It’s National Small Business Week in the USA, a week devoted to celebrating small businesses and the grit and steel it takes to start one. Here at Bluestockings, we are devoted to stocking independent lingerie brands and designers. 19 of the 22 brands we stock here are independent brands (they are not owned or bankrolled by a corporation), and of those, eight are independent designers who most often run the entire show themselves.
A few of the designers responsible for our favorite underthings sat down with us for a conversation about their entrepreneurial journeys. Their insights are inspiring.
Marin Camille (L) and Julia Zolinsky (R) of BlackBird Underpinnings
Marin: With a background in art and sewing, I have always loved fashion and its capacity for creative expression. Blackbird Underpinnings was originally inspired by the fearless writings and elegant style of Anaïs Nin -- a vision of modern intimate apparel with vintage flair, designed to inspire self expression and confidence through exploration of the sensual. For years it felt like a far-fetched dream until Julia and I serendipitously met at our day job.
Julia: We became fast friends, talking often of our dreams for the future, and quickly realized that our values and interests aligned incredibly well. Marin shared her thoughts and inspiration for creating a lingerie line, and it was like a light bulb went off in our heads -- we should do this together! So we started meeting monthly to talk about the concept, then every other week, then weekly, and our plans started taking off. Ultimately, it was our great chemistry and shared vision that was the impetus for starting the company.
Catherine Clavering of Kiss Me Deadly
As you probably know, running a business wasn't actually my first choice. I'm unemployable - no one in the UK is going to take on someone with as many disabling conditions as I have. So really, it's been more about creating something that keeps me out of the poverty most disabled people face and doesn't make my health problems much worse. That's probably why I'm more transparent about being in it for the profit than most.
Sylvie Lardeux (L) and Abby Sugar (R) of Play Out (Photo Credit: Thorsten Roth)
Like good lesbians, we decided to U-Haul after dating for ~8 months. When we moved in together, Abby was proud to have so many clothes and enough underthings to go two weeks before doing laundry. However, lacking enough underwear, Sylvie insisted on doing laundry once a week. Abby insisted that she buy more underwear. However, Sylvie could not find anything on the market that she wanted to buy, much less wear! All of the women’s underwear available on the market tends to be much too flowery, lacy or pastel-colored. A lot of lesbians we know would wear men’s underwear, but that comes with its own set of problems. Since men’s underwear isn’t cut for a woman’s figure, the shape is unflattering, the waistband is too strong/tight and that extra fabric in the front just gets in the way! After extensive research, we realized that the type of underwear we wanted -- not too girly, made from all-natural fibers, and featuring fun and interesting graphics -- was not being made. So we decided that we needed to make it.
Dani Read of FYI by Dani Read
What has been the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
Catherine Clavering, Kiss Me Deadly: The best bits have been the fans. I have to say I think other brands fans just aren't up to the standard of ours. ;) They are definitely the most enthusiastic, thoughtful and creative - they do the greatest things with their lives, running the gamut of careers and locations and hobbies, and bringing up children who in some cases I think might end up as evil geniuses, but that would be OK, right? As long as we get to make the capes.
Rachel Hill, Origami Customs: I’ve had many customers who have spoken to me about how my lingerie or swimwear has changed the way they see their bodies. I find that this is especially true for Trans, Genderqueer or non-binary customers who have a hard time finding things that fit their body or that they can buy in a positive environment. There aren’t many businesses focusing on custom made underthings for people all over the gender spectrum, so I’ve had quite a huge response from people in this community praising the customization, sensitivity and inclusivity of what I do. I had one customer lately tell me “thanks for making me feel more like me”, and that without my designs, they would have never had the courage to start dressing for their true gender identity in public.
Dani Read, FYI by Dani Read: The clients who get it! I regularly receive incredible feedback from women who completely identify with the FYI brand and that's what I do this for!
Abby Sugar & Sylvie Lardeux, Play Out: I think that we both thrive on the opportunity to constantly be learning new things and on the creativity involved. We have had to teach ourselves all aspects of the business, and are always trying to learn more – for example, Sylvie is working on learning graphical textile design, so we won’t need to bring our inspiration to a professional in the future but can build our designs ourselves, from start to finish. And the creativity in the designs – whether it’s a more Hawaiian inspired flower print or a motherboard, it gives us a great creative outlet. It’s extremely rewarding to receive Instagram messages from people who buy our underwear and want to tell us how much they love it.
What has been the most challenging aspect of starting/running your own business?
Marin Camille and Julia Zolinsky, BlackBird Underpinnings: As first-time business owners without experience in the apparel industry, the learning curve has been vertical! While that has presented a huge challenge, it's also part of the thrill - we're constantly learning new things that inspire us, keep us on our toes, and help us grow.
