Like many businesses, The Fitting Room’s story begins with one person’s story, and then becomes part of many people’s stories. Someone noticed a need, had enough insight and vision to believe others might have the same need, and enough hope, drive, and resources to make something happen. We’re proud of The Fitting Room, and of what we offer to our customers - both through our products and our service.
The Fitting Room began life in 2005 as ‘U’. U is ‘breast’ in te reo Māori. It was started by Suzanne Pitama, a Clinical Psychologist who had recently moved to Christchurch. Suzanne had a lot of difficulty finding bras in her correct size and realised there was a significant gap in the market, for bras and for proper fittings. She went to a lingerie trade show in Harrogate, England, to find the best international brands specialising in fuller cup sizes.
Suz and her friend Rona, a librarian in her other life, started doing bra fittings by appointment, in evenings and weekends around their other full-time work. Their premises was a tiny shop, 8 x 3m down the St. Albans end of Colombo St.
Anna Stevenson and Deborah Lewthwaite entered the picture in early 2007. Anna had recently had mastectomy surgery for breast cancer and felt there was a gap in Christchurch for a one-stop shop that had a good range of prostheses and pretty pocketed bras. Deborah was working as a social worker, and looking to try something new. Suzanna Pitama was keen to hand over ‘U’ to people who would respect her vision and ethos, and take it on into the future.
U Fit In kept the focus on fitting, and fuller cup sizes, and added a specialty range of breast prostheses and pocketed bras, after completing post-surgery fitting training in Auckland. U Fit In didn’t stay tiny for long.
In September 2008, the shop moved to a new location on the corner of Fendalton and Clyde Roads, and was exposed to a whole new customer base. By that time, the shop employed 8 staff, mostly part time fitters, and an administrator.
Suzanne Pitama started ū (te reo Māori for ‘Breast’) in 2006 after identifying a need for bras in fuller cup sizes in Ōtautahi. She travelled to the U.K., sourced brands such as Panache, Freya and Fantasie, and ran fittings by appointment in her evenings and weekends, with her friend Rona to help. At the same time, her day job (public health researcher and psychologist) was taking up more space in her life, so in 2007, something needed to change.
Ū needed sympathetic new owners.
Anna Stevenson (a public health doctor) had recently had a mastectomy and been disappointed with the range of products in CHCH. Deborah Lewthwaite was a social worker but looking for a change of direction. It was a match made in heaven! Fitting bras is a fabulous, people-related career that suited Deborah perfectly. Anna could continue her medical work but help set the whole thing up. Anna’s husband Malcolm McKellar, and Deborah’s husband Justin Stevenson were also very significant behind the scenes.
Deborah carried on the family tradition of corsetiere!
Deborah's Grandmother, Mrs Olive Barton was a corsetiere at McGrewer's in Whanganui back in the late 1930s. Here she is, kneeling at the front on the right, at her fitting training course in Auckland in 1939.
The first premises from 2006-2008 was this tiny store down the St Albans end of Colombo St. The whole thing was 8x3m. It had an entrance/interview room, one fitting room, and a very small stock room at the back that included a toilet without full height walls or ventilation! It was open by appointment only, and some early days, there’d only be 1 or 2 customers. There were paper receipt books, and Deborah added an EFTPOS machine the first week!
We moved to Fendalton Road in September 2008.
It was such luxury to have two fitting rooms, and so much space out the back. Even a proper toilet with outside ventilation! All the product storage was still out the back, except for 3-4 bust forms on display out the front. The whole store was very much boutique and personalised, although our staff team started to grow with the customer base. We went from four people in St Albans, to about 10 fitters, mostly part time, by 2010.
The September 2010 Christchurch earthquake.
The September 4 earthquake in the middle of the night threw The Fitting Room into disarray. The Fendalton Road shops were brick, and were damaged as a result of those quakes. When one owns a small business, you have to get creative and speedy to survive! Within a weekend, we’d moved into Anna’s family house in Rimu St. The bras were stored in the garage, the lounge was the office, and the spare bedroom was divided into two fitting rooms. At the time, everyone believed it would be a 2 month stay while minor repairs were made, but the damage was structural and severe, and of course the February earthquake followed closely on its heels. The Fitting Room functioned from 19 Rimu St for 2 ½ years. It was somewhat challenging for all concerned - house residents and shop staff - however this was the reality of life in Canterbury at the time, and we felt grateful to still be in business, and surviving if not thriving. Zak and Tobi, resident twins aged 8 at the time, may never recover from sharing their home with a lingerie store. Although they had larger audiences for piano practice, and surely got more customers for their lemonade stand at the front gate.
