Chicago’s 1,000 Bra Man
Oz du Soleil, 44, of Chicago’s Kilbourn Park has hundreds, if not thousands of bras in his basement. Boxes and boxes of them, sorted in their cardboard containers by cup size, each holding every type and style imaginable.
When I first heard about this guy, my reaction was like everyone else:
“Are you kidding me?”
HOW IT STARTED
Du Soleil admits he gets the same knee-jerk reaction that I had every time he tells someone about his project.
“Usually they ask if I’m serious,” said du Soleil, who grew up on food stamps while living in Marion Jones Public Housing in North Chicago, Ill.
But then he tells them he’s sent more than 1,400 bras around the world to underprivileged women and girls. As I later found out, a bra is one of the least donated, but most needed items for the homeless, those on welfare or who have been victims of domestic violence.
Still, du Soleil is careful about who he tells.
“And it’s not like I walk down the street saying, “I’m the bra man.”
The topic certainly gives off a creep vibe at first glance, especially since the details about how du Soleil came up with the idea are fuzzy at best. He originally told me the idea started with an art project, but then it turned into “I-started-taking-pictures-of-my-female-friend’s-bras for-a-now-defunct-blog.” The gist, according to du Soleil, was taking a picture of the bra, (just the bra) and writing about the woman who used to wear the bra in his diary-like blog. He said he “can’t remember” how he acquired the first bra, but 50 or so of his female friends and acquaintances, mailed him bras for the project.
Weird, sure, but then again I did go to an art show in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood where a psychologist shredded patients information, lacquered it to a piece of wood and then wrote a description and rating of the nameless person based on their DSM IV mental codes with their overall GAF (Global Assessment of Functioning Number).
So du Soleil said after taking the photos, the bras then sat in a plastic garbage bag in his closet for several years, until a now-ex girlfriend asked him why he had bras in his closet. (Smart woman.) She then donated a few of them, according to du Soleil, to Myra Bradwell Elementary School, because the girls were coming to school with safety-pinned bras. The girls, du Soleil said, profusely thanked his girlfriend, ecstatic that they could have a clean bra to wear.
“I had no idea there was such a need,” du Soleil said. “And those were just raggedy old bras.”
Although touched by the reactions, du Soleil moved on with his life and sort of forgot about it – until he was laid off from Kaplan Financial in July 2008. Months of unemployment can help a person think, which brought du Soleil back to the bra idea. Why not collect new or slightly-used bras online and donate them to needy women and girls? By last November, on Thanksgiving Day, du Soleil, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, decided to launch a blog support1000.blogspot.com His goal: to collect 1,000 bras.
Being a typical guy, du Soleil joked he had no idea what kind of bras women needed. So he went to Target. He approached a young clerk in the intimate’s section and asked her “So I’m looking to buy a bra, what kind should I get?”
The girl turned bright red and tried to stifle back her snickering.
Du Soleil joked that he had two choices: make it a joke and ask for the biggest bra possible or tell the young woman why he was asking.
He did the latter. The young clerk stopped laughing and du Soleil got the help he needed, via a mature woman who taught him about everything from racerback bras to 5-way convertibles to the strapless variety. He also quickly realized the least donated, hardest to get bras: Size 28 or 40B-cup or the really large sizes (anything beyond a double D.)
Once du Soleil started his blog, he started to get small donations. Three bras here, five there. The question became how many bras were enough to start donating. Then International Intimates donated 2,400 bras.
“And that’s when I knew it was time to start donating,” said du Soleil, who has now collected more than 3,000 bras.
Not knowing where to turn first, du Soleil posted on Craiglist.
Kelly Kobylanski, who works at Apna Ghar, a domestic violence shelter that focuses on women from South Asia, admits she was a little creeped out when she first saw the post.
“I thought it was some weirdo or a scam,” Kobylanski said. “It is unfortunate, but I was skeptical at first. But then I looked at his website and realized that he had donated to places I knew and that he wasn’t asking for something like $9.95 up front for the next 18 months.”
Deborah Slowe, the executive director of the nonprofit IMAGINE ME Foundation in Park Forest, Ill. which helps build esteem in teenage girls, also found the Craigslist posting.
“It was amazing,” Slowe said. “He seemed genuine so I decided to try it. He responded immediately, so I didn’t think it was fake. I even offered to send a donation for postage and he wouldn’t even take it.”
More than 100 bras have come Slowe’s way. She said there’s a huge need that goes mostly unnoticed, with girls coming in with filthy, safety-pinned bras, much like the ones du Soleil’s ex-girlfriend described to him years ago. Girls cried at the pre-school picnic this fall when Slowe handed out the bras. The girls got bras, as well as some of their needy mothers.
“Something as simple as a bra can make a big difference to build up a girl’s self-esteem so she wants to come back to school,” Slowe said.
Bras have been sent to other organizations including: the PADS homeless shelter in North Chicago, Ill. St. Francis School on Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, women in Mali via buildOn, Friedman Place, a residential facility for the blind and visually impaired, Cornerstone Outreach for the homeless in Chicago, Waukegan’s Catholic Charities, a Women’s Shelter in Longmont, Colo., New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Springfield, Ill., Chicago’s Breakthrough Urban Mission and Leanna’s Closet in Greeley, Colo.
Du Soleil has recently raised the $750 he needs through donations, to make Support 1,000 a 5013c non-profit, but said the biggest challenge is trying to fill out all the paperwork and find the right people, who are dependable, for the board of directors.
It was only after interviewing “the bra man” for an Oct. 2 Chicago Tribune story, “Thousands of Bras Collected for the Needy” that I realized a need I had never really thought about before.
As much as some women joke about burning their bras or going bra-less, it’s considered unacceptable in most situations. If you have a job interview and can’t afford a bra, what are you going to do?
Bras are expensive. Many of us have a drawer full, but for many lower-income women or teenagers, it’s a big deal to get a bra. It’s about giving women some of their dignity back, if they are homeless or trying to escape an abusive situation, many leave without wearing one. As one of the social workers joked with me, you can get a cheap set of three-pack panties for $5, but a bra, at its cheapest, is close to $15, sometimes as much as $40 for some of the larger breasted women who need odd-sized H and J bras. (Wooah! Being of the more traditional variety, I hadn’t ever thought about the problems that come with buying a bra that big.)
So don’t throw out your old bras, donate them. Or buy a new one and send it Oz’s way.
If you had to decide between using the money towards paying your rent or buying a bra, what do you think you’d choose?