Catherine Clavering, Kiss Me Deadly: If I wasn't ill, the most challenging bit would be the cashflow (because we have no money behind us) and the sheer unending tedium of admin. As it is, the most challenging bit is ridiculous stuff, like, my limited mobility means I can't do emergency posting because I can no longer walk to my nearest post office, and I can't sustain my energy enough to work like a maniac the way most small business people do in difficult patches.
Rachel Hill, Origami Customs: Personally, I've struggled with recognizing the worth in my time and what I make. You always want to keep your prices affordable, but I've really had to learn how to value the (what seems like) endless hours that I've put into starting and maintaining my business. I actually found that once my items were priced fairly, I had more sales. I like to think that people who buy handmade goods want to support the people behind them and understand that it won't cost the same as fast fashion.
Dani Read, FYI by Dani Read: Running your own business consumes all of your time and money. It's a complete life-investment and requires a lot of sacrifice and self-motivation.
Abby Sugar & Sylvie Lardeux, Play Out: From the point of view of a small business owner, the day-to-day getting everything done is always a challenge. There is always more to do! IWe struggle with our social media engagement, simply because we have so much going on all the time to run the business. We currently have a social media intern, and she has been amazing.
In regards to our specific product and our community, navigating the current conversation around gender and gender-presentation has been a challenge. Our goal, first and foremost, is to offer our underwear as an inclusive option to what else is out there on the market. In choosing to avoid using gendered descriptors (men’s underwear, women’s panties, for example) we have to be very sensitive to the language the community is using. The challenge is that language is always evolving, and the descriptors we use now may become outdated or even frowned upon in the future. We welcome constructive feedback from our customers to improve the language on our website and social media. We want all people to be comfortable wearing our underwear – be you, Play Out!
What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?
Marin Camille and Julia Zolinsky, BlackBird Underpinnings: Trust yourself and your ability to accomplish the unimaginable. While the prospect of starting a business is daunting, give yourself permission to dream your wildest dreams. Next, set long and short term goals, then focus down on a priority list and simply put one foot in front of the other. Never lose sight of those big dreams, which will continue to evolve as your business grows, but remember that you will reach them by accomplishing one small task one at a time. While there will certainly be days when things seem impossible and terrifying (believe us, we've been there!), ultimately starting a business will be an incredible gift to yourself -- a journey of personal growth and self-discovery that will help you realize your true potential.
On a more practical note, don't be afraid to ask for help! Seek out resources in your community that can provide support and industry knowledge -- trade associations, business classes, networking groups, etc. Joining these types of groups and taking classes provided us with a community and the essential building blocks of our business that continue to have a positive impact on our work.
Catherine Clavering, Kiss Me Deadly: If you want to run a business then I wouldn't bother doing a degree in the thing you want to sell - I'd do a business course and/or marketing. Or just teach yourself. Join a small business or start reading, as the marketing degrees I see aren't really aimed at small brands. And know that you will make mistakes. Loads of them. Just try and do them fast enough to stay afloat!
Rachel Hill, Origami Customs: I would tell them to make sure to be clear about your work / home life boundary. So many times, small business owners take their work home with them (especially when you work from home!) or end up working overtime days. It's so important to just take the time to unplug, turn off the phone, and get out of the workspace. Those emails will still be there when you get back, I promise!
Dani Read, FYI by Dani Read: Do your own research (a lot of it) and use every resource. There are federal, state, and private organizations that are dedicated to helping businesses owned by women, lgbtq people, and people of color. As an artist/designer, there was a huge learning curve for me when it came to business, and the resources I've utilized have been so instrumental in "getting there."
Abby Sugar & Sylvie Lardeux, Play Out: We always have two pieces of advice that come to mind. The first is perseverance – when you look at the successes of other companies, you sometimes can feel as if it’s impossible to get to that point or that you are not good enough because you’re not there yet. But you have to think about how long they have been in business or have been around; their success didn’t happen overnight either. So perseverance is a big part of being a business owner; if it were easy, everyone would do it!
Second, make sure that you have a balanced approach and vision. This was easy for us because there are two of us, so we are able to balance each other’s ideas and opinions – whether this be regarding advertising opportunities or a new graphic design for our underwear, we are able to consider multiple angles and we don’t always agree with each other. This is not to say that you HAVE to have one business partner, but it is to say that if you are going into business by yourself, try to find a team of people to work with you whose opinion you respect and who can help you look at all aspects of the business.
P.S. You can shop all of these designers right here at Bluestockings: