Boys make Bras

Antonio De Micco Padula and his business partner Kaushala Yahampath share their thoughts on building a bra business in Sri Lanka and the second intimates revolution

By Echelon.

Published on November 04, 2012 with No Comments

Sentisi

By Kim Iskyan

If you would have in mind a stereotype of a man who makes women’s bras – don’t we all? – Antonio De Micco Padula probably wouldn’t be it. A burly, loquacious native of Italy – via the American states of New Jersey and Texas, and, for the past nine years, Colombo – Antonio is a grillmaster extraordinaire who also makes a mean homemade mozzarella. Holding a stem of prosecco, he toggles easily between opining vociferously on the centerfield of American baseball’s Yankees and reciting, wide-eyed and incredulous, details of the latest Berlusconi sex scandal. And then he’ll tell you how a rocket works, if you ask him, in the language of an engineer who understands the attention span of his audience, as he cheerfully pours you some more Brunello.

It’s when Antonio declares in mixed company – in a tone of compelling authority – that few women wear the proper bra size; or when he expounds upon the technological innovations that made the Wonderbra possible; or discusses the issue of tissue irritation caused by bra cup seams, that you pause to think, hmm, what’s this about?

Antonio, with his Sri Lankan partner Kaushala Yahampath, controls and manages Sintesi Ltd., a USD20 million company that operates three plants in Sri Lanka that produces women’s bras (panties are a smaller product line). Sintesi this year will make around 6 million bras for British brands Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, lingerie specialist Hunkemoller, global clothing maker H&M, and others.

Bras and Engineers

Antonio didn’t start off twenty years ago thinking he’d be making bras in Sri Lanka for women in Europe. After straying from his roots in Rome, he was thinking about what he’d do for his doctoral dissertation in mechanical engineering at a university in New Jersey in the mid 1990s. “Friends of mine had already seen some action in industry, so I figured I’d see what was out there,” he says. One job ad later, and Antonio was working in a cutting room where the fabric for bras was sliced into patterns and sent back to the manufacturer.

“At that time, everything was still done by hand, and molds were made in plaster, and then a sculptor would sculpt these into plastic molds, which later would be made into an aluminum mold,” he says. Astonished at how technology has somehow passed by the women’s undergarment industry, Antonio began to search for ways to apply engineering technology to the process, in part by designing molded cups via computer design.

As it turned out, he was on the cutting edge of a seismic shift in the industry. Over the next few years, the global bra industry underwent what Antonio calls “the first industrial revolution in bra-making,” from Oliver Twist-like cut-and-sewn bras, to a molding process that created a seamless, more comfortable product. “A seamless cup is much smoother, it’s a better fit, and there are fewer restrictions,” Antonio explains.

Critically for bra wearers, and bra admirers, everywhere, molding also ushered in one of the giant steps forward for mankind of the past few decades: the mass production of the push-up bra, and its entry into the mainstream as an everyday garment. “We’re in the business of making women look good, and this was a key step,” Antonio says.

He later wound up designing and developing equipment that produced molded cups, by taking foam sheets, cutting them to size, and using a compression molding process to shape them into cups. Within a few years Antonio was managing a bra factory in New York, learning all sides of the business.

An Italian in Colombo

Meanwhile, the winds of global trade were gusting through the American economy. The implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 accelerated the slow but inexorable shift of manufacturing activities from the United States to Mexico. In time, undergarment production also increasingly moved to other countries, including Sri Lanka, which offered lower production costs and easier access to faster-growing markets. Sensing the shift, Antonio began to contemplate the next step.

Simultaneously, back in Sri Lanka, his future partner Kaushala – an experienced apparel professional with experience in a dozen countries – had been charged with setting up a small project to produce molded cups for MAS, one of the largest apparel producers in Sri Lanka. Through mutual acquaintances, Antonio connected through a phone chat with Kaushala. Within days, he flew out to Colombo to check out the opportunity. The two bonded over lunch at Raja Bojun on Galle Road, and Antonio was sold. “I arrived on a Sunday, and I was supposed to leave that Friday. But I came here, and never left,” Antonio says.

The Birth and Growth of Sintesi

After two years, the partners turned a $1 million project into a $10 million business, and decided to do something similar on their own. They started dreaming about building their own plant in May 2006, within a year they had lined up investors, gotten BOI approval, and built the first building of what would become the sprawling 16,000 sq m Sintesi complex in Ranala  launched production in late 2007, months before the global economy went into a tailspin. Some of the start-up’s suppliers went bust, and the company’s largest customer at the time went bankrupt. Demand fell through the floor.

