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Lingerie Business: Why I'm Giving Up On Wholesale And Fashion Seasons

Karolina Laskowska Daniela lace set

Design by Karolina Laskowska. Photography by A. Lindseth

When I first started my lingerie brand ‘Karolina Laskowska’ in the Summer of 2012, I was pretty optimistic about the future. The brand had begun with wholesale requests and my own online shop was doing far better than I’d expected. Everything was new and very little seemed more exciting than the prospect of finding more stockists and joining the lingerie world as a proper lingerie brand.

Fast forward three years and my views on the lingerie industry have turned a lot more cynical. I recently made the decision to drop wholesale and to stop bothering with the traditional fashion seasons that most brands follow. My brand may have only been around for three years, but in that time I’ve seen the lingerie landscape shift incredible amounts.

Design by Karolina Laskowska. photography by A. Lindseth

Design by Karolina Laskowska. photography by A. Lindseth

When I started out, the formula for a lingerie brand was simple: you’d have a collection sampled and take the collection to exhibit at a trade show. Retailers would come to look at the collection and place advance orders. The collection would go into production and would then be sent to the retailers to be sold. At my brand’s beginning, there was never the opportunity to even try to follow this formula. As a student working out of my bedroom, there was simply no way to scrape together the £1000s that exhibiting at a trade show entails. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough that retailers still seemed happy to order stock in advance and to actually pay for it. This has changed immensely over the last few years.

I’ve noticed two main trends rise amongst retailers: requests for ‘dropshipping’ and ‘sale or return.’ What these both hold in common is the fact that they totally circumvent paying the brand any money up front. Dropshipping is reserved for online retailers and it involves the store using the brand’s imagery, but only placing an order with the brand when they actually sell the products. This is usually done at a lower profit margin to traditional wholesale. Sale or return involves the brand sending through stock to the retailer, but only being paid once items are actually sold. Unsold stock is returned to the brand at the end of the season.

As a designer, I love to use unusual fabrics with limited availability. This means I can often only produce small production runs and I'd much rather offer these directly to a customer than to a retailer.  Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

As a designer, I love to use unusual fabrics with limited availability. This means I can often only produce small production runs and I'd much rather offer these directly to a customer than to a retailer. Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

Both of these techniques remove nearly all risk from the retailer, and leave the brand facing a range of unpleasant challenges (particularly if they are a small-scale independent brand). Dropshipping can involve stock control issues, particularly with limited edition styles; if the brand runs out of stock whilst the retailer still ‘stocks’ the item then fulfillment issues arise. Additionally, if the brand makes styles to order, they are making a very small profit. Making products one by one is a slow and expensive process, which will only be made less attractive by the prospect of a retailer taking a large cut of the sales price.

Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

Sale or return also produces a great deal of risk for the brand. A retailer who hasn’t physically invested in stock is going to be less motivated to sell that stock. Anything left at the end of the season is returned to the brand and can often be shop soiled or dead stock, costing the brand money. Whilst it can make sense for brands that regularly hold excess stock, it can put small brands that normally make to order in a difficult position as they have to create stock specially for the retailer.

In my experience as a young designer, there are currently a lot of retailers who try to capitalise on a new brand’s inexperience. There is an assumption that brands must be desperate for stockists and that they will be happy to sign up to agreements like dropshipping or sale or return. In my limited experience on the trade show circuit, this is usually the first thing retailers will ask for (which, in my case, usually results in an elaborate explanation why a recent graduate with no money cannot afford the £300 minimum order on certain fabrics to provide a shop with free stock).

Collaboration between Karolina Laskowska and Alexander Lindseth. Photography by A. Lindseth.

Collaboration between Karolina Laskowska and Alexander Lindseth. Photography by A. Lindseth.

Wholesale appears to have almost become a relic of the past; after all, why would you pay money for stock when you could be given it with no money exchanged up front? New designers are inevitably risky investments. Their boundary-pushing designs may not sell well with customers, or their fit may not be perfect yet. It’s understandable that in this current economic climate there’s an aversion to taking on untested products.

