Lingerie business: moving from in-house to factory production

Stitching some glorious French lace knickers in my studio this Summer. Photo by A. Lindseth
Stitching some glorious French lace knickers in my studio this Summer. Photo by A. Lindseth

My business has been stuck at a deeply frustrating bottleneck for quite some time now. Since leaving university, my brand has grown fairly steadily. With only a few minor exceptions, every garment that I’ve sold over the last 4 years have been created with my own fair hands*. 

Sewing can be a deeply enjoyable and fulfilling activity: there is truly something wonderful about creating a complex and beautiful garment from a piece of fabric. However, it stops being fulfilling when you have to make the exact same garment 40 times in a row.

The Sayuri set from my AW14 collection was always one of my most popular designs. When I sew it myself, it takes hours. My new factory can create it in a matter of minutes. Photo by Simon Crinks. Model is Emma Salisbury. MUA by Violet Zeng. Macarons by Zoe Anderson.
The Sayuri set from my AW14 collection was always one of my most popular designs. When I sew it myself, it takes hours. My new factory can create it in a matter of minutes.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by Simon Crinks. Model is Emma Salisbury. MUA by Violet Zeng. Macarons by Zoe Anderson.

I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that there’s been so much more demand for my designs. I have in the past year tried to change my business model from my previous ‘only made-to-order’ ethos. With so many customers buying at a distance, made-to-order can be a risky business; even with all the measurements in the world you can never be completely sure that something as complex as a bra will fit until it arrives in person. Consequently, I’ve been trying to move to holding stock, so that customers can try things on and return them. So that there isn’t the huge 8 week wait for me to finish making the order.

Unfortunately for me, this has meant a huge increase in sewing labour. This has caused a few substantial problems.  Firstly, I’ve found myself spending the majority of working days stitching rather than investing energy in growing the business in other areas. Secondly, I’ve had to cut down my size range to make the workload manageable: most of my recent styles that I hold in stock only offer my 3 best-selling cup sizes.

I put a lot of work into developing the Sayuri bra for larger busts; it seems that even beautiful photos on a 32F model weren't enough to sell this style. Unfortunately I couldn't even entertain the thought of including this bra size in my factory production as it was so cost prohibitive. Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by J Tuliniemi. Modelled by Vicky Burns. MUA by Sandra Nilsen.
I put a lot of work into developing the Sayuri bra for larger busts; it seems that even beautiful photos on a 32F model weren’t enough to sell this style. Unfortunately I couldn’t even entertain the thought of including this bra size in my factory production as it was so cost prohibitive.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photo by J Tuliniemi. Modelled by Vicky Burns. MUA by Sandra Nilsen.

When I used to offer wired bras on a made-to-order basis, my most extensive size range encompassed 7 different cup sizes (so 32A-32F with a range of band sizes): that was a huge amount of extra work, for very little return. I failed to sell a single 32A, 32E or 32F size at full price: in my eyes this made these sizes a poor investment. There’s also the unavoidable fact that this much sewing just isn’t healthy in the long term. From migraines to increasing issues with RSI in my hands and wrists, I’ve realised pretty quickly that this many problems at the age of 23 doesn’t bode well for the future!

Returning to factory production has been a long term goal of mine for a while now, held back by that annoying issue of money. Unlike a lot of luxury lingerie brands, I have no outside funding. Since leaving university in 2014 it’s been my focus to outsource production.  I’d tried crowdfunding in the past and my experiences were mixed; I didn’t want to return to that uncertainty, emotional upheaval and the inevitable stress that comes afterwards (you’d be surprised how many people choose size-specific rewards and then fail to respond to every attempt to contact them).  I didn’t want to sell off a major chunk of my company to an investor who doesn’t care about my product. I also didn’t want to take out a bank loan with my risky financial situation (that is, if I could even qualify for one!).  So I instead decided to play the long game: slowly saving, slowly buying up supplies and piling them up in my already-cramped studio.  And by the time 2016 sped round, I was almost ready!

This March I finally headed over to my new factory armed with 2 suitcases full of lace, elastic and overly-detailed technical files. Meetings went well and finally this week, I received my production samples. There has been so much stress involved in this process; when I finally received the samples, they were so beautiful I teared up. The two sets that I’ll be making (in two different colourways) are exquisitely stitched in beautiful fabrics: they’re products that I am completely proud of.

