Meet Mari: The designer behind the Maaree x ashmei Sports Bra

While many sports brands promise to outfit athletes from head to toe, plenty make one serious omission. ashmei’s collaboration with dedicated sports bra maker Maaree means the ashmei range is now able to give equal support to active boobs. Founded by sports engineer, athlete, and former specialist sports bra tester Mari, we caught up with her to find out how she came to create the perfect sports bra, and why she’s now collaborating with ashmei.

ashmei: Where did the idea for Maaree come from?

Mari: I’d studied Sports Engineering at Loughborough University and I've always been keen on sports. Yet I could never find my perfect sports bra. I was one of the many people of the opinion that, in general, sports bras kind of suck. Then after my degree, I got offered a job at the university’s lab as a sports bra tester.

We'd have big brands come to us because the technology required for testing is quite expensive and we were one of only two such facilities in the UK. Up until that point, I’d assumed all sports brands did their own testing before releasing a bra, which isn't the case. I quickly realised that generally, sports bra development wasn't as technically literate as I'd hoped.

However, from the few brands that did come to us, I learned about the development process. Most brands would come to us for a particular reason, for instance, so they could make a marketing claim, or to see if their product beat a competitor’s. On top of this, I got to test all these bras, and I could tell when one was better than the other. Yet I still couldn’t find my perfect sports bra.

ashmei: were the bras you tested failing to get right?

Mari: Even the bras that were pretty good still left me feeling like I needed to put my hands over the top of my boobs to stop them from moving. Everyone was coming to the lab saying, ‘we need to stop downward motion by x per cent’. It was always downward motion. Yet, while downward motion is important, your boobs actually move in a sideways figure of eight when running, not just up and down. I thought to myself, there’s all this focus on downward motion, but restricting how much your boobs move upwards also contributes to that. But nobody ever considered reducing upward motion when running.

ashmei: How did you develop your design?

Mari: It wasn’t some kind of lightbulb idea. Or even from looking into the details of the testing I was conducting. It was my own experience of running along and catching my reflection in a window and thinking, oh my gosh, there's a lot more motion going on there than I’d realised. Then I’d put my hands over my chest, and I saw how that improved things. That realisation, which led to the Overband design, simply came from running on the streets by myself. Of course, maybe having been exposed to the testing side meant it came more easily, I don't know. Either way, it gave me the idea for the Overband, which is essentially a curved panel that runs over the top of the chest. I made the first prototype out of belts I bought form a charity shop. It gives you a pleasing silhouette and, at the same time, reduces the degree your boobs can travel upwards. Since releasing my Overband sports bras, I’ve had lots of women tell me how happy they are to find a bra that stops their boobs from coming up into their faces. So I’d say I wasn't the only one thinking there had to be a better solution.

ashmei: Runners will understand the need for a quality sports bra. But what should cyclists and other athletes be looking out for?

Mari: It’s about comfort and support. Finding the balance between those two things is the most challenging aspect. You’ll never find one bra that suits every sport because different sports require different things. For example, when running you might want the highest impact bra that still lets you breathe comfortably. Whereas if you're in the gym, you probably want something lower profile and stretchier for doing floor exercises and moving your arms around. When cycling, or doing any sport, breast motion should be the last thing on your mind. So if your sports bra is supportive and comfortable, and doesn't distract you from your workout, those are the key things to look out for. It needs to restrict your breasts while you’re moving, yet not be uncomfortable or have a hindering effect on your performance.

ashmei: How important is it to get a sports bra correctly fitted?

Mari: A study by Portsmouth University found 80% of women were wearing the wrong size bra. This is down to several reasons, but I think a lot of us don't fully understand how sizing works. It doesn’t help that different shops measured differently. And that you can also find your size varies between shops, and sometimes even within a single brand’s range. I think the biggest helping hand we can give ourselves is understanding how bra sizing and fitting works so we can identify whether we’re wearing the correct size, and if not, how to find the right one. Most people I see tend to be wearing an underband size that’s too big for them. And since 80% of support comes from the underband, it’s the most crucial measurement to get right. Because if you're going to wear a size that’s too big for you, then you're not going to make up for that support anywhere else.

ashmei: Alongside in-person fittings, you’ve started offering online consultations to help people get the correct size. How do they work?

Mari: I'd been holding pop-up shops for people who wanted to get fitted. Then lockdown came along. So I thought, let's try and do it over Zoom instead. It turns out many people prefer it because it’s convenient and they can do it at home. My fitting sessions are all private and one on one. We're both on camera and we both bring a tape measure. I normally ask what size the person wears, but if they don't know, that's fine too. Then we both do a fitting. So I fit with them, using myself as an example, and they copy what they’ve seen me do, but on themselves. First, we measure for the back and the sides. I can then help people work out their cup size. Hopefully, it won’t be too far away from what they’re wearing already, but I can double-check with them if necessary and look at whether they’re filling the cup on their existing bra properly. Once lockdown is over I’ll go back to fitting in-person, but so many people found the service useful I’ll continue it online too.

ashmei: Do you think it’s odd that even active brands with extensive ranges rarely include sports bras?

Mari: Actually, with the rise of athleisure, I've seen more high street brands start to offer sports bras. Knowing the expertise required to make a good one, it’s a bit worrying. They're not a fashion piece, they really do need to perform properly. And you have high street brands presenting products as suitable for high impact activities when they’re not. So you’re going to get customers that assume something is good for running, and they might end up damaging their bodies. So, if there are sports brands that have stayed away from making sports bras, it might be because they want to be careful about only releasing one that's up to the job. I’m not sure. Certainly, it'd be interesting to see what their opinions are.

ashmei: So you can’t just decide to make a sports bra, it requires a lot of knowledge and investment?

Mari: Absolutely. And knowing how much women complain about poor quality sports bras, you can see why brands might not want to leave themselves open to criticism. ashmei has such a similar attitude to Maaree in terms of taking athletic performance seriously, it seemed like an ideal partner. It’s not like producing a sports bra is as simple as adding a jersey or pair of socks to your range. To make something good, it's always going to require specific expertise. It’s what makes the Maaree x ashmei sports bra such an interesting collaboration.