Still, there appear to be a few retailers left who are happy to pay wholesale prices for stock. Yet I still stick by my decision to drop wholesale for my brand. It may seem counter-intuitive to turn away paying customers, particularly those who can expose my brand to new audiences. However, I am still sewing the majority of my products myself. I currently have no motivation to outsource all of my production. The fact is I can’t afford to outsource and keep up the current levels of quality. A wholesale order requires the same amount of work from me as a retail order… but I’m paid between 2-2.7 times less than a direct retail order would. There are only so many hours in the day, and the fact remains that I’d rather spend that limited time making pieces for direct customers.

Making this set piece by piece can take hours. If it was sold on a drop-shipping basis, I would probably only be able to pay myself around minimum wage for labour.  Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

Making this set piece by piece can take hours. If it were sold on a dropshipping basis, I would probably only be able to pay myself around minimum wage for labour.
Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

The rise of social media and internet shopping means my own online boutique is running comparatively strongly. Finding wholesale customers involves investing huge amounts of time, energy, and money. There’s the constant barrage of emails chasing people to place orders and lots of schlepping around trade shows with heavy suitcases and mannequins... not to mention the painful days chasing people to actually pay their invoices for the goods they’ve received. It just makes more business sense to invest my time (which is my most limited and valuable resource) into forging good relationships with my direct customers.

My other ‘radical’ business decision is to drop the traditional fashion seasons. Most brands operate on a basis of releasing new collections every Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, in line with mainline fashion. This used to make sense; once upon a time, buyers would actually place orders a season in advance. Now, when orders are actually placed, it is almost always for near-immediate dispatch of goods. Retailers just can’t afford to have that much money tied up in a six-month wait for stock.

Collaboration between Karolina Laskowska and Alexander Lindseth. This entire collection only took 1 month to develop and produce as everything was undertaken in-house.

Collaboration between Karolina Laskowska and Alexander Lindseth. This entire collection only took one month to develop and produce, as everything was undertaken in-house.

Fortunately for my brand, I don’t have months of waiting time for garments. Everything is produced in-house. Although this carries a lot of obvious cons (such as most of my time being spent stitching rather than developing the business), it does mean the development time for new products and releases is a fraction of other brands. I can design new lingerie and make it available to my customers in a matter of days. Consequently, it makes little sense for me to sit around on new designs for several months. The reason I started my brand was because I love creating new lingerie; by eliminating seasons, I can release new designs whenever I want. Not only is this more creatively fulfilling for me as a designer, it also keeps the brand exciting and new for my customers.

Getting the pattern and fit right for these socks took over a year to get right. I'd rather offer them as a product until I run out of the lace than until the 6 month season timer says I have to put them on sale!   Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

Getting the pattern and fit right for these socks took over a year to get right. I'd rather offer them as a product until I run out of the lace than until the six-month season timer says I have to put them on sale! Design by Karolina Laskowska, photography by A. Lindseth

There’s also the unavoidable fact that most customers just don’t view lingerie as a seasonal product. Although I’d definitely argue that lingerie is a fashion within itself, it doesn’t go out of style quite in the same way as womenswear. Beautiful lingerie stays beautiful all year round, and deeming something unsellable because a certain amount of time has passed seems unnecessary in an industry that has become so renowned for its waste.

So what does this information mean for you, as a customer? By understanding what goes on behind the scenes for lingerie brands, you can be more informed when making your purchases. You can usually tell when a shop has a drop-shipping agreement due to the additional length of delivery time. Additionally, if you particularly love the designs of an independent designer, don't wait for them to be stocked in a local boutique. In the current climate, it's become a more and more unlikely occurrence that retailers will take the risk with independent designers. By purchasing directly from a designer you not only support them directly, you're also telling them that their products are wanted by the public, even if retailers won't invest in them. Finally, you don't need me to tell you that fashion seasons shouldn't affect your lingerie wardrobe. If you want to wear florals in Winter, why should anyone try and stop you? Lingerie should be about making you feel good.

Readers: how do you feel about the rise of brands selling directly to customers? Do you prefer purchasing from brands or from independent boutiques?

