The best wilderness bra we've tried started out as a class project

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Finding a bra that looks good, feels good and performs well in the wilderness seemed to be an impossible task until we stumbled on Knix Wear’s Evolution Bra at Outdoor Retailer. Lightweight and flexible yet supportive and even sexy, it pretty much blew our minds.

It’s hard to say exactly why it’s taken so long for a bra like this to hit the market, and even founder Joanna Griffiths can’t quite put her finger on it.

“Now that we’ve made it, to me it just seems so obvious,” she said recently. “I think, in this case, we have such a benefit by being such a small company. … We have direct access to the end consumer.”

One thing is for sure: Griffiths is no accidental success, humble as she may be.

She is, however, somewhat of an accidental entrepreneur – and she’ll tell you she’s the first to admit it. Knix Wear didn’t start out as a bra company. It was born from a business school project when Griffiths was an MBA student at INSEAD, just outside of Paris, and proposed making underwear with built-in liners to eliminate the need for disposable pantyliners.

The idea was inspired by a candid conversation with her mom, a doctor and mother of four, about one of the few medical taboos still out there – incontinence.

“No one wants to talk about incontinence,” Griffiths said, “and no one wants to be labeled as incontinent.”

A quarter to a third of women experience incontinence at least once a month, Griffiths said, which includes small leaks that happen unexpectedly during physical activity. Yet people rarely talk about it. Small leaks are especially common among women who have kids, triggered by running or walking or sneezing. Griffiths was floored when her mother told her this. She was shocked by how common it is, and even more shocked that no one talks about it.

Her goal was to address a multitude of problems with existing underwear. Sexy, comfortable, high-performing, sweat-wicking, odor-controlling and leak-proof have generally been seen as mutually exclusive adjectives when it comes to describing women’s underwear.

Photo courtesy of Knix Wear.

Joanna Griffiths, founder of Knix Wear. Photo courtesy of Knix Wear.

She interviewed hundreds of women from all over the world about what they wanted and needed from lingerie, and even though it was just for a project, people perked up. They made it clear that they really needed something better, and Griffiths realized how much the underwear industry is frill over function.

What started out as a school assignment quickly became a successful business venture in the real world when she won some seed money from INSEAD, made product samples and raised tens of thousands of dollars on IndieGogo.

“This is completely accidental, but what I found was that over the course of the year (in business school), I couldn’t even talk about anything else,” Griffiths said. “I became the most boring, one-dimensional person you ever met.”

Yes, she was talking about women’s underwear and incontinence at parties.

Clearly, it paid off. About 140 teams submitted to a business venture contest at INSEAD, where the final two rounds were similar to ABC’s “Shark Tank,” and she beat them all. When she was named the winner, everyone in the room cheered for her and shouted Knix Wear’s old slogan: “Don’t pad the problem – Knix it!”

“That was one of the most humbling and incredible experiences of my life,” Griffiths said. “Every single person in the room had helped in some way.”

Because Knix Wear is still a small company, Griffiths' hands are all over everything they do, and we mean she is really involved.

Knix Wear's performance bras and underwear have been wildly popular with Kickstarter backers. Photo courtesy of Knix Wear.

Knix Wear's performance bras and underwear have been wildly popular with Kickstarter backers. Photo courtesy of Knix Wear.

Each new product, including the Evolution Bra, is inspired by feedback and comments from people who have supported the company through crowdfunding. Griffiths is still at the point where she’s personally reading all of her customers’ feedback.

It’s a smart model – Griffiths used data from early backers to determine the size and color runs of the bra, which ships out to supporters who pre-ordered it this month and will hit the website for sale this summer. From start to finish, Griffiths’ small team does everything, to which she attributes their success. What might get passed around from department to department at larger companies stays within control of a small group of people who also happens to be the target market for the product, giving them an extra level of passion and engagement because they’re creating a product they actually want to wear.

“I love it so much because I love solving problems,” Griffiths said. “That’s really what I do, and that’s really what we’re doing (at Knix Wear).”

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