If you are at all plugged into the pinup or vintage-inspired fashion scene, odds are good you’ve been exposed to Dottie’s Delights, the Nashville- and Chicago-based indie lingerie powerhouse that takes its cue from decades past. But you may not know much about Stephanie Kuhr, the uber-private designer behind the burlesque-inspired brand.
I’m a longtime fan of Stephanie’s work and may have let out a massive SQUEE when the first shipment of Dottie’s Delights arrived at Bluestockings. But I was even more excited when Stephanie agreed to a Bluestockings interview. Stephanie has the kind of integrity that makes you want to do business with her forever, and it was a total pleasure to interview her.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Stephanie Kuhr and I run Dottie's Delights, which is a vintage inspired indie lingerie line. I started dabbling with the line in 2009ish and then launched officially in 2010. People may be surprised to find out that I'm not actually very girly in my personal life, even though my line tends to present itself that way. Blame it on being a Gemini or somewhere on the queer spectrum, I don't know, but I love the duality. I've always been a fan of playing around with gender expression in a variety of different ways. I think I started Dottie's Delights, in part, because it was a way for me to explore a really feminine side of my personality.
Short Dressing Robe by Dottie's Delights
How did you decide to focus on retro/pinup lingerie?
I've always had an affinity for vintage things, I sometimes joke that no matter what it is - even a moldy loaf of bread - I would probably like it if it's at least 50 years old. The packaging is probably adorable! I like when things have history and story to them.
I thought I would open up a vintage clothing shop when I was younger, but because that's not a college major, I opted for fashion design instead (silly teenage brain logic). But these new skills weren't really clicking for me in school until I took a class on corsetry and from there my love of working small and intricate, delicate but structured kind of blossomed. Lingerie just fits my personality in a practical kind of way.
I did my senior thesis collection as a Dante's Inferno themed burlesque runway show (this was '06 or '07), which is when I really started to be able to play. We had professional runway models for our fashion shows and they always looked so serious with one body type and by the end of my college years, I was exhausted by the stress and pressure of all of it. I just wanted to have fun with it and do something different - pin-up and burlesque, that's the fun campy stuff! I hired all of my own models, all different heights and body types - most of them professional burlesque or belly dance performers - and we did a high brow/low brow strip show. Tons of rhinestones and hand beaded fringe, a latex molded devil's face bra and spring-loaded wings that I welded together myself. I got in trouble for wanting to show too much nudity, it was all ridiculous and glorious.
The Sweet Gwendolyn Collection by Dottie's DelightsWhat are some of the most pressing issues facing you as an independent designer and small business owner?
Really keeping up with every single task is a huge challenge. There are so. many. hats. to wear and I don't think I ever tick off all the boxes in my to-do list each day. It's a funny line to tow being a small business owner, because the internet can really skew perceptions. Sometimes I get the sense that people think Dottie's Delights is a lot bigger than it really is, and sometimes I'll get emails where the sense is just the opposite. For me, I feel like I've been in this stage of "transition" into a bigger company for the last couple of years, but it's so slow when it's just me and every step I take in growth is a big calculated risk. I would love to give up more control so that I have less on my shoulders, but that's a lot harder than I thought it would be. It's a money and organization and a trust thing. I wonder if the challenges of running a business ever gets easier and I suspect for the most part the answer is a resounding no, because the challenges just keep changing, but I really do love working for myself and being able to do so many different things and set my own schedule, even if that schedule usually means I'm working almost every hour.
The 4th of July brought a resurgence of focus on companies who produce locally here in the USA. Can you speak more about being a (hand)made in America company, and the specific challenges and also benefits of keeping production local?
I'm constantly tweaking production methods; I think this is the single biggest issue that I face as a small but growing independent designer. But I don't think I would still be here if I had gone straight into major manufacturing overseas. There are a lot of lessons you need to learn in the first few seasons that would have been catastrophic if I had to deal with those giant minimum quantities of product. Producing locally means I can grow incrementally and build trust along the way.
I've gone from sewing and developing every single thing myself to working with smaller local factories to outsourcing specific elements of the process with local contractors to hiring in-house assistance, and pretty much everything in between. It's a constant balancing act to figure out what works best and most of the time even then it's on a piece by piece basis. For example, the bras I still do all myself, for a variety of reasons, and that can mean a pretty long wait for some of the orders to get done but I think that can add to the special feeling of getting one. There is a lot of love in there.