Karolina Laskowska

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

22 Comments on this post

  1. Rozzie says:

    This was a great read!! As an independent lingerie brand who is pre-launch, I’ve long been agonising over the decision as to whether wholesaling or making it all myself is the best course of action. In some aspects I’ve wanted to make the brand very accessible, which has steered me towards retail, but I honestly worry about the quality and consistency. This has really helped sum up the feelings I’ve been having about the whole industry. I’m not designing to seasons either because i feel like the lingerie industry doesn’t need seasons, especially with the online shopping culture

  2. Lidia says:

    Hi Karolina

    I completely understand your feelings. But I thought I’d share my view both from a retailer and wholesaler position.

    When it came to wholesale our private label of stockings, I soon realized that it was taking too much time and effort for very little return. I was spending hours trying to convince retailers that 5 pairs is really the minimum they should buy to be classified as wholesalers, and that we also cannot afford to dropship.

    The stockings sell incredibly well through our website – we keep receiving praise and positive reviews for them, which is heart-warming, because I really put a lot into it.

    So now instead of chasing potential resellers – which in my case meant sending hundreds of unsolicited emails which a) I hate doing and b) must the most ineffective method to sell something to a store! – I make it easy enough for them to place a wholesale order through our website. I don’t go out looking for wholesale clients. But if they find me and want to make a purchase, they can do that in a swift.

    On the other hand I run an online lingerie boutique which stocks mostly indie designers, and in the 6 years we have been in business I have found it incredibly hard to educate consumers and entice them to try new brands. Maybe it is the Australian market, I don’t know.
    But the combination of “online store + a new designer I have never heard of ” is a tough one. People seem to be very cautious. More often than not I end up with lots of unsold stock – beautiful, stunning lingerie, which just doesn’t sell.

    It doesn’t matter if we price it fairly, if we have top notch size guides, if we respond to all enquiries via phone and email AND have a flexible return policy.

    In my opinion the best solution would be a sincere and open collaboration between the designer and the retailer, each looking after the other a bit more. After all, we are working towards the same end goal!

  3. I love the closing part. Direct supports from customers to small designers can be a sort of nutrition to continuously run their business. Purchasing lingerie directly to the designer may be just a little thing for customer, but it really is something for the designer in this case.

  4. Chris says:

    Karolina make plenty of sense in her article. She is a passionate designer, and is clearly not intent on building a huge business. Anyone who does or has knows that as soon as the business grows, the very last thing they spend their time on is what the business stated out as, they have to become accountant, human resources, financier etc. etc. then the personal touch vanishes and it is hard to keep quality standards up. As a different example, does anyone know any multi branch restaurant chain that compares to a good independent one ?
    Well done Karolina, you are staying true to your vision, Chris

  5. I’m on EXACTLY the same page! I made the decision last month to stop doing wholesale this fall. I think the entire retail landscape has and will continue to change dramatically and this is a smart move for indie designers.

  6. Milly says:

    Hello Karolina,
    Great food for thought for many small designers. I remember you telling me something similar a few weeks ago at the Lingerie Edit. A lot of us are on the same boat. We want to do the things we love but … there is many concessions to make along the way.
    I have a background in business & IT but I have always adored lingerie and I worked for La Perla, Pleasure State, Stella McCartney and many many other high-end lingerie brands. And I think that there is nothing more precious than the work of a small designer (especially when it’s handmade, coming straight from their studios or bedroom!). I am very involve in helping small intimate apparel designers to grow, that is why I am making this full-time now.
    I am not a designer but helping small brands even if the third party holds no stocks also comes at a great costs for another small business, trust me. I am sure that many retailers stock what they can afford to.
    If there is anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to drop me an e-mail, you have my card. I sincerely hope that you will continue to amaze us with your new collections throughout the year.
    Best wishes, Milly

  7. Natasha says:

    I love this article, and even though I work in lingerie retail I can completely understand why you’ve made those decisions. As a customer I find though that I like to try things on before I buy (I have an odd body shape), which makes online purchases few and far between.

  8. wendybien says:

    I think you are definitely doing the right thing. As a customer, I have never seen the sense in seasons for lingerie. I don’t wear fleece undies in winter and since a bra is a bra is a bra, and I wear dark and light colors and fabrics and high and low necklines interchangeably in all seasons. I can’t think of a single piece of lingerie that I wear solely (or even mostly) in one season rather than another.

