When Heidi Zak was getting dressed for work one foggy March morning in 2012, she peered into the drawer that housed her undergarments and sighed sadly. “I pulled out my bras and realized they were so stretched out, and then the dread set in,” Ms. Zak said. “It’s the dread of having to go out and buy new bras.”
At the time, Ms. Zak was a product marketing manager at Google in San Francisco, but she had always toyed with the idea of building a brand. That morning she figured out what it would be.
A self-described fitness fanatic who prefers running outside to shopping at malls, Ms. Zak wasn’t passionate about lingerie, but she realized that if she hated bra shopping, other women must as well. She left Google later that year and in 2014 introduced ThirdLove, an e-commerce site offering basic but stylish underpinnings designed for women by women.
With her new business, Ms. Zak would seek to solve the plight of bra shopping, which often involves fluorescent lighting, three-way mirrors and a mess of straps and hangers. “Bras should have been the first item to go online,” she said. “You don’t do it with friends, women don’t like the in-store experience, and the market is filled with old-school brands run by middle-aged men who think they’re targeting women.” She says the line has had 20 percent growth month over month since its introduction.
ThirdLove joins a growing number of lingerie lines that are reinvigorating an otherwise staid market. Through sleek websites, hip campaign imagery, savvy fit options and compelling social media feeds, companies like Lively, Lonely and Adore Me are making it easier than ever for the online set to shop innerwear. Moreover, the new lines are changing the message behind lingerie from one of oversexualized fantasy to empowerment, confidence and comfort.
This vision marks a contrast with Victoria’s Secret, the bubble-gum pink retailer that, according to the research company IBISWorld, encompasses 62 percent of the $9 billion lingerie market in the United States. That means that a majority of women are buying their most intimate apparel next to life-size photos of supermodels, whose come-hither looks and propped-up underpinnings embody a male fantasy. Emerging lingerie brands are determined to change that association and bring the focus back to women.
Like ThirdLove, Lively is a bra and underwear label that prides itself on being made for women by women. Its founder, Michelle Cordeiro Grant, a former senior merchant for bras at Victoria’s Secret, introduced Lively in April to bridge the worlds of athletic wear and innerwear. She coined the term “leisurée” (a cross, of sorts, between “athleisure” and lingerie) to describe 11 styles of bralettes, push-ups and T-shirt bras offered in a mix of neutrals and bold prints.
“I admire Victoria’s Secret as a business, but I stopped relating to the fantasy and the push-ups and the armor, it was too much for me,” Ms. Grant said. “I wanted to create something more authentic for the modern woman, where she doesn’t have to choose between style and comfort. Victoria’s Secret is the mind-set of ‘How do I feel when a man looks at me?’ versus ‘How do I look when I’m feeling confident, comfortable and ready to take on the day?’”
In February, before the site went live, Lively ran a referral program offering redeemable points in exchange for email addresses. Within 48 hours, its flash page had 280,000 unique visits. Ms. Grant declined to comment on sales, but said the company had seen month-over-month growth and had received $5.5 million in funding.
Lively uses Instagram to communicate with consumers on matters of fit, design and packaging, then turns the feedback into content. When a shopper tweets #needthis about a specific bra, the hashtag becomes an email headline. And while it celebrates famous fans like Khloe Kardashian and Gigi Hadid, it scours its social feeds to find ambassadors who are everyday women living regular lives. Much like ThirdLove’s fit models, who deliberately look down at themselves instead of posing sensually for the camera, Lively’s fit guide features real customers in sizes ranging from 32A to 38DD.
“The intimate apparel business has been sluggish in keeping up with consumers,” said Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “It’s already a product that’s difficult to fit, so if you can find a way to make it a more appealing shopping experience, it’s a home run every time. We’re seeing these emerging brands reach consumers on an emotional level, and now stores are going to have to play catch up.”
This emerging market is also capturing the Hollywood audience. In August, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke posed for a photo shoot in Lonely, a lingerie and ready-to-wear label based in Auckland, New Zealand. The actresses joined what Helene Morris, a founder of the line, calls the “Lonely Girls Project,” an artistic photo series of real women wearing the label in a range of places, from their bedrooms to the beach.
“We’re trying to show women as they are and not trying to change them,” Ms. Morris said. “We want to celebrate our flaws and see the beauty in our differences. It’s so important and empowering for women to celebrate their shape.”
Once the images of Ms. Dunham and Ms. Kirke surfaced, the Lonely site received more than 600,000 views and temporarily lagged. The company also photographed the artist Petra Collins, who set off an online reaction after posing with body hair.
“We are challenging people and offering a wider viewpoint, which can only be a good thing,” Ms. Morris said.
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