Besides the once-in-a-generation macroeconomic headwinds, there were lots of issues confronting the new business. “Oh my God, there were so many challenges,” Antonio says, shaking his head as if to erase the memories. First of all, Sri Lanka was in the midst of a civil war, of course. Antonio ticks off the problems that doom the vast bulk of new businesses everywhere, like managing cash flow issues, dealing with anxious large competitors, and winning the trust of suppliers. Drumming up buyers from an unproven business in the process of launching wasn’t easy. And finding workers – and then training them both in the mechanics of production as well as in the culture of quality that is a baseline requirement to be competitive in any global industry – is an ongoing problem.

A Complex Process

And also, as it happens – if you’re like me, maybe you never thought about this – bras are extremely difficult to make, and are by far the most complicated article of apparel to produce. Antonio compares manufacturing a bra – involving more than 30 separate processes – to making a car, with only a hint of the hyperbole that you’d expect from an enthusiast.

A tour of the Sintesi plant in Ranala highlights the complexity of the manufacturing process: Crafting the cup, making the clasp, inserting the wire, cutting the padding, attaching the label – every little element of the final product is its own, separate step. The first industrial revolution of bra-making notwithstanding, many stages of making a bra are painstakingly done by hand simply because they are impossible to automate. “It’s not like we’re making a t-shirt, where you have a few pieces of fabric that you stitch up,” Antonio says.

Just getting the raw materials requires a highly developed sense of geography. Sintesi imports its inputs from China, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, and various countries in Europe, and also uses materials from Sri Lanka.

A Strong Partnership

The partnership between Antonio and Kaushala was the easiest part of the start-up phase of the company, and has sustained it since. “We look at our partnership as being built upon pure trust,” Kaushala says. “[We] never bullshit [to each other] on the operation, on the strategy, on the way we think, the way we plan, the way we execute. That’s the culture that I’ve been brought up in, and I found a partner who has the same ideas.”

Integrity is part of the culture of honesty that the two cultivate, they say. “The two of us have never lied to our employees and we never intend to,” Kaushala continues. “We don’t cheat our customer and don’t intend to. We don’t cheat our suppliers, and we don’t intend to. So those are our winning combinations and good values that will sustain a business for the long term.”

And what’s next for Sintesi? Antonio talks about putting together a marketing team, once the business grows a bit more. “All of our competitors are 10 or 20 times larger than us, so we can’t compete in marketing,” he says. The company plans on launching a web site in the coming days.

The Second Industrial Revolution in Bras

Rather than competing on the basis of flash, Sintesi is competing through the substance of product innovation. Antonio gets visibly excited when discussing what he describes as the second industrial revolution in the bra world, which goes by the code name “A2S liquid foam technology”. Rather than molding sheets of foam into three-dimensional cups – which is the compression molding process used by bra manufacturers now – his A2S brainchild entails injecting liquid foam into a mold.

Kaushala gestures towards my brick-like, whirring laptop, sitting adjacent to my thin, silent iPad. “This will be similar to moving from a hard drive to a flash drive,” he says. “This is a technical shift that will give us a whole new setup of possibilities and applications… in ten years, this is what everyone will be using, and this will be what a bra will look like.”

“By changing the platform we’re expanding the technological limits to a limitless range of new products,” Antonio says. “The fit will be more natural and softer, and we’ll be able to better control the level of pushup, how thin the edges are, and every other variable.”

Sintesi has applied for a patent for the technology, which Antonio says he first conceptualized in 1997. The company already has orders for what will be a premium product that Sintesi hopes to use to leapfrog the competition.

The Million Dollar Question

Walk into a bra factory, and the seven-year old boy comes out in all – well, some, at least – of us. The sight of all those bras – and the inevitable implication of what they’re used for – elicits titters even among people who know better. So the obvious question to pose to some career bra men is, of course, how does being around breasts, or at least the implication of breasts, all day mess with your head? It’s not like managing a strip club, but it’s kind of close.

“I am highly technical,” Antonio say with a straight face. “If my wife asks me what I’m looking at, I say, I’m trying to see what kind of bra she’s wearing. And when I’m preparing a presentation and have beautiful models on the screen, my wife can’t complain,” he adds with a laugh.

There is a down side. Antonio says he gets glares in lingerie shops when he wanders around fingering the fabric and looking at bras with a bit more preoccupation and focus than your average male visitor to a lingerie store.

Kaushala is a bit more circumspect. “When I’m working, it’s just a product. When I walk out the door, I don’t relate it to anyone,” he says. “And I refuse to go to lingerie shops with Antonio!” he continues.

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