    Also for small independent makers of any luxury goods, I usually don’t even look for them through retailers unless I have to. I expect to see a markup in boutiques (online or in person) and I expect them to only offer part of the product line, which is a waste of time when I could see everything in the designer/maker’s own boutique.

    I do believe in the value of multi-brand lingerie retailers large and small, online and brick/mortar, and I do want to spend money there and support them, including for high-end products. But I would rather go there to buy products from big established brands with whom the retailer will probably have a more durable relationship. I like it when I know that X store stocks a selection of Y brand and I can expect that to continue year to year, and that I can expect for them not to be out of stock or to have 6-8 week delays or for the brand to be there for 3 months and then suddenly disappear from their lineup. These issues seem to crop up more with the small brands.

  9. belpita says:

    I like both, actually. I love discovering small independent lingerie makers and ordering directly from them. This appeals to my own dabbling in handicraft, which means that I understand what goes into making a garment from scratch. But sometimes I also want to be pampered during a proper fitting in an actual physical shop. There’s a greater risk of receiving something that doesn’t fit properly, when you order online, even if you give the lingerie maker all your measurements.

  10. Sue says:

    fascinating article. I’m just researching to make my own lingerie for me. The thing that really is so true is the ‘ beautiful lingerie is beautiful all year round’ to be able to use colours and styles that suit and FIT me and I love without the fear of that colour/fit being discontinued is very attractive.
    It’s brave to write such an article, thank you for the insight and honesty – as a consumer – really interesting.
    I wish you and your business the very very best.
    Kind regards

  11. Marit says:

    Great article! You are so right about everything! Some retailers expect small brands and designers to be able to produce and sell the same way as big made-in-china brands. Trying to get your wholesale price down by outsourcing the product is just not worth it. It would make you a completely different brand and in my opinion you would lose in the value of your product if it´s not handmade at the atelier anymore. Another problem is that when you have your own store retailers expect you to sell your products to clients double the price you offer them for wholesale. I know that this is how it usually works- wholesale should be half the price of retail. I also work for an indie designer and for us it would mean a significant rise in prices, although we would also make a bigger profit per product it just doesn`t seem fair to the loyal customers we already have coming back to our store to raise the prices so suddenly.

  12. Avigayil says:

    This is a real eye-opener into the retail side of lingerie. I also completely agree with “Beautiful lingerie stays beautiful all year round” and I am sad when a beautiful piece I need to save up to purchase disappears in less than a year. I am not a fan of fast fashion!

  13. Estelle says:

    This is such an awesome article! :)
    I used to run my boutique on a drop-shipping basis – I started it as a student with a couple of hundred pounds, so I had no way to buy stock. But I took a very small commission only on the sale (I was going for the large volume of small revenues thing, which it turns out only really works if you’re as big as eBay!), which I’m sure other dropshipping lingerie boutiques wouldn’t have been doing.
    As a designer-maker myself, I’ve tried the sale-or-return thing and never again! I had a bunch of stock tied up somewhere for ages and hardly sold a thing – and when I did, the retailer kept half of it anyway. I do like wholesale though – yes I make half the price per item than I would selling direct to a customer, for the same work, but then it’s not often I sell 30 items to customers in a day! I may make less per item and per hour, but I make more profit overall the week a wholesale order comes in than any other.

  14. Lee Rivers says:

    Beautiful lingerie stays beautiful all year round
    This! I don’t see any reason why I would not want to buy something lovely if it’s been out a year, or half a year, or more. It’s not like most designs become functionally obsolete.
    What’s more, the current model for big brands of a year between design/marketing and delivery to stores doesn’t seem to serve anyone! Customer feedback won’t get in time to affect the design for a good while (say the bands run too large, or there’s a quality control issue discovered too late) and nobody is happy.

  15. kaaren says:

    I have nothing but love for this article! Retail has to change. We need a new model- lingerie is a high touch experience. If consumers want unique and beautifully made things they have to put their money where their desire is. Stores have a hard slog in this world- I was a shop owner for years, I know. But if you believe in your brands support them by buying their goods.

    As indi designers we need new paradigms for getting our creations into the hands of consumers. The saddest part is that the lack of support for emerging brands means that there is less innovation and creativity making it to market- and less quality as stores ‘only’ buy price points. Consumers seem willing to settle for less and less quality. Thank you Karolina for pulling back the curtain on the frustrating side of the industry.