After “moving in”, U Fit In received some Recovery Canterbury funding for marketing help. It was a great time to look at our brand, and consider how to move forward despite daunting conditions, and open our shop up to a whole new group of women.
They were dramatic times. It was a big deal the day the shops started being demolished. The whole project felt very daunting.
Turns out the cracks weren’t superficial!
Deborah & Justin, Anna & Malcolm bought the corner site in order to take the whole thing through to resource consent and get the re-build happening.
The family home on Rimu Street was now a shop, initially for 2-3 months, but then eventually for 2 ½ years!
Everyone in Christchurch was very understanding of unusual business premises during those years, and we were relieved to be still in business, and have a beautiful space to still serve our customers.
The downstairs bedroom actually made for two beautiful fitting room spaces. The curtain worked admirably to separate the two spaces. There wasn’t so much ‘auditory’ privacy though.
After school piano practice vied with administration tasks for priority. It’s amazing what we will all do when necessity dictates!
Actually, we still managed to fit a few bikes in around the vast quantities of bras and swimwear, but definitely not any cars. It did necessitate apologising to customers for chilly bras on frosty mornings!
With some government assistance we spent time and effort on re-branding. ‘The Fitting Room’ was born – we loved it for its sense of ‘olde-worlde’ formality that matches our focus on traditional fitting as a specialty.
The demolition continues to make room for the new. It was a period of hard work and pressure, focusing on two fronts to keep the shop functioning and customers happy, while looking to the future.
In 2011 we began our Post-Mastectomy fitting trips down in Timaru, and still continue to this day. Invited by the Cancer Society, we are hosted every couple of months, by the wonderful women at My Physio, who generously let us use two of their physio rooms for the day. We enjoy being able to offer our service further south, where there isn't a great range of post-mastectomy bras or prostheses available.
Following the September earthquake, Deborah and Anna, with their husbands, bought the full corner site, and Deborah's husband Justin Stevenson (co-owner) project-managed the design process of the new build through to resource consent, before on-selling the site. It was a challenging task, and we are proud of the outcome.
The shop felt complete with a beautiful showroom, four large fitting rooms and a sliding door to our jam-packed stock room. It really is a fabulous space in which to work and fit.
As a team, we started participating in the Annual Pink Star Walk that raises funds for the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation. A great way to test our different sports bras too!
A LOT! Liz and Debs found this out when they starting travelling to Timaru to do post-mastectomy fittings in 2011. Invited by the Cancer Society, and hosted by My Physio, we love the inspiration of meeting courageous women and providing good lingerie and prosthesis solutions for them.
Justin Stevenson (Deborah’s husband) project-managed the design & Tim Dewar from Athfield Architects was the lead designer. They took the whole process through to resource consent before selling the land and design, on the understanding The Fitting Room would rent the corner site.
Keeping our customers in the loop via Facebook:
"Breaking News! The steel has arrived and the shop is taking shape...behind the scenes we are choosing gorgeous fabrics and wallpapers for our beautiful new shop."
How wonderful is it to browse in a store that is bathed in natural light? It makes for a more relaxing and uplifting experience, and our staff love being able to see the Southern Alps looking west along Fendalton Road.
One of our design goals was to have our fitting rooms practical in size and access but also beautiful welcoming spaces to feel that this is somewhere special. We loved choosing fabrics and wallpaper.
Opening day finally arrived! Like all good design and building projects, it was a long time coming, but worth all the time and effort. We’re proud of the design and feel happy to have contributed our bit to Christchurch’s post-quake rebuild.
*Picture: Malcolm & Anna, Deborah & Justin.
The party was a 1930s/1940s vibe, to align with the photograph of Deborah’s grandmother and the photoshoot we’d done ourselves including a modern ‘remake’, with photography by Danielle Colvin.
Sue Wells, local councillor, cut the ribbon. We love a good party, and there was something to celebrate after more than 2 years of post-quake hard slog. The design, resource consent process, working from a home – none of it was easy. Let’s celebrate when we have a reason.
Clemency puts the sign out, ready to welcome our customers. Many of our customers have only known us in this store, because it was the beginning of more significant growth and becoming more well-known across the city.
Deborah’s grandmother Olive Barton was still around when the Fendalton store opened, to come to see the new shop and see her granddaughter continue on the family tradition. She is in the photo in the background in the fitting room, taken in 1939.
