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What Is "Reasonable" Lingerie Pricing?

Model Victoria Dagger is contemplative, perhaps of the intricacies of retail pricing. Photo by Sam Guss.

Model Victoria Dagger is contemplative, perhaps of the intricacies of retail pricing. Photo by Sam Guss.  Corset by Sparklewren.

About a month ago, Cora (editor and founder here at The Lingerie Addict) got quoted in a Forbes piece entitled, "Made to Order Fashion Goes Mainstream." One thing that really stuck out to me was the author's repeated references to "reasonable prices." As an independent designer who crafts made-to-order corsetry, I have learned that pricing is a tricky, multi-layered business. Who is the arbiter of what is a "reasonable" price? What goes into determining the price for a product?

On Tumblr, it seems Cora is often asked for recommendations on purchasing a certain lingerie item for a "reasonable" price, a question she is invariably unable to answer as every customer has a different perception of what price is reasonable, which may or may not be in line with what is even possible for manufacturers.

Honey Cooler Handmade, a San Francisco lingerie designer with a singular point of view.

Hangtag of Honey Cooler Handmade, an independent San Francisco lingerie designer with a singular point of view.

I have early memories of being in some clothing store with my father, who pointed to a price tag and commented on how low the production cost of the garment must have been compared to the markup. Markup, from a consumer standpoint, is treated almost like a dirty word, as if it exists solely to gouge customer pockets, but it's actually much more than that. I don't want to get too technical with you here, but when "cost" of a garment is mentioned it only covers the labor and materials to make that exact item and nothing that comes before or after.

From there you get the wholesale markup, which must cover all the overheads for making any and all garments, including not just space for production and storage of materials but also prototyping and the staff for design, production, and sales reps to retail outlets, fit models, etc.

Then the retail markup has to cover all the costs of getting the product to the consumer: the retail sales staff, their shop space, the difference on garments that will eventually be marked down, a margin for damaged or stolen goods, etc.

It takes a lot of work to get an item from a design sketch to a retail location (such as Jenette Bras in Los Angeles), who then has to do a lot of work to enable you to purchase it.

It takes a lot of work to get an item from a design sketch to a retail location (such as Jenette Bras in Los Angeles), who then has to do a lot of work to enable you to purchase it.

Lastly, there's this thing called "perceived value" --- what about an item makes people willing to pay (more) for it? A designer name (with associated training, vision, and brand history)? Unusual detailing? Country of manufacture? Organic fiber content?

Perceived value isn't a tax on gullible customers, but rather a value that is more difficult to directly quantify. Pricing is a funny thing --- an item priced too low may actually sell less than the same item at a higher price, because it is underselling its perceived value.  Customers mentally look for reasons to support or decry the price of a thing.

Corset by Pop Antique featuring unusual construction and a custom screen print, on makeup artist/client Chrysalis Rose. Such design innovations are easier, yet more expensive, to implement in small-scale production.

Corset by Pop Antique featuring unusual construction and a custom screen print, on makeup artist/client Chrysalis Rose. Such design innovations are easier, yet more expensive, to implement in small-scale production.

Indie lingerie and corset designers, who are often one-woman operations or otherwise very small in scale, are in an awkward position because their costs are unavoidably higher, but their markup is much lower. We would have a very hard time selling our product at all if our markups weren't much lower than a comparable mass-manufactured item. And it's not just about sales and making money - for an indie designer, it's the ability to do something we love and are passionate about that makes it worth the effort and occasional heartache.

An indie designer may or may not have an expensive education in fashion (personally, I have a BFA and MFA, both in fashion), which they must pay back. An indie designer buys their materials in smaller quantities and therefore doesn't get the same price break. An indie designer often makes pieces one at a time, or at least has a much smaller production line than a factory. An indie designer (in America) must buy their own health insurance or pay medical expenses out-of-pocket when they occur. An indie designer doesn't get paid sick leave or vacation time.

All businesses must pay for a business license and other legal expenses. An indie designer's prices may not be comparable to a big company's, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're unreasonable. Indie designers, because of their smaller production scales, often have more room to innovate and play or cater to a specific niche. Small-scale in-house production can result in higher quality control. This is the perceived value factor of independent design.

