Watch: How Carrie Russell turned a love of lace into a business
Carrie Russell spends most of her week surrounded by underwear.
She’s the owner of With Love Lingerie, a company she founded five years ago. In the beginning, she sold her bras, nighties and panties through a handful of lingerie boutiques, the odd pop-up and her Etsy shop. That’s until her wares caught the eye of a buyer who contacted her this summer and helped ink a contract with Nordstrom come September. It is poised to give her business a serious boost, and yet Russell is still producing 95 per cent of her pieces, as she always has, in a small studio in her Forest Hill apartment in Toronto.
The vintage-luxe inspired undergarments hanging from her studio’s ceiling – featuring delicate, hand-dyed French lace, a modern approach to appliqué and plenty of sheer stretch mesh – are a far cry from what Russell was creating in her former life as a technical producer of “adult lingerie.” The 33-year-old describes that world as “a whole different scene.”
Uncomfortable watching intimates being developed cheaply and in a rush, and fatigued by taking direction from “men talking about what’s really hot on a woman and what women want... and then [asking me] to cut the ass out of a panty,” Russell broke out on her own in 2010. After careful planning and with strong connections in her pocket, she decided to make underwear on her own terms – and to make it better.
As it turns out, Russell is one of several young indie entrepreneurs in Canada who are applying a slow-living, small-batch ethic to underwear and, in the process, overturning established ideas about what lingerie is, how it should fit and who it’s really for.
Alesha Frederickson started March & August Underthings on January 1, 2014, with a resolution to shift the panty paradigm. She believed the lingerie available in her hometown, Winnipeg, left a lot to be desired: It was off-the-rack, unflattering and there wasn’t much variety between babydoll-style teen-focused items and the offerings from fast-fashion brands. Both, according to Frederickson, were “designed to be like a present to unwrap, like a gift to the person who was viewing, not wearing, it.”
Against those mainstream standards, the 28-year-old says, she “just didn’t feel like a lingerie person.” So she began to make undies herself, calling them “underthings,” since typical lingerie wasn’t a desirable category to anyone she knew.
Of the many sartorial sins that Frederickson and other indie-lingerie crafters believe bigger production houses should repent for: Cheap bondage knockoffs, preposterously padded push-up bras, the overuse of synthetic fabrics and that one particular shade of garish red lace, a hue Victoria’s Secret calls “Hot and Spicy.”
The reaction to March & August Underthings has been positive. In the past eight months, Frederickson went from having a personal Facebook album of designs liked by a handful of friends to nearly 2,000 Instagram followers; she had negotiated her first point-of-sale with a boutique Winnipeg hair salon by April 2014, and has hand-sewn and sold over 1,000 units.
Frederickson’s first line included cosmic, hand-dyed jewel-toned longline bras and high-waisted panties, her latest collection, which she’s calling “Witchy Woman” is retro-modern, largely fashioned in midnight blue and black, with an emphasis on structured sheers and hints of gold hardware. Pieces run from $50 for a low-rise panty to $200 for a bespoke set.
Custom sizing, according to Frederickson, is the most important facet of her brand. “How can you tell someone to love the body they have, but too bad if they don’t conform to a standard fit?” Because she crafts each item by hand, sewing-to-fit makes sense. “For all orders, I add a little bit here or take in an inch there. Most people are really excited to have underwear that doesn’t pinch or cause a muffin top.”
Frederickson also makes bespoke underwear to measure, in addition to exclusive lines for special events and bridal gifts.
She also makes a point of featuring locals in her photoshoots who aren’t the typical underwear-model size or shape and is unequivocal about her desire to empower where possible. Her message seems to have hit a nerve: The March & August Instagram account features photos of satisfied customers showing off their new lingerie and celebrating their bodies in it.
As Frederickson sees it, the wearer, not the viewer, comes first. “If you are going to show someone what you are wearing under your clothing,” Frederickson says, “you better damn well feel good in it.”
In Montreal, 28-year-old designer Sofia Sokoloff has identified a similar niche.
Formerly a technical designer for La Senza, Sokoloff was witness to an industry that has long held two extremes: the mass-produced-in-China bra-and-panty brands carried by Walmart, La Vie en Rose and Victoria’s Secret versus high-end lines that are made in France and out-of-reach to the average consumer – think Simone Pérèle, Chantelle Paris or Aubade, whose lace thongs can run $135 apiece.
In 2011, she started Sokoloff Lingerie for the middle market. She was 23 years old at the time and studying industrial management at the École supérieur de mode de Montréal. In the past four years, her brand has grown quickly: She now has two seamstresses and her own production floor that regularly makes more than 1,000 units per month. She went from two points of sale in 2011 to nearly 30 today, and most recently found a distributor in Dubai to sell her collections come fall.
The Sokoloff Lingeire look is urban and feminine. Her fall pieces feature a mix of delicate lace and light bamboo jersey, peek-a-boo hip detailing and bralettes that celebrate the side-boob and sell for $25 to $70.