Pink nails for the Pink Star Walk….because why not?! We often have a giggle when our own (or customer's) nail polish matches our lingerie or swimwear.
The 21kms were very cold and VERY wet, and actually a bit longer in distance than we anticipated. Finished off the night with wet feet, head torches and a sausage sizzle.
It’s always good to have someone notice when we do a good job! Deb won a ‘business hero’ award after being nominated by a customer. We love getting feedback and thank yous – if it’s constructive it helps us focus on tweaking what we do to make it even better, and if it’s positive it’s so encouraging.
We've even had Jason Gunn in-store. Interviewing Liz about tips for men buying lingerie for the lady in their life. Remember we're happy to help your partners choose the perfect gift for you!
We take a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from helping women find items that fit well and that they love; and giving dignity and fun in the process. As fitters, we notice how hard most of our customers are on themselves. Ladies are often asking us to excuse this ‘roll’ or that ‘squishy bit’, or pointing out ‘imperfections’ in their bodies. We are not immune from this ourselves either – why do we do this?!
So over time and many chats in the back room, our very special Swimwear Fashion Show was born. The first show was held at our store on Fendalton Road in 2014 and has been an *almost* yearly tradition since then. The goal: to encourage ourselves and others to be brave, and “love the skin we’re in” while having a great night out too. No ‘professional models’, we were the models…ourselves: our friends and family. Real & beautiful women of all shapes and sizes. Flick through the photos for a glimpse of our shows and hear from some of our models about their experiences.
The models have been us, and our friends and family.
Clemency (in the cobalt tankini) participated, as well as planning the show, alongside her Mum, Pip (to her right). Pip had no idea becoming a swimsuit model was on the cards when her daughter started working at The Fitting Room! Neither did any of us fitters.
Liz's daughter, Rosie also joined in the fun!
Nothing like a selfie of yourself and the crowd while you’re modelling swimwear! Cate Grace from the fabulous social enterprise Whānau Whaanake is one of our wonderful ‘go-to’ models. Traditionally our shows are held just as the winter swimwear season is beginning but sadly since 2020 NZers haven’t been travelling in winter... Bring on 2023 maybe.
The Beauty Parlour (205 Fendalton Road, next door to the Fendalton store) has done an amazing job of our spray tans for each show! Angela and her team are fantastic. Hair and makeup on the other hand, was up to us. We had a few laughs along the way.
"As the owner of The Fitting Room, I couldn’t ask my fitters & friends to model, and not be brave enough to do it myself! We're known for specialising in fuller cups so I was worried about totally conflicting things: that people would think I was too skinny or small-busted, (why is SHE doing it?), and at the same time, that I’d eaten too many cakes lately…Crazy!" • Deb
Christy, one of our previous Store Managers, wows the crowd every time with her winning smile that captures the camera's attention.
"My hope is that as the ladies saw me - an imperfect woman confidently strutting her stuff - that they would feel empowered to do the same and learn to love their bodies." • Christy
A small stock room isn't usually the place where 'swimwear models' get ready...but we made it work.
Anna's experience: "That feeling of being happy in our own skin, despite our ‘flaws’, wearing what we like, and rooting for the women next to us doing the same, that’s what I wanted to put out into the universe."
"It was an incredible experience for silencing my own harsh judgement. Now I have begun to focus on the amazing things my body can do! I say we should all embrace and love our bodies.
After all, my body is the most incredible thing I will have my entire life." • Cate
Celeste has participated in a few shows and during both of her pregnancies. "It's crazy that as women we compare ourselves to these images that are touched up to look untouched, the advertised body of perfection. Being in the show helped me to see the truth and beauty about my own body." • Celeste
I decided that I would find a way to use it to help other women. Parading my chubby, wobbly, one-breasted body on a catwalk, modelling beautiful swimwear and bras, created especially for women with a breast prosthesis seemed to be the perfect solution.
What a blast! • Linda
Liz is one of our longest serving Fitting Specialists, she has been with us from the very first stop.
Liz has dazzled the crowd every show with her MC and commentary skills. Weaving together product knowledge, crowd interactions, and humour - she really makes the night fun, it wouldn't be the same without her!
"Coming to The Fitting Room has given me a new confidence, and modelling in the show felt like giving back to a place that had given me that new confidence when I used to feel awkward and self-conscious." • Frin
"My biggest motivation to do the fashion show was wanting to walk the talk! I am often telling both my customers and my friends that they can wear what they want and feel confident and beautiful - not worrying about what they think people think; but was finding it hard to follow that advice myself!" • Christy
Everyone loves an intermission! Time to top up everyone's glasses, hand around some delicious nibbles and have a chat.
