One of the most frequent questions I get asked is "how do I start a lingerie brand" and although it will be different for everyone, I can tell you how I started mine.
* though beware it's a bit of a long post (the five things you need to know are at the end if you haven't time to read the full post).
Before I started Vanjo, I had sold all of my previous furniture and car etc and had bought a one way ticket to Thailand (where i ended up designing swimwear for a company) I spent just over a year travelling, and not ready to yet go back home I ended up in Belfast. I knew I wanted to stay put in one place for awhile and start my own brand of lingerie. I had drafted out a rough idea in the airport (basically I was sick of taking my bra off for long flights as it was so uncomfortable) and I knew I wanted to launch a soft bra into the big boobed, small back category of the world of lingerie. It was 2004 and at the time there wasn't much available in the way of sizes such as a 28FF and near to nothing in soft bra sizes - they were all small, medium or large.
So only arriving with one bag and no job, it spurred me on that I could set up my label, as I had nothing to loose. I gained work part time in a shop so I didn't have the added pressure of making money, and by then I was use to not buying much when travelling; that the little amount that I was earning covered rent and food and that was pretty much it.
So after about 8 months, I had gotten all fits and the style of my brand that I wanted. I had sourced a UK manufacturer, and my friend from uni had set up her own business providing digital grading so I outsourced the grading of the bras whilst I graded the briefs. My original plan was to get a range made up then sell it.
About six months before I was going to launch the UK manufacturer went bust, I should have had my doubts, as I'd kept on ringing them for the sampling to be made and was fobbed off with excuses why it wasn't made. Also the factory had changed it's name a couple of times so it had gone bust before.
This made be re-evaluate everything, as I felt even though I had committed to design and launch my label, I felt I hadn't fully committed. I still had the mind set that I could travel again if it didn't pan out. And to be honest at that time I didn't even have a plan. I'd even tinkered with designing T-shirts and Jewellery at this stage as well.
I had run out of money and felt a bit lost what to do next. My sewing was not at a level where I could make it myself, and I didn't want to just be working in a shop anymore not designing.
I decided I would give myself a year, I wrote a business plan, I went to Invest NI for help with writing one (and I also received a £750 grant), and then approached Princes Trust with this new business plan for a loan.
By gaining £3,600 from them I had a responsibility to launch my label and pay it back.
Within that year, my skills in sewing increased, I learnt why stitches skipped, and simple things about tensions of the thread. I sorted out my USP, I had a vision for how I wanted the brand to look and stuck to it., not flitting from one idea to the next.
What I bought
Buying fabric with the trims were one of the first things I did, I sourced places that cleared out warehouses of factories and brands that didn't want the fabrics that were left, so I could provided a sustainable lingerie brand.
Next came the patterns, I launched with two styles of briefs, one style of a thong shape, one style of an underwire bra and one style of a soft bra. Prints were a main part of my brand so I contacted the fabric supplier in Liberty and asked for swatches to be sent of all the fabric they had in stock that were end of roll samples.
I looked on the internet at independent lingerie brands and looked where they stocked and built my list of stockist from this as a starting point. Washing labels were standard ones I bought from Morplan, and I put all extra details (like where it was made) on the swing ticket. Swing tickets were one of the last things I bought and didn't really have any money left for these so I got printed one sided business cards, bought myself a hole punch which took the corner off whilst punching a star shape and hand punched every single swing ticket. (I had done it on photoshop and had blacked out each pixel, at the time I didn't understand Illustrator, hence the jagged edges).
I sourced a guy to design my website (though it would only be later that I would regret the fact that to change or add a page would cost me £500 each time) and I designed the range that I was to launch with.
By this stage I had my sewing up to a standard that I was happy with and having seen some independent lingerie brands in Selfridges, I knew my sewing could easily sits alongside them.
So I was ready, except I kinda wasn't, I didn't have any stockists. Nobody knew about Vanjo. Included in my year time line was to gain stockists I didn't want to launch just online. After taking photos of my range I I booked a flight over to London and spent two days hand delivering my little press pack I had designed, hoping i would get to speak to the buyers/owners of the boutiques. Which of course didn't happen.
I returned ready to send out more press packs to other stores throughout the UK and make the follow up calls of all the ones I had dropped off. Even thought writing this all down seems like a seamless path, first I did this then I did that.... it wasn't like that at the time, I was balancing working with designing and sewing, and learning all the things I knew nothing about like Tax etc.
It was on a follow up call that I lied and told the buyer from Topshop that I was in London next week if she wanted to see the range, using the line that I didnt think she she wanted to miss out on seeing it; she 'Yes' and and after the phone went down I booked a flight whilst dancing up and down across the room.
I now had just under two months before my self imposed deadline. I arrived at Topshop and showed them the range, uncertain if they would take it as I would be the first lingerie brand to be stocked by them that was a D cup and above. They loved the brand and wanted to stock it, but not the Spring/Summer one I had showed them they wanted the AW range (it was July and I had designed 6 months in advance to give me time to show it). I told them that I was in London for a few days and would send them photos across when I got back. Yup another lie told. I was flying back that day and my idea was that I was going to go back, design and make a full range take photos and email it across.
After pulling in a long couple of days I had everything ready and sent it off to them, they mailed back to say they would contact me in the next couple of weeks. That would give me a month left, of my deadline. I had come so far that the deadline didn't matter anymore, I wanted to launch my own line and if it took longer then it took longer. I had decided that if Topshop didn't take the range, I would return back to England to look for employment as a Lingerie designer and do my own label, selling online on the side.
So I did want I do best when waiting and thinking that I may be going back to work full time somewhere, I booked a flight to France, and another one back 4 weeks later from a different part of France to travel for a bit, and at a steal of like £59 in total (gotta love just taking hand luggage I was off.
Whilst away I went into an internet cafe because obviously my Nokia 3310 didn't have Internet and there in my inbox were two messages from Topshop.
The first one telling me they wanted to stock my brand and an order was placed. The second one a message saying they were placing it on their website as well and had increased my order so there were over 100 briefs to make and over 60 bras. I ended up flying home early to start on making them all.
It seemed once I had fully committed to this label that results started to happen.
Although this was just the start of running my label, five things to remember are:
1. Make a list of all the things you need to do to complete your label and then work through each one, mine roughly were:
- Swing tickets, labels incl. wash labels, designing the lingerie, fabric and trims, bra fitting, making the lingerie, grading, costing & patterns.
2. Understand and know your USP (mine were big boobs small back, ethical lingerie & prints)
3. Have some sort of plan. (Seriously have a plan - even if it's where you want to be stocked or who your customer is).
4. Know it will take longer than you originally thought.
5. If it doesn't work first time re-evaluate and start to become in the area it didn't work in. (Mine was learning to sew better, and it gave me more control over my brand by learning it).
*Remember there is never a perfect time to follow your dreams, and you will never be ready. You will learn far more by your errors or mistakes and realise that they are not in fact your errors but they are the things that make your brand grow.
Above all be Bold and keep going if designing lingerie is what you want to do, if you need further help of where to start then these books will help.