Beautiful packaging, such as Sparklewren's custom debossed black boxes, really add to the prestige and perceived value of a luxury label, turning the purchase into an experience rather than a simple product.

Beautiful packaging, such as Sparklewren's custom debossed black boxes, really add to the prestige and perceived value of a luxury label, turning the purchase into an experience rather than a simple product.  (The button collection underneath is my own.)

These days, the more I learn, the more I gravitate towards the thinking that I don't know the true costs and work of any company besides my own, and therefore everyone is entitled to charge what they wish - and clients are entitled to pay it or not.

In my mind... most prices are reasonable. They're just not a good fit for all demographics. A client with back issues may place a higher value on a posture-supportive corset, just as a full-busted woman may place higher value on a well-fitted bra. Someone with a hectic life may value lingerie that is easy to care for and has good longevity, whereas someone who goes shopping and refreshes her wardrobe often, and is trend-conscious, may instead value fad fashions and low price points.

What do you value when you go lingerie shopping? What brands do you think offer the best value for the price? Did this post give you any insight as to how retail pricing works? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you're interested, I would be happy to write a follow up piece on corset pricing in particular.


Marianne Faulkner

Marianne Faulkner is the designer of Pop Antique, a clothing and corsetry line specializing in sustainable materials and comfortable curves. She is based in San Francisco where she earned her MFA in fashion design at the Academy of Art University, and has been a columnist at The Lingerie Addict since 2011.

18 Comments on this post

  1. TJ says:

    Thanks for the breakdown on why things cost as they do. I’m not completely convinced in some cases that the costs of things are justified but I do have a better understanding of what goes into a price tag.

  2. Diamond Minx says:

    Mona: you might be surprised. Some people get very excited by vintage deadstock (ie: new and unworn) garments, including underwear. Depending on what the item is made of, it may not have experienced any deterioration.

  3. Mona says:

    There is also the customer for whom a single, not ten, $30 bra is at the top of what they can afford. Yes, in theory you can save up for a $120 bra, but if you are still figuring out your size or gain/lose weight it get expensive very quickly. Also, a lot of the more premium brands sadly have a limited size range comparable to VS. In the end if you are truly poor you cannot afford well made things.

    @Greg: you have 15 year old panties in stock? Maybe I am getting this wrong, but I would be disappointed if I spent $100 on a pair of underpants made in the last century, no matter if they still look good, I doubt they will last being used for a long time after purchase.

  4. Even for a smaller scale business, the issue of price comes. As a business that sells factory made corsets, we constantly come mull over the issue. The statement of: “In my mind…. most prices are reasonable. They’re just not a good fit for all demographics.” sums this up entirely. It’s not about the price, its about the person!

  5. @kirsten…I completely agree. I hate the hard sell and totally think it backfires, especially in lingerie. I’d rather see a customer return with a smile on her face to pick up something she saw on a previous visit, and was dreaming about…than an upset customer who feels buyers remorse and wants to return something! I “get” that yes, we do need to earn a living, but piling a bunch of merchandise on a new client is…in some ways, lazy and tremendously short sighted. Me, personally…I don’t work that way and prefer to foster a relationship with the ladies I fit. I always come back to the word “trust”. It’s so important. The ladies who DO have bigger budgets to spend, they appreciate that I don’t take advantage of their deeper pockets by putting them in things just for the sake of it. And I really do think, no…I KNOW that it translates to more sales in the long term!

  6. kirsten says:

    @babsthebrafitter one of the unfortunate things about selling retail, is that customers expect the hard sell. in truth (i sell shoes AND am an indie designer of lingerie and elaborately hand-sewn things) the experienced salesperson wants a happy customer who will return rather than forcing someone into something for the momentary sale. we know the damage that can cause in the long run to the customer experience. in all, the unfortunate truth is that not everyone can afford or feels the perceived value of an item is worth the cost no matter how well you educate the consumer. i feel like most of my communication is educating about fit, construction and personal style. it is a bit of an uphill battle, but when you have a customer who get it, and walks out the door with a perfectly fitting, beautiful thing, you have a customer for life who will seek out quality experiences over cheap quantity. even if they never buy from me in particular again, i know that i made a difference in the choices they make when they are buying goods.

