Women of Brummell: when beauty meets purpose

Bree McKeen talks to Brummell about how she came to establish Evelyn & Bobbie, the inclusive underwear company that revolutionised a 100-year-old industry

People 1 May 2024

Women of Brummell: Bree McKeen

Can you tell us about your background and how it led to you becoming an entrepreneur?

My mother was a teen mum and had me and my siblings before the age of 21. She was a real survivor – her life wasn’t easy, but she was extremely smart and hardworking, and she taught me that if you don’t quit and keep fighting for what you want, you will be the last one standing. It’s the lack of fight that so often prevents people from accomplishing what they want to accomplish, so I was taught really early on to value the struggle. Because of this, I ended up being the first person in my family to graduate from college and, much later, went on to be a successful entrepreneur. Trust me, you have to embrace the struggle when you’re an entrepreneur!

What inspired you to start Evelyn & Bobbie?

Like many entrepreneurs, there were a series of “ah-ha” moments that led to me starting Evelyn & Bobbie. One moment stemmed from my interest in women’s health, having studied medical anthropology in college, and the other stemmed from my own personal struggles. I have always been passionate about how systems of health contribute to systems of oppression.

I discovered how much of women’s breast health is being systematically ignored. I met with breast researchers at Sloan Kettering, a breast cancer research facility, to ask why I couldn’t find any studies about the impact of underwire bras on women’s lymphatic drainage area and its ability to drain toxins. I found out it’s because there were no studies researching this. This was shocking, especially when one in eight women will be affected by breast cancer at least once in their life. All the billions of dollars raised are going towards treatment or to pharmaceutical research, not to prevention or to behavioural studies. I knew that at a minimum I could create an ergonomic, non-toxic bra without wires.

Another moment I realised I wanted, and needed, to start Evelyn & Bobbie was to do with my own experience. Having previously worked as a young female managing partner in a predominantly male-dominated industry, I cared a lot about how I presented myself during this time in order to be taken seriously. I would put together a smart outfit but the thing that never worked was my bra. I couldn’t find a bra that was modest, supportive, flattering and, most of all, comfy. At work I would be listening to machine-learning pitches, and I would think to myself: we are living in a world where we have artificial intelligence, yet I still can’t find a good bra – something that has been around for generations!

What sets Evelyn & Bobbie apart from other bra companies?

I want to stress that Evelyn & Bobbie is the first of its kind. During the formative years, where I spent the majority of my time doing research and development, I discovered that most of the largest bra retailers in the US only stock up to 38DDD. This bra size lies in the middle of the American population demographic. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken to women who have told me they have cried at bra-fittings or that they have tension headaches from unsupportive or ill-fitting bras. I wanted to fill the gap in the market and create a bra that tells women it is OK to prioritise comfort first. So, I focused on three things to ensure everyone was catered to and allowed to feel supported by their bra: material, sizing and a range of nude tones.

The first thing we did was to redesign the fabric. Evelyn & Bobbie intentionally share our supply chain with Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. I didn’t want to start with sewing machines and lace. I wanted to go to the best athletic and performance apparel manufacturers and then use those technologies for everyday bras. We use powerful, high-quality materials that are designed down to the fibre because I wanted the material to feel like a second skin. We have also taken out all the hard parts of a bra and replaced them with something soft that does the same job, but works with your body, not against it. We have replaced the hard underwire with an EB CoreⓇ and it truly is the secret sauce. The EB CoreⓇ is a fully moulded 3D sling that is soft and flexible, but also very strong and supportive as it connects with the contiguous structures all through the garment. It blows my mind that nobody had done it before because, in hindsight, it is a pretty obvious solution.

Sizing was also a huge problem we wanted to solve. We learned early on that it is a complex problem that needs a simple solution. When you go to our website now, you will notice we serve 114 sizes in XS to 3XL, so the bras are incredibly adaptive. Each bra will stretch up to 3 inches only in the areas you need it most. The material has a pixelated design that allows it to stretch without losing support in those key areas.

Finally, having inclusive nude tones was really important to us. We used a Pantone scanner to scan hundreds of real women’s skin to produce tones that were actually representative. I remember a beautiful email I received from a mother of two Black daughters who were both dancers and she could never find underwear for her daughters to wear under their dance costumes because, oftentimes, garments aren’t made in their skin tones. Luckily, Evelyn & Bobbie was able to solve this problem for them.

Evelyn & Bobbie product
Smoothing Bra Cami in Black Onyx, $98; The Evelyn Bra in Himalayan Salt, $98

The company is named after two influential women in your life, your maternal grandmother, Evelyn, and your great aunt, Bobbie. What led you to make the decision to name your company after these women?

