Back in pre-pandemic times, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum chose Stripe & Stare as the underwear brand of the future. It was during the museum’s 2016 retrospective on underwear through the ages and how undergarments have mirrored women’s liberation.
The British-based brand was just getting started then. (Stripe & Stare launched in 2017 after roughly a decade of research and development into sustainable fabrics and sourcing.) But the museum chose the newbie brand precisely because it reflected the theme of the exhibit: Stripe & Stare’s fabrics were soft and freeing.
“They said they selected our product because of our commitment to sustainability and the fun, flirty designs that offer maximum comfort, which represented the future of underwear,” Katie Lopes, cofounder and creative director of the firm, told WWD.
The uber-girly assortment is also fitting for a museum. It’s like candy for the eyes. There are lively neon colors, alongside designs of stripes, stars, rainbows, hearts, animal prints, catchy phrases and other playful patterns. There are also rompers and tanks and men’s underwear and bathing gowns. (That’s British for robes.)
The selection aside, shoppers only need to touch Stripe & Stare’s fabrics to feel how soft they are: the knickers and pajama sets are made from beech trees and Tencel MicroModal fabrics, grown in a forest from responsibly sourced trees. Packaging is made from biodegradable plant materials with a reminder to compost after use and tags are all made of recycled cardboard. The brand became a certified B Corp in 2022.
“I had my own stores in London, selling contemporary fashion brands such as Rag & Bone and Zimmermann, and I couldn’t find a great pair of underwear for everyday wear,” she said. “So I started developing our own range for our customers. It was at a time when we were beginning to understand the damage fashion was doing to the planet. So it felt like if you were going to start something new it should be done in a better way. The two key issues I wanted to address were comfort for every day — something that was not boring and frumpy — plus sustainability. This is particularly important for underwear, which is something that cannot be bought secondhand and something we use every day. At this time only 1 percent of underwear was sustainably sourced.
“Founding a business is super tough, but knowing we have a great product gives us confidence,” she continued. “Our number-one source of new customers is through word of mouth. We want to make sustainable underwear mainstream.”
Fast-forward six years — and with the help of cofounder Nicola Piercy — and the London-based brand is growing fast. Revenues surged more than 3,000 percent between 2019 and 2022, with a current valuation of roughly $15 million. The direct-to-consumer start-up’s business has also grown to include wholesale partnerships, both in the U.K. and Stateside, with the likes of Selfridges, Shopbop, Revolve and Bloomingdale’s. Zalando is coming in January.
“We love partnering with retailers,” Lopes said. “It’s a great way of getting in front of new customers.”
There have also been collaborations with LoveShackFancy and The Home Edit. The brand is in talks with other brands in the U.S., Australia and Brazil, as well as a possible partnership with a European influencer, although Lopes declined to say who.
The fashion entrepreneur added that past collaborations have yielded seven-figure revenue returns, while increasing overall brand awareness. “Luckily, so many women love our range and are happy to tell the world. So we have always had lots of partnership options,” she said.
It’s not just consumers who have taken note of the brand. Investors have also noticed growth. The brand has been approached by potential buyers, all of which Lopes has turned down — for now.
“We have really been in the right place at the right time,” she explained. “The #MeToo movement saw a seismic shift in women’s underwear shopping habits. Very quickly women wanted underwear that was supercomfortable while still offering a great aesthetic. The days of sexy, uncomfortable underwear designed with the male gaze in mind no longer felt right for modern women. The importance of purpose-led shopping increased with consumers caring more and more how and by whom their products are made. And the pandemic was another factor with more and more shopping online and people at home wanting to invest in comfort.”
To help with the brand’s rapid growth, Stripe & Stare brought on a new chief executive oficer last September. Cathay Newnes Smith, who hails most recently from British clothing retailer Boden, brings with her more than 20 years of retail experience and expertise in product, merchandising, buying and marketing.
“Nicola and I do not have the brand growth background that Cathy has. So she really knows what it takes to become a big business, while we bring the brand identity and start-up mentality,” Lopes said. “She is bringing infrastructure to Stripe & Stare, which has been in start-up mode for the past five years, just keeping up with the demand. But it is time to work on our systems, range planning and building the team to prepare for further growth. So it is a great combination.”
With Newnes Smith’s help, the Stripe & Stare team aims to grow its valuation to $100 million by 2027.
“We’ll get there by increasing our customer base through collaborations, partnerships, digital marketing, wholesale [business], pop-ups and events,” Lopes said. “We have seen huge success with routes such as podcast partnerships, influencer partnerships from micro to macro and working with women we admire to help spread the word.
“We still face many challenges — from increasing supply chain costs to a cost-of-living crisis to a looming recession to increasing digital marketing costs — as all companies are facing,” she continued. “But we are in a good spot to weather the storm. While we keep our numbers conservative and are fairly risk averse, we are also very ambitious, so we know it’s possible. The underwear market is so big. We don’t need a very big piece of it to achieve this.”
There are plans to grow the assortment with new silhouettes and innerwear styles, although Lopes said the focus will always be on intimates and “cool, comfortable, sustainable underwear.”
“If we were to diversify too much into fashion we would end up doing a lot of things badly,” Lopes said. “We are real believers in doing one thing well and being very focused. Our aim is to sell one product to millions of women — there is a huge market out there for us to capture.”
In addition, Lopes said Stripe & Stare is considering entering physical retail or pop-up shops to help expand brand awareness. She is in talks with Leap — a platform that supports e-commerce brands as they set up shops IRL — to make the jump from digital to physical.
“It’s a good time for deals in retail and we would look at any pop-up as a branding and marketing activity for customer acquisition and a place where we can tell our sustainable story as much as a revenue stream,” she said. “There is so much scope to expand in underwear and sleepwear.”
Lopes said she might even be open to selling the brand “in a few years,” but added, “while we’re building the brand, it might be that we’re enjoying it too much and want to keep growing the company ourselves.”
Expanding on her wishlist, Lopes said, “If we had an unlimited budget, I would love a space in London and New York. One in the West Village and Chelsea or Notting Hill. But I think that is a way off at the moment.”