  7. @Firelizard…great to hear a perspective from a consumer, and yes, you are absolutely correct. Education in the fitting room is crucial, as it allows you, the buyer to make an informed decision. My fittings are efficient, but I definitely take those extra minutes to tell my clients exactly what they are getting for their dollar. In some cases, women instantly feel the difference and understand…sometimes it takes a little longer and that’s ok! But yes, answering the “whys” of bra and bra fitting is SO important!
    I was hoping that my post didn’t sound too bitter, lol. It’s not coming from a negative place..I realize that these questions and attitudes are…pretty common. Regarding rates of pay, many boutiques create this aura of exclusivity and luxury as part of the experience (which is the point, I guess) and so it’s easy for clients to assume that everyone who works there also leads a life of luxury, lol. That being said, I have, over the years noticed that women coming in for fittings tend to have their guard up and may be a bit more critical of the product, the person helping them and the process of being fit. I have many theories, being misfit or having had poor experiences at another shop is one, and also the nervousness a woman may feel when dealing with breasts and body issues. You’re in a very vulnerable position and as a fitter, I totally respect that and do my best to make my clients feel at ease. But it’s interesting…many women have a different attitude when shopping for bras than say…shoe shopping.
    As for longevity of the product, one of the most important things I have to tell my clients is that you DO need to take care of these garments! You can’t just throw them on the floor at the end of the day! They need to be washed (by hand) regularly, stored properly and you HAVE to have more than one! No matter how high quality your bra is, if you’re wearing it day in, day out, it’s going to look pretty crummy pretty fast! Also, another factor is body PH. I have some clients who have a very high acidity in their body oils and sweat. That will literally, cause them to burn through their bras, which causes the fabric to degrade at a faster rate. In this case again, frequent washing really helps to maintain the integrity of the fabric. And again, it’s these little tips and info that make working with a good fitter worth the extra cost. Education is empowerment! :-)

  8. Jodi says:

    The first expensive bra I ever bought (Marie Jo strapless) is still going strong about four years later. Yes, I had sticker shock at the time, but the cheap Warner’s bras (in the wrong size) that I used to buy would wear out in a few months.

  9. Flo says:

    Fantastic article, this is a subject very close to my heart :)

  10. Patrick says:

    My wife and I have been creating and building bespoke garments for over 40 years. Retail cost was always an issue when talking to our client until the day we realized that we were under valuing our work. Yes, some of our creations are expensive, but for those clients who understand and appreciate quality work, it’s not an issue. Our clients realize the amount of hours and skill it takes to custom pattern and build a pair of charmeuse silk tap pants with corded pin tucks and embroidered panels of tulle over silk organza. And how do they know this? Because we tell them.
    When a new client asks about the cost of a bespoke item, we let them know, firmly but gently, that if they are worried about the price, they probably can’t afford our work. Arrogant? Maybe a little, but then again we have learned let our work speak for itself.

  11. firelizard19 says:

    In response to Babs- I’d say that maybe another important aspect of being a fitter at a boutique would be educating your customers about why a $30 bra isn’t as good as the $80-100 one, just as you educate them on proper fit and comfort. Many women may want a bra fitting so that they know their size, but really don’t understand what sets quality basics apart from VS basics, for instance. I speak from experience, as the first time I walked into a specialty shop (Intimacy, in my case) I thought $40-50 was an expensive bra, as that was what I had seen at VS, and I thought they were where you went if you wanted higher quality than basic Macy’s bras and plain cotton Hanes underwear. I had been told the bras at the boutique were more expensive, but the fitting service was good, so I went- and was shocked to look at a price tag in the fitting room and see $120 on it! I thought an expensive bra would maybe top out at $60-70, just above VS price point. Honestly, I think the issue is often a certain sticker shock, and that the customer doesn’t know any better if they are new to proper fit and quality lingerie. Part of the work, the bras do, since quality bras can feel better and change your shape in new ways. However, someone who simply doesn’t know better doesn’t know what they’re getting from this item that they can’t go back to VS later and get from a less expensive bra there, now that they know their size. In my case, I bought a Chantelle t-shirt bra for about $80 (probably the same as your favorite one!), partially because I knew I was paying for the great service I received, and it looked lovely, but it took me a while to truly see the difference in quality between that bra and my old ones.

