Asheville’s bra shops offer support for all occasions

Hello, Gorgeous!
SISTERHOOD OF SUPPORT: Hello, Gorgeous! co-owners Michelle Nailen, second from left, and Kim Broshar, far right, donated 500 "gently loved" bras to Lynn Harmon, far left, donations volunteer for Helpmate, and Pam King, second from right, development director for Helpmate. Photo courtesy of Maggie Slocumb

Breasts mean different things to different people, according to sexual health counselor Aleece Fosnight, founder of Fosnight Center for Sexual Health.

Breasts can nourish children. They can provide pleasure for oneself and others. Some people love their breasts. Some feel their breasts are a back pain-inducing nuisance, while others find their breasts don’t align with their gender identity. Some people have them removed in lifesaving surgeries. Some people want their breasts to be larger or smaller, or they don’t want breasts at all.

Breasts can take on a lot of meaning and become  important to self-image and identity. The women who own several boutiques selling undergarments in Asheville know the search for the right bra can be a fraught experience (as many who’ve experienced a meltdown in the dressing room can attest). They spoke with Xpress about the supportive garments they sell for diverse needs and how they make sure everyone has a bra that fits.

Be yourself

Upon entering VaVaVooom, customers are greeted with sex toys and kinky implements. But the downtown Asheville business is more than a sex toy shop. Toward the back of the boutique are racks of bras, lingerie and other undergarments for all genders. “Everyone wants to feel wonderful and beautiful,” explains owner Lisa Genevieve Ziemer.

VaVaVooom sells bras and lingerie items for feminine bodies, ranging from the classic virgin-white honeymoon sets to vintage-style corsets to bondage-style leather gear. The boutique also carries an Italian lingerie line for masculine bodies called Menagerie, which makes silk briefs, lace boxer shorts and lace thongs — the latter, she says, is the most popular item among men in the store.

VaVaVooom also carries burlesque accessories, including corsets and pasties, which cover the performers’ nipples. (Ziemer also tries to carry products for drag performers, noting she has access to shoes up to size 14, as well as larger sizes in legwear and body stockings for all genders.)

SIZE INCLUSIVE: VaVaVooom owner Lisa Genevieve Ziemer prefers to use the term “luscious size” rather than plus size. Her shop sells bras, lingerie, burlesque and drag products, and legwear, like fishnets, in luscious sizes. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Ziemer is intentional about the language she uses to discuss garment sizes. Instead of the industry standard “plus size” or “queen size,” she uses the term “luscious size” for larger fits “because it’s more [suggestive of] how a woman feels in her own body,” she says. “I think it’s a much kinder word.”

She shows Xpress a sexy, peacock feather-patterned bodysuit from the size-inclusive brand Thistle & Spire. “We can’t keep it in stock,” she exclaims. It’s available up to size 3X (also known as 26-28), and she says that range has attracted customers.

Ziemer appreciates that the lingerie industry is being more inclusive of all sizes and genders than it was when she opened VaVaVooom 15 years ago. “When I first started, it was very, very hard to find any luscious-size lingerie.”

For breast cancer survivors

Pink Regalia, which has shops in Asheville and Waynesville, specializes in bras for people who have undergone mastectomies, lumpectomies and breast reconstruction. These bras are worn as post-surgical prostheses and are classified as durable medical equipment, or DREs, by Medicaid, Medicare and insurers.

But Pink Regalia’s owner, Stephany Semones, didn’t want her shop to feel like a dreary, clinical medical-supply store. “I wanted to create a boutique that was for women who had breast cancer, but felt like you were shopping at a regular store,” she explains. “I wanted a beautiful shop where women felt safe.”

GENEROUS HEART: In addition to selling bras for women who have had all or part of their breast tissue removed, Stephany Semones, owner of Pink Regalia, says she also has a donation closet with free items. “We’re not letting somebody leave without something they need,” she says. Photo courtesy of Semones

Semones and her staff are certified as mastectomy fitters, meaning they can fit and adjust bras and related supplies after a mastectomy, lumpectomy or breast reconstruction. They’re trained in the practical skill of fitting women at this vulnerable moment, which requires emotional sensitivity.

Fosnight, the sexual health counselor, says a top concern of patients who have breast tissue removed is the aesthetics of their postoperative chests. She recalls tough conversations where women voice worries such as “I’m going to look ugly,” “I’m not a woman anymore,” or “Who am I now?” She underscores to all patients that “we are defined by more than our body parts,” she says. Still, Fosnight acknowledges that filling out and wearing bras post-operatively can be significant for the confidence of breast cancer survivors adjusting to the changes in their bodies.

Pink Regalia sells mastectomy bras for regular daywear as well as activewear; many have zippers in the front or Velcro straps for ease of removal when the chest and underarm area are healing after surgeries. The shop also sells drain pouches for the medical devices some women need to wear after surgery, which are fitted inside tank tops or T-shirts (also sold there).

Breast forms are also within Pink Regalia’s inventory. These are prostheses “made to mimic the volume of breast tissue that has been lost or moved,” and can be used by people who don’t want surgical reconstruction, says Semones. Made from silicone or foam, they come in various sizes, weights and shapes.

Some women complain that breast forms trap heat against their body and feel uncomfortable, Semones notes. But Pink Regalia sells newer breast forms with cooling properties, and the pocketed bras sold to wear with them are made with cooling fabrics as well.

Semones and her two store managers also assist women in filing insurance claims for their postoperative supplies. “We want ladies to know that [these items] are covered through your insurance,” she says. “It helps to know that with all the medical expenses that you’re having when you’re going through treatment, this is not one to add to that.”

Pink Regalia also sells bras women need for other life passages: nursing bras, pumping bras and maternity bras.

Size matters

After working in education for decades, friends Kim Broshar and Michelle Nailen pivoted to opening a lingerie shop in Woodfin. Hello Gorgeous! is dedicated to professionally fitting women in the right bras.

“Across the board, most women don’t really know how a bra should fit,” Nailen explains. Their inclusive size inventory ranges from 28-44, with cups from A to L, according to their website. Elomi, one of the brands they carry, is made for curvier bodies, and the brand Evelyn & Bobbie is also known for inclusive sizing.

Hello, Gorgeous! has a charitable arm as well. Nearly three years ago, the shop began collecting “gently loved” bras from customers, Nailen explains, which they laundered and tidied up. Last month Hello, Gorgeous! donated 500 of these gently used bras to Helpmate, a shelter for people leaving intimate-partner violence. The nonprofit says it’s an extraordinarily useful donation for the population they serve.

“Folks are often having to rebuild their lives from scratch [after making] the choice to flee for their physical safety,” program director Maggie Slocumb tells Xpress. “Knowing that we have that cache of bras in our clothing closet is such a relief.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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