Show Me The Money: How Do Lingerie Designers Balance Creativity and Commercial Viability?

Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

The ‘Ara’ range from my 2016 collection was less an exercise in creativity, and more one in trying to hit a particular price point that would sell in greater volume. The garment shapes had been designed well over a year ago, and for this collection I simply used different materials.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by Jenni Hampshire. Modelled by Yazzmin Newell

As a lingerie designer, people often tell me my work sounds like a ‘dream job.’ An aura of fantasy and glamour surrounds the fashion industry. However, the reality is lingerie design can be pretty boring most of the time, with very little creativity involved at all.

Success in the lingerie industry comes more easily to those with a business mind rather than those with the best designs. Fashion schools don’t always teach business, instead choosing to focus on creative disciplines. This can be incredibly disheartening for lingerie designers like me who enter intimates for the creative opportunities. My namesake lingerie line is 5 years old now, and in that time I’ve learned a lot. Namely, you usually have to sacrifice creativity to pay the bills.



Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

The ‘Ela’ lingerie set shape has been a best-selling staple in most of my collections. Sewing it again in another colour of lace doesn’t exactly involve much creativity, but it does bring money into the business.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

In Business, Profit = Success

Like any other business, success in lingerie comes down to money. Yet unlike most other areas of fashion, it’s incredibly difficult to stay profitable. Lingerie has relatively low profit margins. Wired bras especially are some of the most complex garments in your wardrobe, and they require huge size ranges. Even for brands creating only a ‘small’ size range, the costs of the minimum 12 sizes (32-36 bands, B-D cups) can add up very quickly. Compare that to the 3 sizes (Small, Medium, Large) in a basic ready to wear range.

These costs are why you see large brands recycling the same garment shapes, same trends, and same fabrics. It’s also why continuity lines are almost always black and white. Developing new bra shapes costs a lot of money.

Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

All black lingerie consistently sells much better than anything colourful in my experience. Although this can limit the design process, profitability must come first for a business.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

Bucking industry trends or using unusual colours means great financial risk as you’re a lot less likely to sell the garments.  Bottom line: a product needs to sell, and most customers don’t like to experiment too much with their underwear shopping. Businesses must cut down on risk as much as possible if they want to turn a profit.

All of the above explains why certain collections never make it to “market” (that is, for sale to consumers). Boundary pushing design is often admired from afar, but retailers and consumers are rarely willing to pay for it.

I can understand why. Retailers struggle to sell unusual designs. Consumers struggle to find reasons to wear them. And this means the modern lingerie market can feel a little stagnant.

Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

This corset is one of my favourite designs that I’ve created. However, the combination of expensive materials and over 100 hours of hand labour mean that with my usual margins it would have to retail at around £10,000. I have no intention of ever selling a garment like this and it’s purely the joy of creation that motivates me to design pieces like this.
Design by Karolina Laskowska

Creativity is Expensive

It’s also true that creative design is often synonymous with expensive design. Creating beautiful lingerie that at least some potential customers can afford is one of the greatest challenges a designer faces.

In my business, where I still personally sew the majority of garments, I have to balance the high cost of manufacturing and the cost of quality materials. These two elevated costs can severely limit what you’re able to create before the garment hits impossibly expensive numbers.

When I make pieces myself, I consider a ‘cheap’ underwire bra to retail around the £80 (~$98 USD) mark. This is already expensive for the average customer. Yet, that price is the bare minimum that I can charge to cover the cost of premium fabrics, my labour and other business costs…even if the design is ‘simple.’

Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

The profuse use of scalloped French lace in this set is what elevated the price so much, as it was actually a relatively simple design to sew. The bra alone retailed at around £150, due to the multilayered lace cup construction.
Lingerie by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by J Tuliniemi. Modelled by Maxine Anastasia. MUA by Jade Crean.

Every design detail in lingerie quickly adds up. Lace scallops can double fabric usage. An extra stitch operation (such as an elegant French seam rather than a cheap overlocked seam) increases costs. The decision to invisibly hand sew a bow or quickly machine-stitch it changes the price. All of these careful considerations stamp out the creativity, converting it to basic mathematics.

Nevertheless, lingerie designers still create extravagant and eye-wateringly expensive pieces.  Believe it or not, these are rarely intended for sell. Whether it’s an exquisite embellished corset or a crystal-strewn lace gown, these showpieces still serve a function.

Karolina Laskowska - Independent Luxury Lingerie Designer

Last Summer, as an antidote to my most ‘commercial’ collection yet and largest production runs, I created a mini collection of couture corsetry. This collection was incredibly work intensive and has never been for sale, thus bringing in no direct sales to the brand. However, I have no doubt that these designs helped to make many people aware of my other products.
Design by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by A. Lindseth.

Why Make What You Can’t Sell?

Showpieces, impossible as they are to afford, are the garments that make people aware of a lingerie brand. They’re pieces of stunningly beautiful design meant to covet and remember. These pieces direct people to the brand’s other products, the ones that they can afford. Showpieces also mean the designer has an opportunity to stretch their creative wings and create beautiful editorial imagery just because they can.

Lingerie design is rarely a well-paid job. For independent lingerie designers like me, it’s a job you do for the love of design, rather than for any serious financial gain. Balancing the creative and the commercial is a challenge, but the occasional opportunity to create decadent lingerie for the sheer joy of it can make it all worthwhile. After all, the other option of being a designer for a corporate brand would mean sacrificing creative freedom, even if the trade-off is an easier job!

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Karolina
Karolina

Lingerie designer. Spends most of her time sewing bras and getting excited by chantilly lace.

8 Comments on this post

  1. Mesha says:

    How do small lingerie boutique owners work with designers like yourself when they want to offer unique quality lingerie but at decent prices?

    • Karolina Karolina says:

      ‘Decent prices’ is a bit of a problematic phrase. What constitutes ‘decent’, ‘affordable’ or ‘justifiable’ will vary from person to person. Independent brands usually already operate at relatively small margins, so their pricing isn’t something that they conjured up just to make massive profits, it’s something carefully calculated to cover much higher operating costs due to the small scale. If a small boutique owner wants to work with designers at my level then they just have to comply with an independent brand’s terms and place an order large enough to cover their time and costs.

  2. Hannah says:

    Thank you for this perspective!

  3. rachel says:

    Karolina, your work takes my breath away every time I see it. You have a gift, and I’m excited for you and the world writ large that you get to share it with us!

  4. green_tea_latte says:

    Great post, and really informative Karolina! I work in law and fantasize about life in the lingerie business from time to time. Your posts bring that dream to life a little bit! Question- do mega companies like Victoria’s Secret still have huge costs in producing lingerie? I notice that the quality of their products is pretty low, but they still manage to charge $55+ USD for a basic bra.

    • rachel says:

      They manage it by using overseas slave/factory labor. Labor costs are the most expensive part of just about any business.

    • Karolina Karolina says:

      Thank you so much! Companies like Victoria’s Secret do have much lower costs in literally just the production side of lingerie per piece, but purely because of the huge volumes that they produce. When you produce in large quantities, it means that you can get much better prices on basic materials and the cost of manufacturing. However, a company of that size also has much higher running costs than a business like mine. When you buy a VS bra, you’re not just paying for the bra: you’re paying for the branding, for their fashion shows, for their glossy store experience. They need to make a healthy profit margin to cover all of these immense costs, hence their price tag. A business of that size can’t really be compared to independent brands though, they operate on completely different scales and with completely different business models!

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