    I do think it’s uncalled for for women to treat you as untrustworthy. It’s probably backlash from getting 5 different measurements at VS and being told a different size every time, and it always being a size they have in the store even if it’s not comfortable. I think knowledge is the best way to combat it. I also would emphasize the long-wearing construction over the materials cost, since many women are fine with cheap materials as long as they hold up.

    I don’t say any of this as criticism, just as a perspective from the customer side. I used to be one of those uninformed customers who didn’t understand the price jump, and I learned, so others totally can, too!

  12. jamesskaar says:

    in the custom crafts, woodworking, welding etc… a common price scheme is material and other items plus 150%, 1$+markup=2.50. it probably would work in fashion without much modification. cloth, sewing machine oil, electricity, a fresh needle for every custom job, all that stuff, it’d probably work fine. my ma told me that childrens clothes(tiny, hardly any fabric), no matter how cheap she tried to make stuff, she’d never beat the stores. i don’t think she had her mind in the right place on that one, she made some wicked cool things that would have sold for much more.

  13. THANK YOU! As a lingerie consultant and fitter, I encounter the “cost issue” daily. My area of expertise is not with independent designers and corsets, but I certainly appreciate your point of view and agree 100% with what you’ve said. A full-busted woman SHOULD place value on a well fitted, quality garment. In fact, all women of all sizes should place value on a well fitted, quality garment. I am constantly confronted by women who don’t want to spend on something that we can all agree are FOUNDATION garments, that is the “foundation” of a wardrobe. I am amazed that women will drop hundreds, if not thousands on handbags and shoes, but refuse to acknowledge the importance of a good bra. I have women coming in with Herve Leger, Valentino, Prada clothing…and they want to put a (pardon my French) $30 piece of shit bra underneath? You’ve got to be KIDDING me!

    With regard to markup, specifically in the boutique setting, I’m going to dispense some truths here. Clients get very argumentative with fitters at times, accusing us of upselling or only showing them “expensive bras”. And yes, unfortunately in some boutiques, this practice does exist. That is a whole separate issue. HOWEVER, a fitter with a conscience is going to sell you the appropriate bra, regardless of cost. Sometimes it’s the $90 bra. Sometimes it’s the $200 bra. Sometimes…it’s NO bra. Also, I’m going to dispel the fantasy that fitters are well paid. Generally they are not and I can’t stress this enough…fitters don’t actually make that much money. “Oh, you make commission”…well, not all of us and actually, those percentage rates are generally very, very low. Very low. Many of the incentive programs are actually offered by the companies themselves, not the store owners. You don’t get into bra fitting for profit, trust me. “Oh, you must get mad discounts”…actually, in the boutiques I’ve worked at, employees do not get items at cost, rather a 20 to 30% discount, and yes, we still pay 15% retail tax on those items. And those items again, are investments and research. If I WEAR the item, I can tell you, the client, EXACTLY how it fits and feels.

    There is overhead that needs to be covered in the business of running a brick and mortar business, and that includes lights, insurance, heat/AC, rent, stock, shipping fees, business licenses, Point of Sale terminals and software, and of course…the most important thing…well trained staff. Another pet peeve of mine is that many clients seem to forget that as a highly skilled professional, giving advice, and fittings free of charge…my time and my expertise is still WORTH SOMETHING. It’s worth quite a bit, and that hour…up to four hours…that we may be working together, one on one, that is also included in the price of your bra. As are any subsequent consultations should you have any questions about or problems with the bra you have purchased. Again…my time and advice is worth something. You won’t get that kind of service from an internet site, either.

    Any time I am asked “why is my bra expensive?” I tell my ladies the two main factors are what is it made of, and where is it coming from. You’ve got to pay for Pierre in France to put them on a plane and the jet fuel to get them over here. They are subject to import, duty and distribution fees on the receiving end. Also, the more lace on a bra, the more expensive it will be. The higher quality of the fabric, dying processes, crystals, embroidery…the more bells and whistles, the higher the price. But it’s not just the fancy stuff, it’s the quality of the basic elements of construction. I’d rather have a well constructed wire in my bra than a 5 cent piece of trash that will warp and saw through the casing in a matter of weeks. I’d rather have a power mesh that is not going to have the elastic blow out after several washings. In a smooth bra, I want foam that isn’t going to ripple and lose its shape. I want things that are made to last.