I'm still waiting on proper photos of the Carina set but the chantilly lace over the pale pink tulle is utterly delicious! Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska
I’m still waiting on proper photos of the Carina set but the chantilly lace over the pale pink tulle is utterly delicious!
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska

What I’m perhaps most pleased about though is that even with the exquisite and expensive laces that I’ve chosen (one of which is my favourite English leavers lace, the other a wonderfully delicate Italian chantilly), the higher-priced metal components and the overly complex adjustable designs, the price is nearly half of what it would be if I sewed it myself.  That hammered home how unsustainable it is to try to sew everything myself; I’ve continually tried to bring my prices down with lower-priced ranges (using cheaper laces, less detailed designs etc), but the fact is that I’ll never be able to compete with the quality or cost-effectiveness of a factory set up.  I never thought I’d be able to say that I’d have a full set available at a retail price of under £100, but it’s happened!

The Ara set by Karolina Laskowska
The Ara set by Karolina Laskowska

This week has been all about finalising my final order size (in itself a deeply stressful and difficult decision!). Even with this small size range (because honestly, even adding one extra size into the range would have meant another month of saving and delay, only adding extra risk into this venture), deciding which quantities to order is tricky. The minimum orders are already higher than any products I’ve ever sold before. In around a month and a half, I’ll be receiving a delivery of 500+ pieces of lingerie, which is a more terrifying concept than I could have ever thought!

This increased pressure to sell in volume has been somewhat sobering. So much has gone into my lingerie brand, be that from a resource perspective (time and money) to an emotional one. Even with the unprecedented success and support that I’ve seen, the fact is that this factory run has to be a success for me to justify carrying on with this brand. I need to be able to sell a cheaper and higher-produced product, at a certain speed and at full price, if my business has any hope of growing and making a living in the future.

Yazzmin just rocks the Ara set way too well, I ADORE the photos from this shoot - can't wait to share them all with you! Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by Jenni Hampshire. Modelled by Yazzmin Newell.
Yazzmin just rocks the Ara set way too well, I ADORE the photos from this shoot – can’t wait to share them all with you!
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by Jenni Hampshire. Modelled by Yazzmin Newell.

That’s brought the realisation that the next few months will be make or break for my brand. On the one hand it’s sad that I might have to say goodbye to this business; on the other, it could mean growth and wonderful things for the future (or in less sensible terms, lingerie world domination!).  I have high hopes for these new designs: I truly feel like Ara and Carina are the start of excellent things.

In my next blog post I’ll be talking about my design decisions behind the Ara and Carina sets and some of the challenges I faced in the process. If you have any questions that you’d like to see answered then please leave them in the comments below; I’d also love to hear what you think about the new designs!

*those exceptions being the corset ranges created for me by Ava Corsetry, the occasional bit of intern help and a brief and unfortunately fated experience with a tiny factory run back in 2013. The latter was funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and was unfortunately not sustainable: the factory  messed up my order quite dramatically and it wasn’t something that I was able to return to with any speed at the time due to my university commitments.

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10 thoughts on “Lingerie business: moving from in-house to factory production

  1. I wish you all the luck in the world with this, your commitment and sensible approach to the “real world” of business that you are now moving into deserves total success. I feel sure your brand, and you will be here for the long run, and very successful.

  2. The Sayuri set continues to make me want to cry over its beauty. It’s hard to tell from photos only, but it looks like one could adjust the amount of skin showing at the front of the crossover knickers by changing the strap length to sit at a different place on the hip. An intriguing concept to me, at least! The designs in production are definitely on my “to save up for” list (particularly the Ara wired bra), but if this run goes well would you consider re-releasing Sayuri? I’m in love with the red version but blue or black silk would be stunning too. The colors in that entire collection were so nice. I understand that there might be business decisions you’ve made regarding the silk that I couldn’t possibly guess at, though!

    1. Thank you so much – it’s one of my favourites too, the silks are so utterly divine. In all honesty it’s not entirely likely that I’ll be bringing the kimono silks back much; it’s very difficult to find vintage silk in enough quantity for a factory production run and I’m trying to phase out as much self-sewn wired bras as I can. If I can persuade a factory to work with the remnants I have now then perhaps, but that wouldn’t be for a while!

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