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How Much Money Do Lingerie Designers Really Make?

As an intimates designer, I feel like I’ve heard every opinion about how much money we make. There are the parents of design students who wish their children would go into law instead of lingerie so they can actually support themselves. There are the people on Tumblr who talk about how indie designers must be rolling in the cash they make from their allegedly overpriced wares. There are the companies who expect us to happily work for nothing or next to nothing, even if we have years of experience.

So I wanted to answer the question once and for all: how much money do lingerie designers actually make?

Why Discuss Salary At All?

This was not an easy subject to research directly. Sure, you can google the question, “How much do lingerie designers make?” and find all sorts of figures and averages, but I wanted to speak firsthand to designers whose jobs I could verify.

Despite writing for a very trusted name in the industry, being able to guarantee anonymity, and being a hardworking designer myself, many lingerie designers refused to tell me their salaries.

Instead, I got a lot of canned, on-brand responses along the lines of, “I work very hard and don’t get paid enough but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!” Everyone wants to look good. No one wants to talk about things that are difficult.

Creative women colleagues working in the office

On top of that, many lingerie designers (and all of the designers I spoke to) are women, and when women discuss money, it carries much more stigma than men doing the same. That stigma is slowly fading, but women are still so hesitant to talk about their salaries, and it doesn't benefit anyone at all.

The more women talk about how much they make, the more confidence they have in negotiating that number, and the more likely they are to break the pay gap. That’s why I think this article is an important one to write.

When you combine that hesitancy to discuss wages with the fact that dressmaking has historically been considered "women's work" and is therefore seen as less important, it's easy to see how lingerie designers and other apparel workers can easily be grossly underpaid.

I managed to find four generous designers who were willing to speak with me anonymously, each working full-time in very different areas of the intimates industry in New York City.

Modern office workplace with digital tablet, notepad, colorful pencils, glasses, in morning

The Incomes

The first is a Sleepwear Designer for a mid-price lounge and sleep line that’s sold at department stores like Bloomingdale’s. She sketches the collections for each season, communicates with factories, and approves samples as they come in. It’s been about a year since she started with this company, her workweek is a solid 40 hours (though closer to 50 during market week), and she makes $45,000 annually.

The second is an Associate Designer at a large US lingerie chain brand you’ve heard of. She conceptualizes and sketches new seasons, creates and updates the tech packs that get sent to factories overseas, and is in constant communication with other departments to ensure the designs look as they should in the end. This designer works 48 hours a week and makes $63,000 annually. “It's okay to live on, but not nearly enough for how much I'm contributing to the business and how much my responsibilities have grown over time,” she says.

The third worked up from Assistant Designer to Associate Design Director at an international lifestyle brand, eventually overseeing the licenses of many lingerie and swimwear lines. This designer approved products designed and fit by outside companies, while creating patterns and graphics for packaging and product. She worked at the company for many years and was making about $89,000 annually by the time she left. “I was adequately compensated for five to six years ago,” she said. “My boss at the time was good about giving us comp days and letting us come in late if we worked extra hours to reach a deadline.”

Finally, the fourth interviewee is self-employed; she runs a luxury lingerie line and does almost every job from design to patterning to marketing to production. When she started, she estimates she worked 80 to 90 hours per week, but has gotten it down to about 45 per week since she now has existing infrastructure and customers. She is currently entirely self-employed, but for the first couple of years she would work short freelance contracts that kept her afloat. “It was very, very tempting to do that sort of work full time as I could sometimes pull in more money per day than I sometimes would see in a month!” she said, “But I ultimately wanted to keep building my business, so I tried not to let that get to me.”

Last year, the fourth interviewee netted $15,000, and expects to make about the same this year. That number isn't how many sales she had, or how much profit the company made, but how much money she is paying herself; the rest of the line's money gets cycled back into itself. “Going into it, I would have expected that someone with average products selling on Etsy could make 15k a year,” she said. “But to think that a skilled artist with many years of sewing under my belt, selling hundreds of pieces per year... to think that, with all of that, I make 15k, is very sad to me.”

From my experience, as well as from speaking with other indie designers, $15,000 is a pretty average number for the founder of an indie label without investment backing to take per year.

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Expensive Lingerie Doesn't Mean High Salaries

So what can we learn from these numbers? Well, it’s certainly not a large sample size, but the term “lingerie designer” spans so many different jobs and types of companies that even if we had numbers from 100 people, there likely wouldn’t be an average number that could apply to the general title of “lingerie designer.”

One thing that surprised me is that all of the designers who work for other companies make a decent living wage for a single person in NYC. They also genuinely love their jobs. I gave them free reign to talk about what being an intimates designer is like, and expected exasperated comments about the unglamorous aspects of their jobs, but they focused on the parts they loved. “We obsess over the tiniest details and hope you will notice!” proclaimed the designer from the national lingerie brand.