  16. Great article. This reminds me so much of the publishing business, too. You book goes out to the bookstores, but they can return any unsold books back to the publisher. Why I’m self-publishing this second time around. If you are already doing all the marketing work and have an on-line customer base (to start), it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. Plus you don’t have to wait a full year to get your book out to readers. Thanks for writing this piece. Great information for all lingerie consumers!!

    • Karolina says:

      I’ve had so many people come forward to say these are issues that affect a huge range of industries – in a way it’s kind of comforting to know that we’re not alone! Best of luck with the self publishing, I think it’s awesome how the internet allows us to take that much more control of our businesses :)

  17. Thank you for your honesty in this article. Weirdly, I feel like a lot of it is applicable to the online retail landscape, where seasons are absolutely useless. As someone who does carry your line, I’m (obviously) sorry to see the decision about wholesale, but I completely understand it. It’s an increasingly strange world for wholesale. Strangely, I recently had an indie designer (?!) email me suggesting that I start using dropshipping methods. As a bit of a control freak about quality and maintaining my own packaging, dropshipping is the last thing I want to do, even though you’re right in that it definitely minimizes risk to the retailer. Part of the appeal of carrying stock from indies is that people can get an item from me in 3 days that would normally take a few weeks if they placed an order with an indie… which is what happens with dropshipping, anyway. #tradeoffs Anyway, this article was a great read. Thanks again for your transparency.

    • Karolina says:

      I suspect a lot of it is applicable to so many areas outside of lingerie! One of the reasons that I have so much love for Bluestockings is you actually care about the business realities that face the brands; this is so rare in my experience, with the majority of buyers I’ve spoken to being utterly shell shocked when I spell out for them the exact costs involved in my products and the running of my business. I’ve also never understood why a retailer would chase indies for dropshipping… Surely that’s a massive business risk? There’s so little control and risk of unfulfillment – I know that I’m too much of a control freak to be able to cope with that!

    • Hello! I’m the indie who suggested dropshipping. Don’t all start booing at once! I actually find it a very successful tool when creating a relationship with a new retailer. Yes, it minimises the risk for the retailer, but it also minimises my risk as a designer as well.

      When a retailer orders multiples of a product and then discovers that it does not sell well with their audience they are left with the stock. Yes, I the designer made a sale and have had the exposure (woohoo!). But as that one product has not shifted the retailer will be less likely to experiment with taking a financial loss on another product and I will have lost that outlet and relationship forever. With dropshipping, the retailer can experiment to see what their audience is interested in, if anything. I get those metrics as well and from a wider demographic than would normally be available to me. Once an item has proved to be popular then a conversation about normal wholesale activity can commence.

      When asked for line sheets, I select products where I know I have a continuous supply of materials and have dependable patterns. I also only offer to stock one item for each product the retailer lists so I don’t get surprise orders that I may not be able fill fast enough. The important thing here is help the retailer find which of your products will satisfy their customers so that they are better equipped when investing in your brand.

      It can’t be just any retailer either, but a really great one you want to have a long term relationship with like Bluestockings Boutique who are very ethical and professional in their dealings with suppliers. A retailer whose business model is solely based on dropshipping is, as Karolina has stated, not cost effective or desirable.

  18. Tilly says:

    I have so much love for this article and can relate all too well. I used to spend days looking for wholesale clients, producing price lists where I put down in black and white the difference in revenue I’d be getting for the same amount of work. It was like I was shooting myself in the foot all in the name of “exposure” for the brand with a retailer…all to be offered a drop ship business model where there’s, OK, slightly more revenue but then you have to find the time to package and ship each product individually. It’s not viable for us indie designers and I’m so glad you’ve taken the time to spell it out.

    • Karolina says:

      I have a feeling that this is the case for a lot of indies! I always underestimated how much time was involved in even basic things like putting together pricelists and linesheets – it all adds up! The thing that really bothers me about the drop ship requests from retailers to designers that make to order is that they just have *no* idea about the additional time involved in making piece by piece. It just totally destroys any form of profit and at its worst you’re actually losing money.

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