The Tempest In A D-Cup

GET READY FOR THE BATTLE OF THE Bras. Last week, Gossard, the British lingerie maker, launched its Super Uplift bra, an engineering marvel consisting of 46 separate pieces of lace, padding. straps and wire that promise to make it possible for "even the most modest of bodices to flash real flesh." In May, Playtex will introduce its entry in the push-Lip sweepstakes, the Wonderbra. Its claim to fame is a testimonial from flat-chested model Kate Moss, who says, "They are so brilliant, I swear, even I get cleavage with them."

Lest you think this is nothing more than a tempest in a D-cup, as one British writer described it, consider this: American women spend about $2.5 billion on bras annually, and many retailers think push-ups are about to bust out of the pack. Moss's waif look may be popular on the runways and in the pages of teen-fashion mags, but real women want curves. A few years ago surgery filled in gaps left by nature. But after horror stories about breast implants, many women are afraid to go under the knife. Two other major cultural influences. Madonna and the sexy Victoria's Secret catalogs. have helped to bring bras out of the closet. "Ten years ago a woman had two bras," says Karen Bromley of Intimate Apparel Council, a trade group. "Now she has an actual wardrobe." Push-ups are for those days when she wants to flaunt it, even if she doesn't have it.

Gossard is the veteran in this battle. For 25 years, the company sold the Wonderbra in Britain under a licensing agreement with Canadelle, now owned by the Sara Lee Corp. But when Sara Lee saw how well the bra has been selling for the last couple of years, the company decided to retrieve the. license when it expired at the end of 1993 and give the Wonderbra to Playtex, another Sara Lee subsidiary. Gossard is fighting back with its new, improved model, the Super Uplift. Mark Pilkington, Gossard's marketing director, says his mission is to convert women who are "functionalists" (a bra is a bra is a bra) to "enjoyers" (a bra is a bra except on special occasions, when they want to take the plunge) to "indulgers" (they want to take the plunge every day).

In Britain, the Wonderbra still has legions of fans. Sally Bardsley, a manager at Tatters, an exclusive London store patronized by Di and Fergie, says that when the Wonderbra was launched-again, it sold out so fast that "you couldn't get one for love or money." She personally owns four. "They're wonderful in the summer when you're brown and you want to bend over," she says. "It's fun for the boys."

Both bras work on the same principle. Padding fills out the sides. Underwire scrunches the rest of the breasts up and in, creating cleavage. The Super Uplift, available in black, white, pearl, navy and raspberry comes in sizes 32A to 38C (even big girls need help sometimes, apparently) and sells for $39.50. The Wonderbra is cheaper, $23, and comes in white, black, flame and champagne, and the same sizes.

In its debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York last week, the Super Uplift was a hit. The store sold 400 in just one day, with the most popular size a 34B. But not every customer walked away satisfied. Monique Squeo, 28, a slender, well-dressed blonde who works for Chanel, was disappointed. "I took off from work to come here and this isn't anything new," she says. "I even tried several colors to see if it would make a difference." She sighed, looking sad and resigned. "The search continues."