Season's greetings (summer, that is) from a woman who got good and tired of having the world see her lingerie straps and decided to invent a solution

ALLISON KAPLAN St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota)

Bra straps were ruining Stephanie Heroff's summer. "I thought, there has to be a way to wear spaghetti-strap tops with a bra,'' said Heroff, a St. Paul native who, at the time of her epiphany two years ago, was starting up her own graphic design firm. Her first client was a construction company, and the assignment had her sketching forklifts and tractors at building sites under scorching sunlight.

"It was so hot,'' Heroff recalls. "I wanted to wear a tank top, but I couldn't show my bra straps on a construction site.'' Like many average-to big-busted women, Heroff, who wears a B-cup, was frustrated by endlessly impractical skimpy summer fashions that don't work with a bra: halter tops with open backs, slinky dresses with skinny straps.

"Fashions out there right now are not bra-friendly,'' said 30-year-old Heroff. "Most women can't wear those clothes.''

It's a point of contention most women have raised with their girlfriends. We complain about fashion designers thinking only of waif-like models. We feel huge and self-conscious. Then we reluctantly move on to the rack of boring T-shirts that provide ample coverage.

Not Heroff. She decided to sew her bra straps right into the straps of a tank top. Just one minor detail: Heroff doesn't sew or own a sewing machine. She asked a tailor near her Minneapolis apartment to do the job.

It worked. To celebrate her newfound freedom, Heroff wore her bra-tank combo to the Minneapolis Block Party on a particularly sticky summer night and studied the crowd to see how many bra straps she could spot peeking out of women's sleeveless shirts.

Tons, Heroff said. So Heroff, who had no experience with fashion design or product development, hastily found a patent attorney. She half-expected him to laugh. Instead, the attorney showed the bra-sewn-into-shirt idea to his wife, who thought the concept was "incredible,'' Heroff said. Heroff's patent is still pending. She believes -- and her patent lawyer's research supports -- that hers is the first product to sew an actual bra strap into a shirt strap. The bra itself is detachable, so women can wear their regular bra size with any shirt size.

Heroff balks at the concept of one size fits all. Other "built-in-bra'' designs offer a bra cup but no lift, she said, or they use a "shelf,'' which is simply an extra layer of elastic designed to hold cleavage in place.

"Shelf bras are not bras,'' said Heroff, a voice of authority after years of frustrated fitting-room experiences. "They don't look like a bra. They don't feel like a bra. They're not comfortable, and women aren't confident in them.''

Heroff began pitching her idea to clothing manufacturers. Several turned her down. Through a friend in the graphic design business, she found Private Label Industries, a Los Angeles T-shirt maker, which agreed to come up with a prototype. Dozens of tries and more than a year later, Heroff and her L.A. partners hit on a design they believe will work for women of all sizes and shapes.

Bra straps are sewn into shirt straps for extra support. The customized Heroff underwire bra, sold separately, is available in sizes 34A, 34B, 34C, 36B and 36C. It attaches to plastic hooks built into the shirts, which come small, medium and large. They are interchangeable -- one Heroff bra works with the entire collection of tops. There are 15 shirt styles to choose from in brights and neutrals, like "icy lime'' and "heather gray.''

"It's really innovative,'' said Josi Wert, owner of the Minneapolis storeby the same name. "Other lines have done some bra enhancing, like a shelf, but it doesn't really help. Most women who are past 18 and not comfortable with their bra straps showing need some support.''

Hiding bra straps isn't an inexpensive proposition. The Heroff bra, available in black or white, will sell for around $24. Tops range in price from $49 to $65.

"There's some science to it,'' Heroff explains. "Positioning of the bra strap is important. A shirt connected to a bra is a new idea. You want to make sure it gives you a lift but doesn't bunch in the wrong place.''

Heroff works with two manufacturers to turn out her product. One company provides her with customized bras and the plastic hooks to them to shirts. Another makes the tank tops and puts the pieces together.

"I never knew there was so much involved in garment manufacturing,'' Heroff gushes. "I never knew so much about bra fashions.'' Heroff spends most of her days on the phone with her partner in L.A. at Private Label Industries, who is helping Heroff navigate the clothing industry. She pulls samples out of a white plastic storage bin in theiving room of her modest (nonair-conditioned) apartment, which now serves as Heroff headquarters.

"For Holiday, we're going to do some wovens,'' Heroff says, thrusting forward a nonelastic-type fabric in charcoal gray.

"I didn't even know what wovens were,'' she confesses. The fashion world does not appear to have gone to Heroff's head -- yet. That could change when her shirts start selling. Josi Wert already has a waiting list crowded with names of women who have yet to see Heroff but already want them, just from hearing about the attachable bra.

"I don't feel like a fashion designer,'' Heroff insists. "I feel like I'm building something. This feels like an engineering project.''

Heroff has all sorts of ideas for garments that would incorporate her hook-in bra: athletic wear, evening gowns, wedding dresses. Even swimwear.

"Tankinis,'' she declares, eyes rolling toward the ceiling as she starts sketching in her head. "I can't wear one. They're tight and unflattering. I'll design it.''You can bet she will.