Another thing that's interesting to note is that the designer creating the most expensive garments is the one making the least amount of money. It's an important thing to think about the next time you feel like a piece of lingerie from a small label is "overpriced."

BH selbst nähen

So, to the parents worried about their designer child making a living: it is entirely possible to make a living designing lingerie. To the young people assuming indie lingerie labels are ripping them off: the person running that line themselves might have to work a second job just to stay in business. And to the companies who want to hire eternal interns: well, the politics of fashion industry internships are a complicated subject deserving of its own article, but it's partially on us for taking those low-paying jobs. The more we talk about what we’re worth and how much we make, the less likely we are to be exploited for our talents.

So what do you think...are lingerie designers paid adequately for the work they do?

Quinne Myers

Quinne Myers is a lingerie expert living in Brooklyn, NY, where she creates quippy written content, crafts dreamy illustrations, and runs the ethically-made loungewear line, she and reverie.

26 Comments on this post

  1. irene says:

    Yeap, I’m one of those designers selling the most expensive garment and making the least. Actually, making nothing. Instead of sewing everything myself, I chose to hire a fulltime professional seamstress to maintain the quality in every stitch my customers deserve. So in order to pay for her salary, I have to teach fashion design and sewing at two different schools. Oh, and to pay for overhead, I take freelance gigs as a wardrobe stylist. Thats 3 more jobs on top of being everything else in a 1 woman business where everything is design+made in house (for ethical reasons). So, it’s really tough trying to sell something different versus selling something cheap & trendy. PLUS, It’s so maddening and even offensive when people tell me “Oh, but you’re in China. Why is your stuff so expensive?”

    Anyways, at the end of the day… I’m happy with what I do and really believe in my cause, so I’m happy to pay myself enough to eat and stay alive :)

    Keep on dreaming <3

  2. Cami Leguizamón says:

    This is a great topic to discuss. Following Karolina’s comment I’ll be honest about my earning too…During my first year I made about 20k, working from home and it was totally awesome considering I started with 0 expectations… This years I decided to go all in, rented a showroom-studio space and hired a second person and I’m barely making 1k a month. I’m still happy because I feel it’s something I’m doing considering the possible future growth, but I’m not sure I could do this for more than 2 years making this little.
    Thanks Quinne for the article and to everyone who shared their points of view!

  3. wendybien says:

    I was not surprised at all, or rather I was surprised that the indie designer of high-end lingerie makes that much! I don’t sew much and certainly would never dream of trying to make lingerie, but I know how much high-end fabrics and trimmings cost… I can’t fathom how anyone gets through that first phase without an investor/backer or else a large amount of personal wealth to launch the business. I know even world famous couture houses often don’t break even on the high end fashion. They rely on fragrances, handbags etc. (the really big money-makers) and to a lesser extent ready to wear, to survive financially, and the sales from those products fund their super luxe creations (whose role it is to maintain their brand image and status, thus attracting 50,000 customers who CAN’T afford couture and will buy fragrance etc. for every 1 customer who can and will buy a couture jacket or gown). I’m not an expert but it seems to me that to thrive while making high-end lingerie on an independent basis, it would probably be easiest to adopt a similar strategy–have some attractive parallel product lines which still reflect your skill and creativity and give a taste of your aesthetic but which are (a) very affordable and (b) quick and cheap to produce for you.

    • Quinne Myers says:

      Diffusion lines are a GREAT idea, but “cheap to produce” is kind of impossible for indie lines–most of us are taking a cut on profits at our regular retail prices anyway. Our lines aren’t pricey because we want them to be! (Angela Friedman has done a pretty good job with her Fairytales line, though)

    • I’m going to second the idea that ‘cheap to produce’ isn’t possible for an indie. To bring the prices down of a product you need to invest in very large production quantities… Probably more money going on the ‘cheap’ items then you’d ever invest in the ‘expensive’.

    • To make something quick and cheap and get an affordable unit price, to produce you take out all the unique special interesting bits, and make it in bulk, because economies of scale.
      At that point you are the same as mainstream stores and need the same money and the same footfall/traffic to shift the subsequent stock.
      This is not a circle you can square :)

  4. Jeanna at Bluestockings says:

    Extremely important article, for all the reasons you cite at the beginning. Thank you for writing it, and thanks to the interviewees who participated.

    I own an independent boutique (so: not a designer!), and my salary is approx. $0. Working two day jobs to make due while I try to get the business off the ground. No investors or backing.

  5. I’m going to be totally blunt about my earnings: last tax year they were £7k. My turnover was £30k. I definitely didn’t get into owning a brand to get rich quick but on my more positive days I justify it as worthwhile because I enjoy what I do. But if this figure doesn’t rise drastically in the next couple of years I can’t realistically continue. It’s not enough to live on.

