How to Start a Luxury Lingerie Boutique: An Interview with Darkest Fox
Disclosure: This article is sponsored by Darkest Fox.
If there's one thing writing about lingerie for the last 12 years has taught me, it's that the world of intimate apparel is deeply mysterious to most people. And, like most mysteries, people sometimes invent theories that don't quite match with what's actually happening.
It's true as well that the lingerie industry is in a period of major upheaval right now, with more and more consumers turning to highly-curated online boutiques over more traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Though I'm a lingerie expert, I'm also a lingerie consumer, and one thing I've often wondered - along with everyone else - is why and how boutiques choose certain brands for their shop.
To help answer that question (and many others!), I'm talking with Mabel Liang of Darkest Fox. Founded in 2016 and based in NYC, Darkest Fox specializes in edgy, elegant, utterly luxurious lingerie from all over the world. Established on the principles of sustainable and elegant fashion, Mabel curates her boutique with what can best be described as heirloom pieces...lingerie made to the highest standards of quality that will truly stand the test of time.
In a conversation with Mabel, we talked about what brought her to the lingerie industry, how she started her shop and discovered her own unique vision, and how she chooses which designers to become retail partners with.
Have a Personal Connection
One of the things that stood out immediately in my conversation with Mabel is how long she's loved lingerie. It's pretty much impossible it's possible to be a professional in this industry unless you are really, truly obsessed with intimate apparel, and Mabel has been a part of this world since their teens. I particularly enjoyed her description of lingerie as "an outfit within an outfit," which feels so right to me.
Which Problem are You Trying to Solve?
Another name for this is your "Unique Value Proposition." That is, what is the thing your brand or boutique offers that no one else can? If people land on your site, can they tell straightaway what makes you different?
In Mabel's case, the problem that brought her to the lingerie industry was growing up smaller-busted and realizing most bra stores either didn't carry her size at all or didn't stock any of the prettiest bras below a B-cup. Feeling like you're not being catered to can be a powerful incentive to start your own lingerie company. It also gives you an immediate area to focus your energies, and, eventually, help spark that personal connection with your customers.
The Money Question: How to Cut Costs Where You Can
While Mabel was able to draw on savings and retirement funds from her first business (a situation we have to acknowledge most people don't share), she were also cost-conscious in other ways, such as starting small, focusing on organic growth, designing and maintaining her own website, and creating her own marketing campaigns.
While you may not share the same skillset as Darkest Fox's founder, the takeaway here is to do what you can yourself. Your own labor and expertise is just as much of an investment in your brand as dollars and cents.
Learning About Lingerie Brands
While most of the general public is only familiar with a handful of lingerie companies, the truth is there are hundreds of labels out there. Big box and department stores typically focus on the very largest brands with the greatest sales volume, which leaves an important opening for smaller stores to carry unique designs that can't be found anywhere else. However, you can't stock those brands if you don't know about them first.
Mabel recommends visiting designers in your own town (where applicable; we know not everyone lives in NYC), attending trade shows like Curve in New York and Altitude in Las Vegas, and just being open to friends and acquaintances recommending their faves or making introductions. In addition, being accessible for brands to approach you matters too. For example, on the Darkest Fox website, it's very easy to find the shop's contact information. We often think about contact information in relation to customer service, but it matters as well when it comes to designers!
How to Choose Your Boutique's Focus a.k.a. Defining Luxury
While some shops focus on volume or low prices, for a small, luxury-centered boutique, it's better to focus on quality - quality of construction and quality of materials.
Mabel says the wearer is the "first audience" for their underpinnings which means comfortable materials, hypoallergenic hardware, and soft lace are all essential. I particularly liked this sentence from our interview: "I believe true luxury is an environment that makes you feel comfortable, supported, confident, that you are deserving of kindness and respect, that you can move in the world with ease, whether it is a set of lingerie, a home, an automobile, or a dining experience."
Put another way, lingerie is an experience first of all, and luxury lingerie shouldn't make you feel like there's something about your body or your life you need to change. Rather, it should encourage you to embrace your whole self, exactly as-is.
Tailoring also matters when you're thinking of new brands to bring in. People rarely buy luxury lingerie with a view to tossing it in the trash after one wear, so true high-end intimate apparel should be able withstand the rigors of washing and wearing again (and again and again). Mabel calls this an "old-fashioned" approach to tailoring, where even the smallest details - such as the placement of a strap or the reinforcement of seam - are noted and addressed. Those details are what distinguish luxury lingerie from everything else.
Discovering Your Vision and Voice: How Do You Know "The One(s)?"
In the case of Darkest Fox, their guiding vision is "edgy" and "elegant." With those two words in mind, the buying team can go and find the perfect brands to fit that particular mood or vibe. It's important to have an ideal customer in mind as you're building your brand. How would you describe the person shopping from you?
For Darkest Fox, that description of their ideal customer includes words like, "fearless, independent, gracious, kind, warm, deliberate, thoughtful, and multi-dimensional." And that vision of the ideal customer is carried through in the juxtaposition of designers on site like Fraulein Kink (bondage accessories and leather harnesses), Taryn Winters (bespoke lace and sheer mesh), and Lalita (soft bamboo with garter belt hardware).
Finally, if you're an indie boutique, avoid carrying the exact same brands your customers can find in department stores...or even at another boutique just down the street. For Darkest Fox, that means focusing on independent, woman-owned brands where women are simultaneously the founders, creative directors, and designers of the line. Just as it's important to know your ideal customers, it's also important to know your ideal brands.
One Free Piece of Advice Every Brand Should Keep In Mind
This is a good one! Mabel pointed out that if your store or branding or marketing or advertising includes people from a minority group or underrepresented subculture, include people from that group behind-the-scenes who can spot potential issues and tell you when things aren't okay.
Advice for Designers That Would Like to Be Stocked in Darkest Fox (or Anywhere Else)
Never undercut your retailers! Darkest Fox always respects designers' MAP (Minimum Advertised Price), so they expects the brands they carry to do the same.
Mabel noted that requiring stockists to hold to a certain price while selling at a lower price for your own direct-to-consumer store may help sales in the short term, but it undermines your long-term relationship with stores. If you're running a sale, just let your stockists know so they can match your prices.
Have you ever thought about opening your own lingerie shop? I'd love to hear some of your dream brands if you did! And don't forget to follow Darkest Fox on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube!