In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Heading west through the shop-filled blocks of Prince Street in New York's Soho neighborhood, one new storefront stands out for its stark white color palette and bright, inviting design, visible through huge windows. It's the first U.S. flagship for The Laundress, the only brand of cleaning products that I think can reasonably be described as luxurious. The store certainly feels more like a high-end boutique than, say, a Duane Reade.
Longtime friends Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd founded The Laundress 14 years ago after both feeling a bit stuck in their respective jobs at luxury fashion companies. Having already conceptualized the products — eco-friendly, effective detergents able to wash delicate fabrics like wool, cashmere and silk to reduce dry cleaning — while working other jobs, they bootstrapped the entire operation at a time when research had to be done in libraries, when "how to start a business" wasn't something you could Google and figure out in an afternoon and when online orders required a fax machine.
In addition to the New York store, they now have a booming business in Asia (including two stores in Tokyo), over 1,500 wholesale accounts and over 65 products that span laundry, home cleaning, fragrance, storage and more. We recently chatted with Whiting and Boyd about how they made this all happen. Read on for our interview.
What did you go to school for?
Gwen Whiting: I went to Cornell for apparel design. I made a lot of my clothes in high school and I had a business: I made neckties, which were part of my high school’s dress code, and I sold ties to my friends and classmates. I groomed myself for [starting a fashion business]. I took a bunch of classes at FIT, even in high school. Lindsey and I met at Cornell in the apparel program.
Lindsey Boyd: I guess it's not too ironic since we make detergents, but my focus was science in high school. I always had an interest in fashion. Then I learned about the textile program [at Cornell]; my focus was the sales side of it. I did a ton of internships in college. Gwen and I both did. [I interned at] Donna Karan, Nicole Miller, Malia Mills.
GW: We both had to take the same science classes and the technical fiber classes.
What were your first jobs out of college?
LB: The sales division and product development was where I started at Brooks Brothers in men's tailored clothing. [Then I found] an opportunity to go to my dream job — working at Chanel in ready-to-wear. I managed and participated in all of the fashion shows and managed all of the major accounts and boutiques. My experience at Chanel was half the reason why we are doing The Laundress, just based on the customers [who] had things ruined at the cleaners.
GW: I was at Ralph Lauren in the home division... It was inevitable that Lindsey and I were going to have a business together; we needed to get some experience and it is all about timing, especially when you're talking about some crazy thing like starting your own business.
When and why did you decide to start The Laundress?
LB: We both kind of had that aha moment, where we looked around and were like, there's no way our bosses are leaving; there's really not a lot of growth for us in the positions we were at and really in the industry that we were in. In fact, the woman that was the head of my department is just now retiring.
GW: We were young and we were underpaid, and it was the perfect time... Lindsey and I worked day and night for over two years from concept to launch while working our full-time jobs.
That must have been challenging.
GW: And when we were doing this, we didn't have Gmail accounts, we didn't have texts, we faxed back and forth to each other.
LB: It was very low-tech. We didn't Google one thing for this entire business plan. We would leave packages or folders for each other with the doorman.
GW: The world of entrepreneurship was very different from all the businesses that have popped up. We went to the NYC Business Development Center to work with a government-produced consultant at Baruch College.
LB: We funded our business on credit cards, we did a for profit party where we had our friends write checks to help us buy our first production run. We did everything on our own.
LB: We developed it from the ground up, from an idea that wasn't really understood either. There were no niche products available at the time. Any natural or eco-friendly products were kind of under-marketed and didn't work very well, or were really crunchy, earthy.
Were there any companies that you looked at as a model?
GW: We were very inspired by Bumble and Bumble and Bliss Spa, and Art of Shaving. Our original plan was to have a store, and then anyone in the world could do laundry just like you could do it at our store. There was one Bliss Spa in New York City and everyone could have a body butter in any shower in the world.
How did you figure out how to actually formulate these products?
GW: We went back to Cornell and we worked with the dean in the fiber science PhD program. She answered the questions we wanted to know and gave us the resources to learn what ingredients did what and how things worked together.
LB: That's really what we do today with our customers, we give them the information on what the best process is — how to care for their cashmere, how to care for their whites — and then we give them the product to make that happen.
When did you get to the point where you could quit your jobs and do this full-time?
GW: We launched in 2004, we had a business loan so Lindsey left her job first to sell. I joined six months later full-time. We had a very limited amount of money, so one person had to jump in first.
How did you approach selling the line? Who were your first accounts?
LB: We tapped into the clients that we had relationships with, so Bergdorf Goodman was one of our first big clients.
GW: We did a trade show while we were working [our fashion jobs], and we were in the New York Times Styles section while we still had jobs.
LB: We were like, for sure we're busted... During my lunch hour I went to Bergdorfs and sold my product to the buyer and my buyer was down the hall.
GW: I think it's really important to let people in on what you're doing and not be concerned about someone running away with your idea... We definitely had people tell us we were crazy and we took away what was interesting and dismissed that.
What kind of criticism did you get?
LB: That there's no way you're going to sell a detergent at this price point, or why would you even make a detergent?
GW: Or, why are you doing laundry? You work for Chanel and Ralph Lauren.
The selling part and making product wasn't hard. It was getting the wholesale person at the stores to understand what it is we were doing and why we should be selling at Gracious Home. Why do I want to buy this detergent at Bergdorfs?
LB: The clients we got were from calling and stalking on a regular basis. I even went to some of the stores with product several times to meet with them. You can't worry about what people will think. If you do then you're setting yourself up to fail.
When did you start selling online?
LB: Immediately, in 2004. We literally had an order form online that had to be faxed in or called in. That's how we sold online.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge in growing the business?
GW: We were running on a shoestring. So, money. But I don't think that ever goes away.
Have you ever raised money? Or would you want to?
LB: No. Just American Express.
GW: As long as we don't have to.
When did you get to the point where you felt ready to open a store? You mentioned it was something you'd wanted to do at the beginning.
GW: We felt that we could afford it. To say we had time for it is kind of laughable, we just felt that we really needed that.
LB: It means lot for a brand to have a visual experience... It's another arm of discovery for the business, too. People who may have never heard of us are finding out about us on Prince Street now.
Any plans to open more stores?
LB: We also have our international partners, so we do have a point in Tokyo, we have retail points in Korea. We see this as a model for rollout. [Ed. Note: The Laundress has a store in Tokyo, Japan and a shop-in-shop in Osaka, Japan.]
What other plans do you have for expansion? More products?
LB: We're not a fashion brand so we don't have to launch a new collection twice a year or four times a year. We focus a lot on customer acquisition and existing customer relationships. Our collection is 65 products and a lot of customers have been with us for years and don't even know the whole collection.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start their own brand?
LB: Get your ideas down. As rudimentary as it may sound, it's really critical to know your vision and to be able to articulate your vision. If you have an idea, you can pull up any business plan outline — we actually worked off of a frozen fish sticks company. And obviously you have to be really passionate.
This post was updated to correct the spelling of Lindsey Boyd's first name in three instances, and more accurately reflect when the idea for The Laundress was conceptualized, where its Japanese stores are located and where Lindsey Boyd interned.