New to the outdoors: Sturdy Girl keeps abreast of what women really want in a sports bra

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.
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One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

For a long time, Hilary Heath has wanted to get something off her chest. She did so among her fellow running friends, an unofficial captive audience, venting her frustrations about the current state of the sports bra market. In short, she wasn’t happy with it.

“They chafed or they rubbed. I didn’t know any woman who loved her sports bra,” Heath said. “So I took the ones I mostly liked, laid them out and started cutting them into pieces.”

Her decision to go all Edward-Scissorhands on a dozen upscale, name-brand sports bras stemmed from a real beef with their construction. Heath believed she could do it better — and Sturdy Girl Sports was born.

 Sturdy Girl Founder Hilary Heath.

Sturdy Girl Founder Hilary Heath.

Now, having been named two years in a row among Runner’s World best sports bras for women and having graced the figure of The Biggest Loser contestant Coleen Skeabeck, Sturdy Girl, based in Louisville, Colo., is gaining momentum.

What makes Sturdy Girl bras so, well, sturdy?

Unlike most other brands on the market, Sturdy Girl offers band (think 32, 34, 36, etc.) and cup (think B, C, D, DD, etc.) sized bras in a racer back style. No more of that small, medium and large business, which often leaves larger chested, smaller torso-ed women in the lurch.

The bras also feature the patented “Sturdy Support System,” which includes hand-picked compression fabrics, a seamless cup encapsulation system (“so each ‘girl’ has her own place”), wide shoulder bands to distribute chest weight and a racer-back strap design. An added bonus: Heath included nipple covers sewn into the wicking fabric to prevent what she calls “the headlight issue.”

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“You put all those things together and you get a bra that locks you down,” she said.

Current models are available in band sizes 32 to 38 and cup sizes B/C, D and DD, although Heath plans for her next round to include a size E so that larger-bodied and breasted athletes will be able to feel “safe and secure.” And since the bust busters come in a sexy palette of wild patterns (think teal snakeskin and magenta leopard print in addition to standard white and black), they’re “meant to be fashionable and functional.”

Admittedly, the bras take some wiggling to get into since the only option is up and over the head, but just like she’d hoped, the chest supporters “fit like a glove” without requiring additional “adjustability parts” like clasps.

Since 2008, when Heath left the world of high tech and began hacking apart her sports bras, Sturdy Girl has grown bigger “quicker than expected,” primarily due to fabric purchasing minimums and the need to clothe half-naked mannequins with some bottoms. Thus the introduction of pants, capris and shorts with features Heath herself did and didn’t like. Drawstring? Gone. (“Who ever came up with that?!”)Accessible, but non-bulky key pocket? Check.

When Sturdy Girl launched, the line included five bras, three bottoms and a couple of technical tees that are not only high functioning, they help Heath use up fabric remnants leftover from her core pieces.

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“That wasn’t my plan at all,” she said. “My plan was just a couple of bras. My little egg grew into this giant thing really fast on me.”

Still, the fledgling brand remains a “tight ship.” Heath has recruited a marketing manager Leanne Hand, as well as a few family members, to be her support system’s support system. Her daughters and son helped select next season’s colors and learned the ins and outs of marketing, production and overhead costs; one floor of her mother’s house is devoted to inventory; and her husband Charlie handles all of the distribution.

Charlie also goes on the road with her to local organized runs where they sell the bras in a booth. Heath says he’s far past the blushing phase.

“My husband can size up ladies right away and he’s right all the time!” she said. “He’s right more often than I am!”

Of course the good has come with the bad. One of the hardest parts about getting her brand off the ground has been learning the ropes and making the necessary contacts in the technical fabric industry

“A lot of people turned [my idea] down saying ‘I don't do startups.’ I got a lot of that,” she said. “You have to keep pushing.”

Now that Heath has the product in hand, she’s finding it difficult to convince retailers with limited floor space to adopt her new line.

“For most of the specialty running stores, a huge majority [of the revenue] comes from shoes. And the other stuff stores carry tend to be extensions of running brands,” she said, listing Asics running shorts, tops and yes, bras, as an example. “It’s really hard as a vendor who doesn’t do shoes to get into a lot of stores. They’re hesitant to bring in a new brands because they’re maxed out.”

Sturdy Girl products are currently available on the brand website, Amazon and eBay, but Heath hopes to soon branch out to small, specialty retailers.

--Courtney Holden

Does Sturdy Girl have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.

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