sizes — far more than the typical bra brand — and Zak attributes this in large part to Cohen.

Undisputed is the fact that Spector championed this change. “This is where Dave can be a fascinating human,” Natalie said. While many employees report feeling bullied by his behavior, when he was on their side in an argument, his intensity could be an asset. “Like, he only wanted us to have hot models on our website but then he could be such a pitbull like, ‘This is low-hanging fruit. We have all these women who want this size, we should start carrying it. When are we going to start?’”

This pitbull quality also came out in less than ideal ways. In 2015, when the company launched a free trial program to allow customers to try on bras at home and send them back if they didn’t like the fit, he realized people’s credit cards were getting declined. Some were simply expired, but if customers kept the product, the company didn’t have a good way to recoup the funds, regardless if it was negligence or fraud.

Three employees remember Spector emailing people under a fake name in order to recover the money, claiming that if they didn’t pay up, the company would report them to an agency of online retailers. (No such agency exists.) “If you got too many strikes, you wouldn’t be able to shop online,” Emily recalls Spector telling customers. “It was my first job and I was like, this isn’t normal, right?” In response to this claim, ThirdLove said, “This is a twisted allegation trying to paint something negative which is simply normal business practice.”

Perhaps the company was suffering from the same difficulties as many early-stage startups: things were moving fast, people said things off the cuff, and the founders were zealous in their drive. But employee perception suggests the founders didn’t always take the time to bring the organization’s mission to life inside the company walls, which led to a growing chasm between how executives and their staff saw the brand.

It was around this time that Scott Nathan, a fashion photographer in Los Angeles, was approached about shooting a campaign for a different underwear company, Naja, which had launched in 2014. Naja partnered with women in need to design “underwear with a purpose.” It was founded by the actress Gina Rodriguez and Stanford MBA Catalina Girald.

Naja’s new line was called “Nude for All,” and it boasted an array of bras and underwear for a wide variety of different skin tones. In the photoshoot, Nathan framed 10 “real” women — all with unique jobs and backstories — against a neutral background. The campaign launched in 2016 in subway stations in New York.

Naja’s Nude for All campaign in the New York subway.
Catalina Girard Behance

Nathan was proud of how the campaign turned out. The images were fresh and showcased Naja’s inclusive values.

A year later, ThirdLove came out with its new campaign, called “The New Naked.” “The industry-favorite brand is launching nude bras for ALL,” Refinery29 announced.

Goodbye "nude", hello Naked. Introducing: The New Nakeds Collection from ThirdLove. Meet the five Naked shades inspired by YOU and find your Naked shade! #FindYourNaked

Posted by ThirdLove on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Fashion brands often borrow each other’s concepts and draw inspiration from one another. But to Nathan, ThirdLove’s images were too close to his own. “They completely jacked Naja’s campaign,” he opined. “They basically just copied the whole concept.”

Naja was hardly the first company to sell bras for different skin tones; still, ThirdLove employees felt the brand was jumping on a bandwagon in order to beat out a competitor. “It’s strange because originally it was really hard to get them to commit to an authentic image,” recalled Emily. “It was all very skinny neutral women — none of that girl power feeling they are preaching today.”

To ThirdLove’s early employees, watching the company transform from a tech-focused brand to an industry leader in female empowerment has been surreal. Many feel validated that the company now uses diverse models and offers a wide range of sizes, but the change also feels inauthentic. “They’re just opportunistic,” Liz said.

Zak remains steadfast in her belief that the narrative shared by these employees is wrong. “We’ve always been a brand that’s been for all women,” she said, “from the very beginning of the company.”

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