From out the back, the models could hear many customers talking about what styles they wanted to come in and try on....brilliant!
Deb, Liz, and Liz's sister gave a demonstration on sarong/wrap tying. We were giving a couple away along with other spot prizes on the night.
In one of our shows, we got up the confidence to display some of our lingerie range: nightwear, maternity, sports and post-mastectomy bras were worn on the runway.
We love heading out into the audience after the show. The main comments we get from customers are how it is so great to see real unfiltered or photoshopped women being brave, standing proud and smiling in their swimwear. That they could see themselves in what we were wearing, plus the contagious confidence of jumping out of one's comfort zone.
It is a big build-up before the night, so we're always thrilled when the show goes off without a hitch.
It is our enduring hope that through our personalised fitting service, our wonderful products, and in store Fashion Shows that we bring some fun, self-love and body confidence to the women we serve….
As time went on, previous customers moved around the country and many others told their friends and family about us. Many didn’t realise that The Fitting Room was just an owner operated, one-location business (at that stage!). We did have a website, but it only displayed products we had in stock, so it was a bit inconvenient for customers to buy from us if they couldn’t come into our store. That had to change! We wanted to be sure we could convey who we were and our expert, specialised service even when we couldn’t be face-to-face with our online customers. After some many long months in the making we launched our new online shopping website – *you obviously know about it, because here you are reading*.
The new store was so professional and beautiful and our customer base had been growing steadily. There were many days during summers when so many people walked in the door that we were sending many away for coffees (our shout, obviously!) to come back later, and fitting the occasional desperate person in the bathroom. Four fitting rooms were not sufficient at those times. The back stock room is very small, and the growing stock deliveries took up a LOT of that small space. Making sure we met health and safety requirements of having a clear path to all the exits was becoming trickier! The conviction grew that a second location was an absolute requirement.
With an expertly designed shop fit-out and six extremely spacious fitting rooms, both our fitters and customers love the extra product display space, and room to relax and enjoy the personalised fitting service. Many clients grab a coffee from across the road and bring it in with them – a great way to slow down for a moment and treat yourself!
360 Colombo Street in Sydenham: what the building looked like before it became “ours”.
We love how our branding makes a bold statement, sitting opposite The Colombo.
Our large windows make a great statement, both during the day and under the lights of night!
Our displays in store are constantly changing, always showing the latest styles and our most popular pieces.
After browsing the ranges, the gorgeous chandelier and large ottoman invite you to move into our fitting area.
Imagine every style and size we stock...that’s a LOT of unpacking and hanging to do. Music was pumping and snacks were plentiful!
You know it’s getting close when we call the sign writer. Clemency, the Colombo Store Manager at the time, unveils our first set of window displays.
The red carpet was rolled out for a great evening ahead. It’s nice to take the time to set an occasion like this sink in.
Team members change over time, but one thing stays consistent: we’re a bunch of foodies, so a gorgeous cake was necessary to celebrate this huge milestone.
It’s official….the ribbon is cut by owners Deborah & Justin, and the door is unlocked ready for customers...well...in the morning!
Who is our canine colleague you ask?
Jess the golden retriever was born in 2011, the same year as the February earthquake and the big snow. She brought some happiness, fun and chaos into what was a tough time. She now drops into the Colombo store most days with Justin, and can be found in the front bench window in Underground Café practically every morning at about 7:30am. She has a fan club who come to say hello and she adores it. Jess also features heavily in our Instagram stories, getting as many comments and likes as our most popular bras...sometimes more!
One of our previous administrators, Kendyll, gets first dibs on cuddles. Look at that Jess’ wee bow!
The best way to get more attention and advertising as Deb drives around the city - have this cute face peering out the window. We're sad to say, that "the bra car" has since been retired.
Jess has participated in the Pink Star Walks with the rest of the team. She gets to celebrate crossing the finishing line with pats from NZ celebrity and radio host Mike Puru.
Often seen waiting patiently outside the door whilst Justin or Deb pop inside. Or, perhaps she’s our new customer greeter.
Justin often moves boxes of stock between stores with his electric cargo bike. But, Jess is much cuter cargo and gets way more attention when she’s inside.
There they are (in a different seat than usual...WHAT?!) A brilliant way to start the day - coffee and warm sunshine through the window.