Underwire: November 2021 ‘Finance and Finery’

Blake Snyder, in his wonderful book on screenwriting Save the Cat!, describes a subtle beat that happens in every successful script: the Theme Stated. It’s a seemingly offhand remark, often delivered by a minor character, that neatly sums up the driving idea of the film. In Netflix’ gruesomely watchable Squid Game, the moment comes near the end of Episode 3:


The game in this episode involves carving shapes out of brittle cookies without breaking the shape (and, of course, the cost of failure is death). One of the losers takes a gamekeeper hostage and screams out a hopeless rant which sums up the show’s core complaint about modern society:

“You assholes! Fuck this! What kind of sick game is this? Why do some get an easy shape while others are stuck with difficult ones!?”

Or, to restate: the playing field is not level, and our large institutions, while making a show of fairness, seem to structurally embrace inequity as an energy source, leveraging desperation and fear to drive the wheels that concentrate power and profits into an ever smaller circle.

Our business coach is perpetually bemused by a comment my partner once made, to the effect that Jenette Bras is more of an art project than a business. That’s maybe a bit exaggerated, but it’s true that our core concerns, from the beginning, fall into the realm of relational aesthetics. We designed the space, not to display products, but to facilitate intimate discoveries. As business models, we’ve always evoked the barber shop, the nail salon, the bar, the cafe, the house of worship. Like them, we offer a product and a service, but the true content of Jenette Bras is the eternal river of our common humanity.

Naturally we have a deep interest in the well-being of our staff, the remarkable women who act as guides/stylists/ministers in our strappy arena. It’s not our goal to maximize value for a shareholder class that is not part of our intimate theater. When we started, market realities dictated we could pay commensurate with our “shape”: the retail clothing sector. If we were a restaurant, our shape would be easier in this respect: the game rules of food service require the customers to add significantly onto the worker’s wage. We’ve always been able to stay competitive with shop girl wages and benefits but we’ve never been satisfied with that. Our fitters do so much more and we require so much more of them. Bra-fitting is an elite vocation disguised as a low-wage job. How can the business pay more, while remaining healthy, has been our eternal question. And now we think we’ve got it figured out. In fact, we just gave our staff an across-the-board 25% pay raise.

As neophyte business people, it’s been fascinating to learn the subtle magic of business growth. We used to assume that growth of income would be proportional to growth of expenses: in other words, going from one store to three stores would create 3X income, but also 3X costs, leaving the same amount for payroll per person. Then with the extra two incomes being mostly consumed by added layers of management and consulting to handle the extra complexity, it seemed like we would be tripling the size of the company without much discernible improvement in our own standard of living. But we went ahead and did it anyway, because it was interesting to do it and this is an art project.

But lo and behold, that was a newbie perspective. Turns out, when the business grows, income increases relative to costs, thanks to economies of scale, market advantages of having a bigger footprint, greater influence with vendors, and the fact that certain costs remain relatively fixed, or grow at a slower rate. Madame COVID derailed our profit train last year, just as we were hitting our new five-store size, and so it wasn’t immediately obvious, but we now know that in a relatively stable environment we are able to offer a strikingly improved pay and benefits package to the exemplary women we employ. We can’t repair the whole world ourselves, but at least on our game level, everyone is currently winning. And also, we’re hiring 😉