CurveNY Shows Boutiques Bloom Amid the Gloom

Despite the troubled economy, new entrepreneurs are beginning to see an opportunity in specialty lingerie retailing.

Despite the troubled economy, new entrepreneurs are beginning to see an opportunity in specialty lingerie retailing.

This story first appeared in the March 23, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Exhibitors and officials at the CurveNY trade show in February said they were pleased with the turnout of established specialty boutiques, but they were surprised by the burgeoning number of entrepreneurial merchants who were entering the intimates field for the first time with start-up specialty stores and e-commerce businesses.

“It’s a very good sign for the economy,” said Laurence Teinturier, vice president of CurvExpo.

Among the new enterprises are Orchid GB, which is slated to open in Great Barrington, Mass., in June; Lilibea’s, scheduled to open in Fleetwood, Pa., in April; Tampa, Fla.-based Lingerie Lace, which will launch in May, and Bra Savvy, which will open in May in Matawan, N.J.

There’s also Abbyroseonline.com, a Web site based in Landenberg, Pa., that will launch in late April and specialize in solution items such as tops that are partial camis to be worn under low-cut necklines, and Missandpluslingerie.com, which features plus-size lingerie from 1X to 6X and was introduced last March with plans to expand into a brick-and-mortar operation in East Orange, N.J., by yearend.

Other boutiques that aim to open this year include Juliet Lingerie and Swimwear in Mount Kisco, N.Y.; Mom’s Unique Boutique in Huntingdon Valley, Pa.; Guilty Pleasures in Westbury, N.Y., and Yummy Mummy in Manhattan, which will also launch yummymummystore.com.

One businesswoman, Beverly Green of Washington, D.C., started her own direct-sales company this month called Bella Forma Intimates. She hosts lingerie events similar to Tupperware parties at her home and at friends’ homes, schools and charitable organizations, and sets the stage for bra fittings.

The inspiration for entrepreneurial lingerie retailers is not only the lure of new business opportunities, or learning a new trade. The merchants are buying and selling merchandise that can cost less than a lipstick or a designer café latté. The average retail price for an intimate apparel item in all channels of distribution was $5.47 in the 12 months ending Jan. 31, according to the NPD Group.

Some experts believe it’s a good time to start a specialty operation because real estate prices are low. And consumers are rejecting promotional and generic-looking merchandise at major stores that often do not provide the personalized service or specialty and fashion products that are the hallmarks of a full-service boutique or Web site.

The entrepreneurial challenge in a weak economy is also being ignited by the success of established e-commerce retailers that specialize in innerwear, such as the $1.2 billion victoriasecret.com, $60 million fredericksofhollywood.com and $37 million barenecessities.com, as well as manufacturers such as Jockey, which generated online retail sales of $18.7 million in 2007, according to industry publication the Internet Retailer. There are wholesale-retail businesses online like Cosabella and Only Hearts that also operate brick-and-mortar stores bearing their brand name.

“A lot of new Web site businesses, about a dozen, came to visit us at Curve,” said Gregory Gimble, vice president of Puerto Rico-based Va Bien, a shapewear specialist. “A lot of them noted the success of barenecessities.com. Creating Web sites today that are functional, clean and user-friendly cost only between $3,000 to $5,000, and they can be customized. The menu is essentially the same.”

Dan Sackrowitz, vice president of barencessities.com, said consolidation of major stores has turned off consumers.

“As department stores restructure, more people are not shopping as much as they used to,” Sackrowitz said. “Lower rents, lower minimal square footage sales requirements and the expertise of personalized service are possible factors that are making the opening of new lingerie boutiques an opportunity right now. From an online perspective, building and designing a Web site is relatively easy. The challenge is getting enough visitors to your site to justify the expenses.”

A large intimate apparel company, Wacoal America, got a jump start in 2006 when it began targeting boutique owners with wine and cheese parties during seasonal market weeks, and most recently enticed specialty merchants with Godiva chocolate martini soirees for its b.tempted line of sexy foundations that have a young, contemporary twist.

Sharing her perspective as a new specialty boutique owner, April Burch, co-owner of Orchid GB, said she’s always wanted to open a lingerie boutique, even though she’s been a scientist and a researcher of viruses for 15 years.

“I’ve been affected by the economic crisis and have been trying to obtain grants, so I prepared for a life beyond science and research,” Burch said. “If we didn’t think a lingerie boutique would work in this economy, we wouldn’t do it. But we identified a business gap in the small town of Great Barrington, which has a population of 10,000, a community that’s well educated, liberal and very sophisticated. We are targeting women around 42 with a median income of $45,000. There’s not a single lingerie store within a 50-mile radius. President Obama has inspired people to take on challenges and start up new, small businesses. We’re doing that.”

Burch added that “people are really keen on the idea of thinking local, like the green movement. People really want to shop locally in brick-and-mortar shops that give them quality goods and good service They don’t want to go to an outlet mall.”

Robin Horman, owner of Lilibea’s in Fleetwood, Pa., and a former customer service executive at a bank, said she’s opening a lingerie shop because the bra sizes at nearby stores, including Victoria’s Secret, Boscov’s, Bon-Ton, Target and Wal-Mart, are “very limited.”

“My desire to open a boutique was a very personal one because I couldn’t walk into a store here and buy a bra that fit me properly,” Horman said. “I would have to rely on mail-order, and most of the time the bras didn’t fit properly. I could go to Neiman Marcus, but that’s a 45-minute drive just to get personalized care.”

Green of Bella Forma Intimates said during her studies for a master’s degree in business administration at the American Intercontinental School in London she moonlighted as a bra fitter at Bravissimo, a 17-unit lingerie chain in the U.K.

“I’m avoiding the hiccups of costly overhead,” Green said of her direct-sales model. “The only cost to me is my costs. I’m dealing mainly with full-busted women with brands like Panache and its Harlequin line, and will be including Anita Active sports bras. My goal is to make the bra experience affordable and accessible to women. It’s a basic need, especially with D and K cup sizes.”

Robinson, owner of abbyroseonline.com, a stay-at-home mother, said her idea of creating a “camini,” a semi cami that covers cleavage, opened the door for selling the product online in April and at a boutique she plans to open this year.

“I will only have to pay a couple of hundred dollars a month to Google for advertising, and leases are cheaper right now to open a boutique,” she said. “For an 800-square-foot space in a high-rent district, I would only need to pay $5,000 a month. But I would need to have no less than $30,000 in inventory.”

Priscilla Thompson, co-owner of Missandpluslingerie.com, said her Web site sells brands such as Shirley of Hollywood, Dream Girl, Elegant Moment and Fantasy Lingerie. She wants to add bras by Carnival and shapewear by Va Bien.

“We plan to up the marketing with Google search engine ads, because we almost doubled our business from December to February and we think upping the marketing will pay off,” said Thompson, noting that orders from the Midwest represent the strongest segment of plus-size business. “We’re also planning to open a brick-and-mortar store in East Orange [N.J.] in a few months. Some people don’t want to shop online because they don’t want to wait for the merchandise to ship, and they miss the shopping experience.”