- Lingerie and loungewear continue to rise in popularity during the pandemic as shoppers look for comfortable clothing to work from home in.
- Entrepreneurs and boutique sellers shared with Business Insider the latest trends and challenges when it comes to selling and marketing lingerie online.
- They recommended diversifying your content across social platforms because many lingerie designs are flagged as pornographic content under certain algorithms.
- Norway-based corset maker Karolina Laskowska credits her recession-proof business model to Zoom-fittings and her Patreon for lingerie aficionados.
- Other timeless trends like sticking to classic colors like black and remaining honest with customers has helped these lingerie retailers weather tough times.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
If you want to sell finery during a pandemic, you might want to double down on silky underthings.
That’s according to UK-based lingerie seller Annabelle Mu’azu, founder of the seven-year-old online boutique Beautifully Undressed, who said that silk lingerie is selling better than other fabrics these days because it’s comfortable for working from home.
Most of the fashion industry is floundering during the economic crisis, with the New York Times estimating fashion sales are down roughly 35% to 50% since this time last year. Yet the lingerie sector is experiencing a renaissance, entrepreneurs told Business Insider.
“Usually in the summer people switch from lingerie shopping to swimwear,” UK-based lingerie designer Angela Friedman said. “This year there wasn’t any traveling.”
Friedman reported that business has been overall good for her — “more sales than 2019,” she said — but inconsistent.
“Even from one week to the next I may see an enormous influx of orders, then the next week nothing,” she said. “There’s also been a loungewear push since the pandemic started, silk robes and slips.”
This same trend applies to sports bras and loungewear from lingerie-adjacent brands like Uniqlo and Lululemon. The latter’s net revenue rose 2.2% by August 2020, compared to the previous summer, reaching $902.9 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. Lingerie behemoths like Victoria’s Secret, however, haven’t seen a comparable jump in revenue, since these companies rely heavily on brick-and-mortar retail.
Some independent brands like Elma Lingerie, Harlow and Fox, and Evgenia pivoted to fill the demand for face masks. Others, like Friedman’s, doubled down on wearable silk pieces.
In short, the coronavirus crisis may offer lingerie entrepreneurs a unique opportunity.
Mu’azu launched her first in-house lingerie line in late September, Ihuoma, and said within days she got more than 50 orders for items priced at several hundred euros each. There are now more than 1,000 newsletter subscribers inquiring about Ihuoma’s “Divine Feminine” collection, which focuses on colors that complement darker skin tones.
“There are a number of brands targeted at Black women doing great things, but they tend to be lower to mid-range quality,” Mu’azu said. “Some of the people who bought from me aren’t Black, and that’s fine. But I’m not shrinking away from the fact I want to create lingerie for myself and my daughter and my mom.”
Lingerie designers face obstacles on social as their products are flagged by algorithms
Both Mu’azu and Friedman said marketing niche lingerie on social media can be an uphill battle. If you’re a fashion retailer hoping to sell directly to consumers rather than go the Amazon route, be wary of discriminatory search algorithms, they said.
Instagram’s official policy, as determined by its parent company Facebook, is to limit “sexually suggestive” posts and ban nudity, such as bare buttocks. The automated sweep for suggestive posts is so severe that in October 2020, Facebook accidentally flagged onions for censorship due to the vegetable’s round shape.
The only way to counteract the algorithms, lingerie designers said, is to pay the platform for hefty ad campaigns. That’s why it’s so hard for small brands to market pieces like Mu’azu’s chocolate-colored silky robe, shown on a Black model.
“Playboy and Victoria Secret’s have budgets to pay Instagram and Facebook to turn a blind eye,” Mu’azu said. “It’s an ongoing thing. Yesterday, I tried to post a beautiful dress robe and Instagram deemed it unsuitable.”
She added that she’s seen non-white models more likely to be censored or shadow banned. “You’ll get triple the amount of people seeing the product on a white woman,” she said. “I’ve complained to Instagram and Facebook, but you don’t get anywhere. I don’t want that to be the reason we don’t reach the customer base we need to reach.”
Mu’azu said she honestly hasn’t figured out how to deal with this issue other than working hard to continue promoting her brand. On the other hand, Friedman works around this by posting images of the products alone without models.
“We can’t even show a model wearing our products in a perfectly normal and non-sexual pose,” Friedman said. “We’ve shown more flat lays, images of the garments laying flat on the ground or table but not on a body. For shoppers, they want to know what lingerie looks like on different bodies.”
🗣️ Shout out to everyone supporting small businesses instead of Amazon right now! You’re the real heroes here, and I’m thrilled at how many of you have chosen to invest in slow fashion just in the last couple days. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You vote with your wallet. It may seem like only 1 small purchase at a time, but when many people show that they’d rather have ethically-made, sustainable, and local goods, the market *will* shift! In the last decade, I’ve already seen a massive increase in the number of conversations about what “slow fashion” means and how we can each do our part. These were fringe conversations amongst my maker friends when I started my business, and now they’re much more mainstream and gaining even more traction. That’s because of all of you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
In order to ensure communication lines stay open, Norway-based corset maker Karolina Laskowska, 28, said designers should develop multiple channels to speak to customers and get their contact information, like emails. That way getting deplatformed can’t kill the business.
“For a few months even my own name was flagged as adult content,” Laskowska said, referring to her struggles using Instagram. “There were several months during the pandemic that none of my content was showing up … Never rely on a single outside platform for your business.”