As for all the other pieces, right now it's a mix of me sewing or my seamstresses. Because I just moved from Chicago to Nashville, I'm working with people in both cities. I can have an independent sewer work on a batch ranging from just a couple pieces to 50 or 100. I can keep close tabs on how she's doing and stop by the same day if there's a quick question about something. I also get full transparency on the entire process, so I don't have to wonder about working conditions. My Chicago sewer works from home so she can be there for her two kids and her own mother. My new Nashville sewer comes from the theater world. My cutter works in his basement with his two adorable dogs and his own employees. My pattern graders are a little older lady in the suburbs who does everything by hand and a young entrepreneur with a fancy new digital grading machine in a little office behind a talent agency. And then I hire young fashion students either in college or just out of college as interns or assistants to help with all of the little bits inbetween.
I still have a hand in all of these facets, and often end up just doing the jobs myself, but it's nice to have this support structure, especially during the busiest times. I love seeing all the different ways people can enjoy being self-employed and supporting that spirit. I'll probably be adding a factory into the mix again soon, too, but even then we'll still be staying locally to Nashville and they have a great story to support, too. Staying local really just means we all get to benefit from having a community that you can feel apart of, even as the consumer.
The Bow Playsuit by Dottie's Delights, up to 3X
Dottie's Delights features an expansive size range: you offer up to 2X and 3X in most designs as well as custom sizing. This kind of inclusivity of plus size customers is not often seen in the indie world. What prompted your decision to offer such an inclusive size range?
I honestly never considered doing it differently. Maybe it's from the fashion show thing mentioned earlier. I actually thought I was going to be a brand focusing on full bust when I first started, but I quickly found out *why* it was an underserved market for so long - construction wise, they are tough! But I want to embrace as many body types as possible. Especially when I was starting out and every piece was basically made from scratch anyway, it didn't really make that much of a difference if I was making a small or a 2X, so why not offer it? I know I've heard several other indie designers say they have a hard time selling plus sizes, but for me, it hasn't been that way. People just need to know you're out there for them. I would love to be able to be even better about that, using plus size models more often and the like - but even so, a few of my very best clients are in the plus size range. I think I've sold more XL Sheer Show Pantsuits than I have any other size (or at least giving the small a run for it's money). I can understand the indie companies that are producing runs with factories being nervous about the risk, but when you're made to order, I just don't see how you can *not* sell to a wider range. It's definitely one of the perks.
Ouvert Tap Pants, modeled and co-designed by MoshYour collaboration with Mosh has resulted in some highly successful products (and visibility) for your brand -- but that kind of willingness to both collaborate and share credit definitely takes a particular sense of humility and openness! What has your experience been like in collaboration, and would you do it again?
Oh gosh, I'm the least prideful person ever, I'm totally happy sharing credit. It was great collaborating with Mosh, but it definitely worked because we've been working together for years on smaller things before doing the full collection. We had already built a level of comfort and trust in a similar aesthetic. It was refreshing to have someone else to bounce things off of and pull from their inspiration. Mosh was not just the face of the collection, she put in a lot to the designs as well. We started with sketches from her notebooks and random vintage images she had saved or items from her own personal collection and I flushed it out into a cohesive story and fine tuned things into real-life garments, adding a few pieces of my own as well to compliment. But everything had to be approved by both of us. It was a delight. We've talked about doing another collection at some point, it's just finding time with both of our busy schedules.Who are some of your must-read blogs: lingerie, fashion, business?
I wish I had more time to really read anything properly these days! It's usually just whatever happens across my social media scroll that I can scan in about 60 seconds before I feel guilty about being distracted from work. So for lingerie it usually ends up being yours (of course!), The Lingerie Addict, tons of others. Fashion is usually vintage style, so Vintage Vandalizm, Junebugs & Georgia Peaches, or the Trashy Diva blog. Oh, The Pink Collar Life is my new little pleasure if you like over the top pink + blonde old hollywood glamour. I loved Kathleen Fasanella for fashion manufacturing business, especially when I was first starting out.
For business stuff, I listen to a lot of podcasts while I work (StartUp is a good example). I read GirlBoss like everyone else. Funny enough, I was one of those vintage Ebay sellers coming up around the time she was so popular. I may even have been one of those grumbling about how she was able to be so successful (or at least I remember reading those discussion boards)! Ha, I was a baby teenager and that was probably one of my first good introductions to branding and marketing. Also I really appreciate Rookie (Tavi, the founder, is from my hometown!) and whenever anything from Arabelle Sicardi pops up on my feed.
Last but not least: what are your personal favorite items in your lingerie drawer?
My lingerie drawer is a wonderful mix of super fancy expensive pieces and cheap men's high waist tightie whities or the similar. I've also been eyeing the boxers section of Bluestockings. As mentioned above, I am a big fan of variety. ;)
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