Sokoloff was recently recognized as an industry leader when she was named the Les Offices jeunesse internationaux du Québec 2015 prizewinner – a provincial award for young entrepreneurs who are helping to make a name for Quebec on the international market. She also represented Canada earlier this month at the Curve Expo lingerie and swimwear showcase in New York City.
With a finger on both Instagram and the international pulse, Sokoloff believes “lingerie is returning to a look that’s really natural and real; the American pin-up girl just isn’t in style any more.” This could explain a widespread return of unstructured, soft-cup bralettes that forgo underwire and padding, as well as the demand for bodysuits, slips and rompers in everyday wear, not to mention the undeniable rise of granny panties.
Colleen Hill is an associate curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology who put together a history of lingerie exhibit at the State University of New York in 2014; she agrees with Sokoloff. While two types of lingerie – hard (corsets, bustles and structured bras) and soft (slips, bralettes and nightgowns) – continue to cycle through the trends, and have throughout history, she says, one of the hallmarks of contemporary lingerie is that “it’s all about personal preference.”
“To a great extent, it is understood that women today do not buy lingerie exclusively for their partners: They buy whatever makes them feel beautiful or sexy,” she says. From a business perspective, the small-batch approach makes sense, she believes, because it feeds into the fast-fashion backlash and caters to “women who are looking for more and better options” – those who see this intimate purchase as an investment.
Sarah Norwood, who operates Ohhh Lulu from Orillia, Ont., believes small-batch underwear is a force that is driven by the maker movement, the cultural return of attention to traceable local wares and artisanal-quality goods.
Her handmade lingerie is fun, feminine and a little bit retro; luxe lounge and sleepwear round out her fall and winter offerings. The price points of her made-to-order collections range from $38 to $150 and, for the D.I.Y.-inclined, she sells sewing patterns for the pieces from her collections from $9 to $15.
“What woman doesn’t love good lingerie?” she asks aloud. “My customers [who range from women in their 20s to their 60s] will invest because they like to own something that is well-made, unique and is something they can customize. They feel like they have a hand in creating something that’s just for them.”
“It’s definitely one of those garments where you get what you pay for,” says Christina Remenyi of Toronto’s Fortnight Lingerie, which she established in 2010 and whose latest collection is inspired by the costumes and colours of the Ballet Russes. “A throwaway mentality has been applied to something enjoyable and intimate, something you should want to buy and keep, something that can be made with care and not just stretched over a machine and doused in chemicals,” she says. “So many women are coming to us and saying, ‘Thank you for providing something else.’”
Cora Harrington, the editor in chief of the blog The Lingerie Addict, sees why some women are seeking out an alternative. “I would not call the lingerie industry a particularly progressive industry,” she says. “I love intimate appparel, but as a sector, it is somewhat resistant to change and, especially in the U.S., is centred on the narrative of ‘solving’ body problems.”
Does that make it hard for body-positive indie-under makers to break in? “There’s a definite tension there,” she says. “Many retailers won’t stock a brand if their imagery is perceived as too ‘divergent,’ and in a marketplace prone to conservatism, the bar is set very low.”
That said, she believes that in addition to the growing demand for body-positive brands, fashion is driving the shift to alternative lingerie: “I would definitely say I see more articles from mainstream news and fashion sites focusing on the fashion of lingerie. People are more willing than they used to be to consider lingerie in a more erotically neutral context.”
Another boon for small-batch lingerie producers, as Harrington sees it, has been the rise of e-commerce. “That’s what has really led to this ‘artisanal’ lingerie movement. Before Etsy, eBay, BigCartel and Shopify, a small designer had to invest a lot of money in either a secure webstore or a bricks-and-mortar retail location. Now, you can set up a digital storefront in a matter of hours and use social media to advertise your business. It’s never been easier to break into the market.”
Deanna Tanner, a lingerie maker in Regina, Sask., believes that, from a business perspective, Canadian lingerie makers in particular are in an advantageous position right now. She has run a bricks-and-mortar lingerie boutique for the past two years but took the artisanal plunge and launched her own line, PrimaDeanna, a month ago because of the costs associated with importing quality products.
“The last package [I brought in] from the States cost me 60 per cent of the list price just to get it in the door,” she explains. “I realized I can put that into manufacturing and still be competitive with my prices. And with small batch, [customers] like that it’s made here or it’s an indie label, and they are willing to pay for that. They know they’re supporting the local economy, fair labour... good sourcing and responsible waste practices.”
Conservatively responding to her efforts to push the envelope, Tanner says part of her job is to educate clients coming through her boutique. “Most consumers never even think about all this stuff,” she says, “but the amount of waste that can be generated or avoided by even one little store is tremendous.”
Though these indie-undie industrialists have yet to displace the big-box giants, there is clearly a shift happening on the lingerie scene.
We are now transitioning into what Carrie Russell jokingly calls “the good fast fashion” – the kind that is nimble and local, that celebrates small and ephemeral capsule collections from community artisans, and consumer support for stores and boutiques that carry quality products.
“The appetite is there,” Russell says. “It’s a perfect storm for local lingerie.”