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The lady that made Hamilton the bra-making capital of the world

Beverly Johnson in her Hamilton store and school. YONGE STREET MEDIA/Myles Herod.

Hamilton, Ontario is generally a city people outside of Canada haven’t heard of. Those that have are likely into bras.

Thanks to Bra-Makers Supply, Beverly Johnson’s shop-cum-custom bra-making school, Canada’s tenth largest city has become an international destination. The only teaching program of its kind in the world (nowhere else offers a two-month-long master bra-maker certification), Johnson attracts aspiring lingerie designers from as far as Russia and South Africa.

“She’s done a lot of research in a pretty under-researched field. There aren’t a lot of industry standards with bra-making,” says Christina Remenyi, a former student who launched Fortnight Lingerie in 2010.  “So she’s really figured out a lot and she’s really knowledgeable and I think very eager to share everything she’s built and learned.”

A lifelong seamstress, Johnson (now 60) came to bra-making after her fortieth birthday.

“I decided that I really needed a business that I could do that nobody else was doing,” Johnson recalls, and after considering her own background in pattern drafting and costume design, she came upon the solution: bras.

Johnson looked into a few major fashion school programs in the GTA, including those at Sheridan College and Ryerson University, and was stunned to realize that none of them offered a course in custom lingerie. The reason, she deduced, was that those programs were designed for people with aspirations to enter the ready-to-wear fashion industry.

“A lot of ready-to-wear, they don’t create anything for real women,” she says. “They create for a mannequin first.”

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A how-to guide, written by Beverly Johnson of Hamilton’s Bra-Makers Supply. YONGE STREET MEDIA/Myles Herod.

By teaching made-to-measure bra-making in 1990s Ontario, Johnson narrowed in on the standout business she craved. In turn, she would also teach women to produce garments that were superior to the store-bought alternatives.

She sourced and tested other people’s patterns, but found they fell short. So she set out to devise her own, dismantling some 40 store-bought bras to get to the bottom of their construction and tweaking her own designs using the features she came onto that worked.

Eventually, bra manufacturers caught wind of what she was doing and asked her to contribute to their own special projects such as mastectomy lines and label collaborations. But the fashion industry left a sour taste in Johnson’s mouth. She felt removed from her end users, a cog.

Then: “It dawned on me that women could learn how to make bras for other women.”

After several years teaching on the college circuit, Johnson launched Bra-Makers and its made-to-measure program in 2005. She’s had about 85 students since then (including some males), many of which have gone on to launch businesses of their own.

Like Remenyi, Chicago-based Mugsie Pike is another of Johnson’s success stories. After taking Johnson’s made-to-measure bra class in late 2010, Pike went on to found Renegade Lingerie, which specializes in custom bras, corsets and swimwear in addition to items like binders and packing harnesses for transgender clients.

Pike’s interest in lingerie design came from years of poorly fitting bras and scholastic pursuits: “I went to Northwestern University for gender studies and costume design and wrote my senior thesis on how gender identity is affected by lingerie, and vice versa.”

Because of their loaded political context, Pike sees in bras both a potential for burden and for empowerment, striving for the latter. Renegade Lingerie’s site promises a friendly and respectful atmosphere devoid of assumptions about body size, gender, and style.

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Bra-Makers Supply in Hamilton offers classes as well as lingerie. YONGE STREET MEDIA/Myles Herod.

Johnson approaches the inherent intimacy of her business with a sense of great responsibility and care. When she talks about the countless clients she’s had who’ve undergone mastectomies or carried around the weight of undersupported–or underaugmented–breasts, her tone takes on a timbre of careful purpose.

“I tell my students that often, as a bra-maker, you are going to see women who are embarrassed to even show their husbands what you are going to see,” she says. ‘There’s a huge amount of trust.”

That unique relationship between maker and buyer is what Remenyi identifies as the key reward of the industry: “The challenge of creating a product that makes people comfortable in their bodies, and confident.”

That sense of togetherness translates to the classroom, and to the community fostered within it. Johnson describes the women who have come to Hamilton from across the globe to take her class as “a sisterhood.” Many times, they will continue to interact and exchange ideas and accomplishments though email or on Bra-Makers’ Facebook page.

“It’s amazing how many long-term friendships have come from students within the class,” she says. “You’re not going to get that kind of positive feedback [on bras] from your regular friends.”

In the end, community is key to what Johnson is all about.

“We’re all helping other women–I hate to say ‘one breast at a time,’ but that’s how it works.”

Kelli Korducki is a writer and reporter based in Toronto. This article originally appeared in Yonge Street Media.