Yet don’t be deterred by the challenges of marketing independent lingerie brands online. Business of Fashion reported in October that the lingerie market in the United States alone is worth $13.6 billion. All of the designers Business Insider spoke with agreed there’s still a healthy demand for lingerie with better fit, quality, and longevity than mainstream retailers offer.
California-based designer Bao Tranchi, who has celebrity clients that range from Jennifer Lopez to Selena Gomez and Mariah Carey, said she’s had trouble advertising on Facebook and Instagram because her posts were flagged for showing “too much breast.”
She said her business is selling roughly 30% of the volume it was before the pandemic. Now her bodysuits are her bestsellers.
Friedman said she considers it a success when roughly 2% of her over 39,000 Instagram followers are able to see a post.
“You have to put in the time to social media and SEO,” she said. “The internet is full of small companies trying to sell things, especially during the pandemic. There’s no shortcut to great content, strong branding, and direct relationships with customers.”
Shoppers are still splurging on unique, sexy pieces
“I’ve seen an uptick in lingerie sales — stuff they can layer and still feel sexy [in],” Tranchi said, adding the bodysuits are selling more than the dominatrix-style dresses she also offers. “Everybody I know who owns a brand, every spring collection was cancelled. Stores were canceling orders. You control your own destiny so much more when you’re selling directly to the consumers.”
Her bestselling items during the pandemic are the wraparound and ringside bodysuits, which sell for $199 to $390 each. Other designers said that they’ve noticed crotchless panties do particularly well as shoppers look for ways to explore new fantasies at home.
Tranchi, who launched her brand in 2015, noted this year she’s seen fewer orders yet more consumers approaching her products as an “investment” in themselves rather than date-night attire. She said her favorite feedback is when customers say they saved up to buy a bodysuit for their birthday or to celebrate a promotion, something their own. Communication with customers is a core pillar of her job, she said, as important as the designs themselves.
A shift to virtual consultations
Laskowska said she fortuitously switched to Zoom fittings and long-distance marketing when she moved to Norway two years ago. Due to new shipping costs, compared to her hometown in the UK, she also optimized her business for custom working rather than relying on volume. This enabled her business to, so far, remain recession-proof.
“Measurements only tell a fraction of the story of the body,” Laskowska said. “Everyone will have a different distribution of fat and muscle and breast tissue. Part of the fitting process is I send them a mockup garment. It’s very rare to be perfect the first time. Now it’s mostly with Zoom calls, then we make another mockup until we get the fit exactly right. That’s why this is such an expensive service.”
This means Laskowska may only accept a couple of orders each month. She subsidizes this bespoke work with a Patreon for lingerie aficionados, where she offers tutorials and guides. She said this Patreon now accounts for roughly 30% of her income. Since the pandemic began she’s offered more instructional content for people making their own lingerie at home.
Black is always in style
Mu’azu said she was pleasantly overwhelmed by the enthusiasm consumers have for her debut collection, which includes embroidery with icons and symbols from African cultures.
“Given everything we’ve seen in terms of the media and Black consciousness, I felt what I was doing was needed more than ever,” she said. “On a luxurious level, why are we being ignored? It was time to address that.”
The designers added that more customers are asking about quality and sustainability as they look beyond fast fashion.
“If we spend $300 on our hair, we can spend it on items that are closest to our skin and celebrate our melanin,” Mu’azu said.
Among shoppers with pale skin, Friedman and Laskowska both said that black lingerie generally sells more during hard times.
“If you’re designing a new collection, throwing in bright colors like yellow is a big risk, especially right now, whereas something in black is more likely to sell,” Friedman said.
Supply chains pose an issue
It’s more expensive to sell directly to consumers these days, the designers shared. However, they said the costs are worth it to develop stronger relationships with customers.
Fashion retailer Ariela Weiss Esquenazi, CEO of the 120-person American company Ariela & Associates International, said her distribution center in Pennsylvania required costly new safety measures. Her in-house lingerie brand has a modest price point, such as bras for $24. Equenazi said small businesses need to stock up on fabrics and supplies in advance. Her company, in particular, quickly recovered from the initial economic shock and once again “hit pre-COVID projections,” she said. Esquenazi said the company continues “to see year-over-year growth” as of October.
“We placed additional weeks of supply to make sure we were able to stay in stock,” Esquenazi said of her company’s approach during the first half of 2020. “Communication has been paramount during this time. We’ve relied on Zoom and other virtual platforms to conduct QC checks and manufacturing meetings to keep ahead of freight delays, manufacturing slowdowns, or other supply chain issues.”
Despite these hurdles, there’s ample room for smaller companies to claim market share from overleveraged corporations, the entrepreneurs said. Laskowska’s advice for both shoppers and retailers alike is to plan ahead for exorbitant shipping costs and delays. No one should expect independent brands to compete with Amazon’s shipping options.
“Honesty with customers is especially important right now,” she said. “It’s important to differentiate from the fast fashion industry. The more consumers understand about the business, the more flexible they are.”
Christmas and Valentine’s Day are the two biggest shopping seasons in the lingerie industry. Regardless of shipping being more difficult than ever, orders for lingerie keep pouring in.
“The postal service in pretty much every country is overwhelmed,” Friedman said. “We do a lot of international sales, and I don’t think there’s any postal system we haven’t had issues with. Every year we get men in late November emailing us that they forgot and can we get a rush shipping order? This year we’ll make sure to suggest gift certificates, which can arrive online.”