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