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Party bra lands creator a Maidenform deal

Elaine Cato, 40, never intended to become a bra designer.

All she wanted, seven months after the birth of her second daughter in 1998, was to look hot for a New Year’s Eve party. Last week, Maidenform rolled out for other women what she invented to solve the problem, calling it the Breakthrough Backless bra.

About a month before ringing in 1999, the size-four Nashville mother of two had set her sights on fitting into a black, backless number for the party. The problem: Her 34DD bust needed a little support after nursing baby No. 2, and she could not find a backless bra that worked.

“When I couldn’t find anything on the market to support this outfit, I thought maybe I could take one of my bras and alter it,” says Cato. “I started to experiment with reconfiguring the straps.”

She was not an expert. “I took a sewing class in high school, and my mom taught me stuff about sewing,” she says, “but I never went beyond the basics.”

But she cut and sewed some old bras together and ultimately created a backless bra that even had five other configurations, including halter and crisscross, and was a hit at the New Year’s Eve party.

“When I wore the bra that night … women were asking, ‘What do you have on?’ ” Cato says. “They knew that for a heavy-busted woman with small body frame, the adhesive types of bras on the market really don’t give you the lift and support that you want.”

Cato saw marketing potential in her bra and figured out how to file for a patent because she couldn’t afford the $4,000 fee for a patent attorney.

She was granted the patent in 2000, but her big break came after she heard about ABC reality show “American Inventor,” which had a million-dollar top prize for the best invention.

She won an audition to compete in the show’s second season last year. Her bra finished second in the competition, but Maidenform noticed and surprised her with a licensing offer on the season’s final episode.

Maidenform tweaked the backless bra, but it remains true to Cato’s design. It has adjustable straps that are attached to the outside edge of the cups in the front, loop over the shoulder and come back under the arm to attach to sturdy but pliable 2-inch wings that extend back from the cups.

It went on sale at retailers last week for a suggested price of $32 and will be the centerpiece of Maidenform marketing this year that emphasizes new products and seeks new customers. The tagline of the campaign: “This Feels Right.”

Innovation “is our big story for the year,” says Sally Skidmore, Maidenform’s vice president of marketing and advertising. “We’re bringing something new to the market that (the female consumer has) never seen before.”

The Breakthrough Backless bra and other new products, including seamless and single-construction bras, are featured in the new ads.

Print ads will run in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour.

Online advertising includes banner ads, as well as video and ring tones at MySpace.com. Billboards and posters will run in out-of-home ad spaces ranging from women’s locker rooms at gyms to a giant display on a tall, old warehouse along the Long Island Expressway in New York.

The warehouse has two billboards on the roof, a giant poster down the middle and walls of windows at each end have been painted to look as if women are throwing their old bras out the windows. The idea: “Out with the old, in with the new.”

“We’re really trying to encompass something new for Maidenform,” says Greg Smith, chief creative officer for The Via Group, the Portland, Maine, agency that created the campaign. “How we are able to market the brand is derived from what they have done with the product.”

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