    To answer your question as to what brands I feel offer the most value for money? Well, again, as a 36G I value quality. I have Empreinte and Prima Donna bras that I have worn two to three times a week and with proper care, they have lasted years so far with no sign of stopping. The $140-$200 cost is nothing, compared to the extended wear, the quality laces and beautiful design, and the confidence I feel in one of these bras. I tell my clients, I would rather you have three $120 bras (like the Prima Donna “Madison”) than ten crappy $30 bras. That being said, there are some “luxury brands”…like La Perla that feature beautiful materials and design..but in my opinion, the fit is not as good as it should be at that price point. In those cases, you are paying for a prestige brand name. Wolford, on the other hand make a very expensive smooth microfiber bra that is elegant in its simplicity, built like a friggin’ tank and wears as light as a feather. Worth every penny. I have two pairs of Pleasure State panties in my collection that still look and wear beautifully after six years. One of my favorite basic T-Shirt bras is the Chantelle 1241. It retails at around $80. I find it again, shocking that women find this “expensive”…when this is a garment they will wear two to three (to 7, heaven forbid) days a week for a year…if not years (heaven forbid). We don’t expect that of shoes, or jeans, yet women are willing to pay more for those items. Why are bras and lingerie held up to a higher, unrealistic standard of value?

    This is an issue that (clearly, lol) I’m very passionate about, as women tend to already view the bra fitting community as…charlatans out for a cash grab. Unfortunately, there are some places that foster that opinion, which does the entire community harm. And frankly, as a professional who really, really cares about her clients and wants the best for them…it pains me greatly that we are sometimes viewed as dishonest and greedy. That being said, great article, it sure feels great to get this off my chest (no pun intended)! Soldier on, fans of quality! There ARE people out there who “get it” and appreciate it.

  14. Robert Syrotchen says:

    Great article and a subject I personally struggle with a lot. I tend to get in the mind set of it’s easy for me, so it must be easy for the person I’m creating for. Which is never the case. It’s easy to sale yourself short.

  15. Greg says:

    I’ve been thinking of writing about this for a while on our Facebook page, to try and justify why a $100 panty really costs that much. We don’t sell a $100 panty very often (usually just a few before Christmas as gifts).

    There are things like the materials, the origin of them, if they’re hand-made or factory made, the brand name and it’s name recognition factor, etc. Of the 1000’s of panties we have in stock, I can say with confidence that $100 panty is worth it. They tend to last longer, are made of better materials, fit really nice, look really nice, the colors don’t bleed, the elastics don’t break, etc. We’ve got panties from Aubade over 15 years old, though not on the web site, unfortunately.

    Lingerie brands have lots of costs other than just making the garment… The designers have to be paid or if it’s just a one-girl operation, she needs to eat and pay for student loans, rent, etc. The brand has to go to lingerie conventions and pay $5000 for a booth to try and get some sales. You have to buy mannequins, print catalogs, make a web site, taxes to register the company, etc.

    When you finally get an order, you have to package and ship it and credit card companies take 2%. Finally, when it arrives at a retailer like ours, we have to make a little money to pay for the stuff that DOESN’T sell and we have to hold onto forever. We have to carefully order sizes people want or we’ll be stuck with a stack that are too small or too large. We pay shipping (usually incoming and outgoing as an incentive), taxes to bring stuff into the country, internet fees, advertising fees, and hours of time doing the photography, etc.

    So, a $100 panty at retail costs us maybe $65 wholesale + shipping to us + taxes + advertising + photography time + shipping to the customer, so there’s not a lot of room for profit. Also, you have to deal with customer who claim their package didn’t arrive in which case you lose out by giving them a refund or having to send them replacements :-(

    Hope that helps!

  16. Sarah says:

    Thanks for a wonderful post! Personally I value quality construction, beautiful design and a good fit for my figure (which is hard to come by)! As an indie designer myself I know how hard it can be to calculate prices so I appreciate you taking the time to write this :)

  17. emily says:

    never really thought that way about retail pricing…really good article, would love to read a follow up about corsetry:)

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