Most people start a fashion line because of a passion for design -- and end up worrying about the business aspects later.
But for Negative Underwear founders Lauren Schwab and Marissa Vosper, it went the other way around. In fact, before Negative Underwear, neither had any design experience at all: Schwab worked at a private equity firm and Vosper worked in brand consulting.
Instead, finding themselves somewhat restless with work, the style-obsessed friends took classes at FIT for fun. But the hobby turned serious, with each expressing an interest in entering the fashion industry and starting her own business. "Neither of us come from a design background, so we thought where we could add value was by looking at the market and seeing where there was opportunity and target that," Vosper says.
What they ultimately found was that the lingerie market was sorely lacking a product for women like themselves: Cool, fashion-savvy women who aren't looking for boring basics but also aren't looking to spend hundreds of dollars on luxury lingerie.
They wanted to start a line that would serve as an antidote to the frilly, embellished designs dominating the overwhelming lingerie business -- they never mention Victoria's Secret by name, but then, they don't really have to. "Kind of in the middle, there was a behemoth of a brand that's all about making women into something that they're not," Schwab says. "It's about adding padding, and becoming Angel-fied."
This kickstarted a year of research, which involved trying on "hundreds and thousands" of bras and taking notes on what they liked or didn't like about styles. But of course, of all the fields of fashion design, lingerie is the most technically tricky, requiring an enormous amount of precision and expertise.
"We always joke that [had we known how challenging lingerie is], we would have done wrap dresses," Schwab says. "I think we were totally naive going into this. We started out literally by going to the FIT bookstore looking for a book on pattern-making for bras, and when we couldn't find it, we very quickly realized that we needed to find an expert who has years of industry experience."
So they began to work on the line nights and weekends for over four years, keeping their day jobs right up until just after the brand launched in February. They did end up finding that expert, a woman they say is known as the matriarch of bra-making in New York. "It was a really lengthy, organic process," Schwab says. "We didn't know the terminology, we didn't know how to speak the same language, so a lot of it was, 'We don't like this,' and we'd point to it, or we'd say, 'We don't like how it makes our fat come out here,' and our sample maker was very patient with us."
They also attended lingerie trade shows in Paris, ultimately sourcing their "super silky, supportive, plush" band material from Japan and their fabrics from a family-run mill in Belgium. They found a factory in Colombia, recently given free-trade status with the U.S., which allowed them to produce on a scale most new businesses couldn't. By far the most helpful tool in their arsenal -- and what Schwab says ended up being the most valuable skill she learned in the process -- was mining their extensive contacts for new connections.
"My biggest lesson from this entire experience has been how you can really push your existing network to meet so many people," she says. "We are very lucky in that we live in New York and as a result we have access to so many people, but I think the number of people that I've met through this process just by asking, 'Oh, do you know anyone who knows anything about underwear?' has just been amazing."
Once they got the fit to a place they were happy with, testing on both themselves and their friends, the pair looked to find fabrics that also cut away from the pink, girly crowd. Right now, there are just four: Boa, a snake print; Albatross, a feather print rendered in lilac; Essaouira, a unique black lace style; and Sieve, a fine black mesh. Each comes in a demi-cut bra, a thong, and a brief; the Sieve also comes in a balconette, the brand's best seller. In addition, there is a line of sheer t-shirts designed to show off your bra -- including tanks with cutaway backs or low-cut armholes.
Currently, Negative Underwear operates under a direct-to-customer strategy for pricing reasons: the founders want a set to cost around $100. Bras range from $65-$85, thongs $28-$30, and briefs $35-$40. "When you source your fabrics from the same mill as Eres, unless you want to be a luxury price point, you have to cut out the middleman in the retail landscape," Vosper explains.
That strategy has not only allowed the duo to be fully hands-on at every step of the operation, it's also given them great insight into the women buying their underwear. "It allows us to really understand who every single customer is, because we're the ones packing the envelopes, writing the thank you notes, feeling that moment of gratitude for every single order," Vosper says. "I think it's important that we've done every job before we expand."
And plans to expand are already in the works. According to Schwab, the first step would be to add lighter colors, like white or nude, with the understanding that most women buy primarily black, white or nude underwear. They also recognize that their size range (32A - 36D) is currently very limited, but expressed hopes to add in more sizes soon once they feel the product is further developed.
Boy shorts, bodysuits, bustiers, loungewear and swimsuits are all on Negative Underwear's radar based on customer demand. "I think it's very easy to lose focus when you get so excited, so we're trying to maintain the same exact path that our brand is built on," Vosper adds. "But I think there's a lot of opportunity to grow from a product standpoint."
The pair is grateful to have had a support system, both in their personal and professional lives. Though Schwab had to keep the project quiet for most of the process, she's been incredibly touched by the support she received from her firm when she finally told them. And Vosper says her experience in the brand consulting world was enormously helpful as well. Ultimately, though, it was the support of one another that helped the most.
Neither one regrets leaving those day jobs, either. "I think after working in a category where I sold ideas for eight years, having a physical manifestation of that idea and getting involved in the execution of building a real brand, and not just advising people on building brands, that's so gratifying to me," Vosper says.
"I say that every day, I say, 'If this is all I get, this has been the best experience of my life,'" Schwab says.
"And walking into a room and having all my friends say they're wearing my underwear is really amazing," Vosper adds with a laugh.