For some context, our logo is the vesica piscis, which is an ancient symbol of feminine power, represented by the dividing cell. It symbolises the infinite possibilities of creation and it also symbolises the overlap between beauty and purpose.

Evelyn represents beauty and Bobbie represents purpose. Bobbie was an entrepreneur, world traveller and an audacious woman in her time. Evelyn was a model and a hostess at the 1930s World’s Fair in Chicago. Despite their talents, both of these women would’ve never had the same opportunities I’ve had, and I hope that my daughters have more opportunities than I’ve been afforded. I named my company Evelyn & Bobbie as my way of saying thank you to the women who came before me and who have taught me so many things.

You founded Evelyn & Bobbie in 2015. What milestones have been achieved in this time?

The patent portfolio was a really big milestone – especially the first patent on the EB CoreⓇ. We now have six fully issued US utility patents and 18 patents internationally. Women often have decision fatigue when it comes to purchasing items that typically don’t serve their purpose, so these patents have been extremely important in helping women to take that chance and try out another bra.

Also, in 2019 we released the Defy Bra and it sold out in months. Since that drop, we have been selling out ever since. That was a huge milestone because we knew that we were on the other side and had created a successful business with desired products.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

Last year, we had 80 per cent year-over-year growth without a single additional investment dollar in. While it’s not something that everyone likes to focus on in the entrepreneurial journey, profitability cannot be understated. To now be able to grow on our own profitability is perhaps my proudest achievement. It means we are “off the IV” and we have successfully built a healthy, thriving organisation. I sleep better now.

How has being a woman affected your career? Have you faced any challenges and, if so, how did you overcome these?

After college, I spent three years working in a new boutique investment fund, focused on consumer healthcare. My job was to do due diligence on prospective investments, so I sat across the table from something like 400 pitches from startups. I was a young female managing partner at the time, and more than once I would have a team come in to pitch their company and they would tell me how they like their coffee. I would get them their coffee, then sit down across from them and request their pitch as I watched their faces drain with colour when they realised their mistake!

More recently, when I was in the process of fundraising for Evelyn & Bobbie, I grew extremely tired of having to convince these male investors that comfort is extremely important when it comes to bra manufacturing. They just couldn’t understand it. In the end, I gave each prospective investor homework where they had to talk to at least four women and ask them the following questions: how many bras do you own, how many bras do you wear, how do you feel about your bra at 6pm and how much do you love bra shopping? If they didn’t do this research, then I knew they weren’t serious about the project.

Bree McKeen
“We have replaced the hard underwire with an EB CoreⓇ and it truly is the secret sauce”

What do you believe are the keys to effective leadership?

I do things a little bit differently when it comes to leadership. Firstly, my hiring strategy is to hire people smarter and more talented than me. We also don’t have any managers for managers’ sake. Everybody, including myself, is an individual contributor and I try to actively encourage bold action. We say, ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’. As the majority of our office is women, it is important that I create an environment where we don’t encourage people to make safe decisions, as so often women believe they have to play nice and only do things that are safe. A play-it-safe environment is not where innovation happens.

What advice would you give specifically to women in leadership roles?

I read this book by Lois P Frankel called Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. This book helped me look at some of the things I was doing on a daily basis that could subtly undermine my own authority. One of the things I learned is that people’s discomfort is not my problem and if we are to change things, we have to accept that there will be some discomfort in the room and that is OK.

You can still be empathic without taking responsibility. Women tend to apologise for things that aren’t necessarily their fault. Instead, say, ‘I realise that is not the outcome you were looking for. Let’s see what caused that and what we can do about it.’ If you have made a mistake, obviously apologise, but don’t ever take responsibility for something that wasn’t your fault.

Can you tell us about Evelyn & Bobbie coming to the UK?

We had been hearing from boutiques in the UK that they were really keen to get their hands on our bras, so they had something to offer their customers. It turns out that women in the UK are facing the same gaps in the market as the US when it comes to a wire-free bra that works up to a K cup. For me, our launch in the UK has fundamentally been about getting comfort to women who are demanding it.

What’s next for Evelyn & Bobbie?

What comes next is more solutions to real problems. That is where I spend my time. There are so many categories that need solutions, one being nursing bras and another being built-in bras.

When it comes to nursing bras, it is not appropriate that we’re not giving women the gear they need to be both in the office pumping, and looking good. The demands on women during their childbearing years are a lot. I want to try and minimise the struggle and give women the gear they need during that time when their body is changing so rapidly.

We are also set to launch our built-in bra essentials in the next year. Our built-in bra products are so gorgeous and, as a curvy woman, finding a beautiful base layer such as a tank top is so hard, so I’m excited to share these products with the world and show how built-in bras to base layers can work for all body shapes.