    • Jenni says:

      On average, my personal drawings are generally less and my turnover about the same. Corsets ;-)

    • Also to add to the discussion: straight out of university I was interviewed for a product development job, which actually involved a huge amount of responsibility, for £7.50/hr. I know many graduates in assistant designer positions starting on salaries of £18-20k in London.

      • Quinne Myers says:

        Yep, I took an hourly job that paid similarly when I first got out of school & didn’t know any better. So many of us have no idea what we’re worth.

        • I’d say it’s a toss up between ‘knowing what you’re worth’ and ‘being desperate for any paying job in this horrific market’ ;) being a young grad sucks right now! So many of my friends are unemployed or working minimum wage, zero hour contracts in unskilled jobs because there’s just not enough going in fashion.

      • that’s super weird to hire a recent grad for a technical job too. When I interned in London I was intern at a small high end designer and they had me making patterns basically by myself, and somehow wanted me to be the sample sewer for the entire collection as well. It’s the only unpaid internship I ever had(no work visa, only student) and they were super surprised when I resisted doing that sort of work. Maybe its a UK thing? I wouldn’t let a recent graduate sew my samples or make my patterns.

        • I totally agree with that – I find targeting recent grads for such high-responsibility jobs pretty worrying. In my defence though, I do have a lot more experience than the average recent graduate, especially with the likes of factories etc. There is a definite trend though in unrealistic expectations of low and unpaid labour. It kind of makes me laugh when brands put that much responsibility on an unpaid intern, for example – why are you trusting someone with so little experience and financial motivation to do your production and product development?!

          • oh my comment wasn’t against you at all, you probably would have done a great job, but how would they know that ahead of time? I mean, I did some nice patterns for that designer, and in my memory they only needed one revision, but how many students can do that? it’s very silly.

            • Well, in my defence I had a hefty CV and portfolio backing it up as well as having done freelance work for other designers ;) But it’s a very valid point – very few recent grads have anything like that to back their skills up and it’s a bit of a leap of faith – worrying when a whole business depends in it!

          • michelle says:

            On the other hand I was trying to find a student to help me with some admin with the possibility of assisting and being part of creative meetings, etc. Also paying 10$ an hour with flexible hours. I think students of today are really talented but maybe a bit overly trained, and dont understand the concept of paying your dues or starting at the bottom . They can make a professional looking website, logo, etc, but dont understand you have to earn an employer’s trust before they give you duties that could have real consequences on their business. It’s not a question about talent, but showing someone you are responsible. Also all that research and admin style work actually teaches you a lot.

            I know how hard the job market is and wanted to help. Now I only hire people 30+ who are more realistic about life and much less drama.

      • I spent the first year after uni fully responsible for people who were close to dying and in some cases actively trying to, with minimal support, on about 10k p/a. The nursery next to us in our old offices was keeping their wage bill down by employing “apprentices” on £2.40 an hour to look after the children. Even accounting for inflation, basically, much as I object to the exploitation of graduate lingerie folk, I can assure you that we value them more highly than we value people who look after our elderly, sick, and offspring.

    • Vic says:

      This is a great article and very informative for us young designers.
      The only thing i didn’t understand is 30k is your earnings in a year or instead is 7k? Thank you for your honesty.

      • 7k is the earnings, 30k is all the money that came through the business

        • Vic says:

          Thank you Karolina. The issue of money is important to be discussed (although for some reasons there isn’t a lot of articles about the profits/money loss of lingerie outside this blog) because is very easy to see on social media small independent lingerie business with high prices on items and think that the owners must be rolling on dollars bills when in fact there is such high price on materials, photoshoots, websites and mail fees, etc that the reality is quite the opposite.

    • Oana Thomas says:

      Hi Karolina,
      I am new lingerie designer (we started couple of months ago), in Bucharest. I have an absolutely great team with many years of experience in underwear. I could help you with production of garments, maybe it helps you reducing production costs. I think you do great work. Contact me and we can also meet, I’ll be in UK in 3 weeks.

  6. Krista says:

    Wow. That’s such a disparity. I’m shocked (but not really) at how little the indie designer makes. Like you said, many cycle the rest of the money back into the business. I’m not sure the average person realizes that.

  7. Kristina says:

    Wow – I’m super suprised because when I was designing lingerie for mid-tier department/chain stores in NYC I was consistently making over 100k. I’ve only been out of that market for 2 years! I’m now 100 times happier working for myself however I barely earn enough to live on now so I’m constantly wondering if if I made the right choice. These stats are really surprising to me & I really hope things change soon because anything under $60k is not fair for all the work we do. Thanks for starting this conversation!

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