The modern sports bra revolution began 15 years ago today, when soccer player Brandi Chastain fell to her knees in the middle of the Rose Bowl field, pulled off her team jersey and raised two clenched fists to celebrate her winning goal in America’s astonishing victory over China in the women’s World Cup final.
That unscripted, history-making moment sparked an international controversy — A woman! In a bra! In public! — and catapulted women’s athletics into the limelight like never before.
It also revealed a massive gap in the fashion marketplace: Brandi’s plain black Nike sports bra hardly seemed sufficient for such a game-changing occasion.
Today, the women’s sports apparel industry — what we now call activewear — is one of the fastest-growing segments in global fashion, triggered in no small part by the triumphal performances of women athletes, like Brandi (below), who inspired a new generation of seriously sports-crazed girls.
But one group was left behind by the sportswear boom: tweens and younger girls who, collectively, are among the most physically active cohorts in society. While brands like Nike and Under Armour are selling over $1-billion in sports apparel to women yearly, the female youth market has been largely forgotten.
Enter Dragonwing Girlgear, a North Carolina startup with a mission to create technical sports bras and undergarments that allow girls to stay in the game.
“The right bra can change a life,” founder MaryAnne Gucciardi said in an interview. “The bra revolutionized athletics for women, now we have a chance to do the same for girls.
“The big motivating force behind Dragonwing is the empowerment of girls to be able to play, be active and compete without fear of discomfort or being embarrassed that the clothes they are wearing are getting in the way of their ability to compete.
“If you are playing lacrosse or basketball and the bra you’re wearing is riding up, your mind is distracted by your clothes. If you’re sensitive about how your clothes feel, you’re not going to run as fast.”
Dragonwing was founded in 2010 but didn’t reach the marketplace until 2013, following extensive design and testing for its line of sports bras, camis, tanks, compression shorts and leggings for athletic girls aged 8-17.
The company’s first garments, two racer-style sports bras, took two years to develop to achieve the right combination of four-way stretch, UV protection, moisture wicking, back support and fit tailored to a younger girl’s body. The results earned Dragonwing a coveted video feature last summer on The Grommet, a product-launch website that showcases innovative entrepreneurs.
For Gucciardi, who spent 15 years in Hong Kong as a textile importer before moving to Chapel Hill, N.C., the decision to launch Dragonwing was both accidental and highly personal — and a testament to the fearsome tenacity and market power of soccer moms everywhere.
When her daughter Charlotte developed a passion for soccer, Gucciardi learned quickly how difficult it was to find age-appropriate and gender-specific sports clothing.
“When she was around 10, we couldn’t find anything. Until she was about 13½ we spent all our time shopping in the boys department.”
The sports apparel market, she added, “sends a subtle message that if you’re athletic you’re masculine.”
Listening to other soccer moms, Gucciardi (above right) realized the dilemma was not unique to her family. Other girls, like Charlotte, were wearing ad hoc ensembles under their sports jerseys — cotton camisoles and T-shirts, sometimes with a regular bra layered over top. The results: sweating, chafing, discomfort and endless fidgeting.
While car-pooling kids to a game one day, Gucciardi had her Eureka! moment. “I said, I can do something about this.”
She began by making 200 sports camis for Charlotte’s soccer teammates, then started working on shorts.
“Because I came from a textile background, I wanted the girls to have something very functional with lots of stretch and control — all the things they were worried about — so they could concentrate on their game.”
Word spread quickly and soon “people started coming to the back of my car” to buy her early products after games. Before long, she was setting up a sales tent at tournaments.
“The beginning didn’t start with a global vision,” she said. “It started with ‘How do I solve this problem?’ I didn’t want my daughter focused on panty lines and things like that. I wanted to support her identity of being an athletic girl.”
Supported by two investors (both women), Dragonwing was launched, with a brand name that references both North Carolina’s blue dragonflies and the sports-loving girls the company serves.
“We wanted a name that was graceful, joyful, free but strong,” Gucciardi said. “When you watch girls playing soccer, when you see them in the sun from the shadows, they look like dragonflies, fierce but fun.”
Dragonwing is already earning praise for its mission and product line from people in the sports and fashion worlds.
“I wish Dragonwing was available when I was a teenager,” U.S. soccer star Cindy Parlow Cone, who was a member of that 1999 World Cup-winning team, told Lingerie Talk.
Cone, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, now devotes her time to Goals For Girls, the international non-profit organization she founded to promote cultural exchanges between soccer-playing girls around the world. The group aims to bridge the gap between developed and underprivileged countries by using soccer as a tool for building friendships and promoting health and education programs.
“Having the proper equipment that fits correctly, feels good, performs well and looks cool will allow the girls to focus on their sport rather than worrying about their bodies,” Cone said.
Another big fan is Missy Park, the CEO of Title Nine, one of the leading American brands in women’s athletic apparel.
“The right gear is make or break for any athlete. We’ve see this first-hand every day at Title Nine,” Park told us. “For many of our customers, getting into the right sports bra, often for the first time, well, it’s transformative. The same is particularly true for young girls on the precipice of adolescence.
“No one is addressing this niche of performance apparel for the tween girl. Dragonwing is really on to something.”
Although Dragonwing gear has a colorful, youth-friendly style sense, Gucciardi is careful to market the brand as an athletics label, not a fashion brand.
“We’re not into the innerwear-outerwear thing,” she said. “We try to meet high performance with a fun fashion element … but our customer is more interested in performance.”
Dragonwing displays an almost evangelical passion to improve the lives of girls and ensure they have the supports needed to allow them to stay active and involved in sports.
The company will launch a philanthropic program in the next couple of weeks that will help fund girls’ sports teams and wellness programs by donating 10% of net profits to groups. Customers who shop on the Dragonwing website will be given the opportunity at checkout to direct funds to a beneficiary team/group from an existing list, or to designate a deserving recipient of their choice.
“We’re focused on the impact this could have on girls and sports,” Gucciardi said. “It’s part of the bigger conversation of how do we help our daughters find their own way.”
Dragonwing Girlgear can be found on its webshop as well as on Amazon, sports sites like Soccer.com and Lacrosse.com, and in specialty retail shops such as the new youth-centred lingerie shop Linger. A selection of products is shown below.