Ethical Underwear: How a Lingerie Company Built Its Brand on Social Change

Ethical Underwear: How a Lingerie Company Built Its Brand on Social Change

I walked into a Victoria’s Secret location last week, into a visual and olfactory assault: fending off condescending advances to be “fitted properly”, dodging offensive puffs from perfume testers, wading through bins of frilly thongs, 5 for $20. I am here, merely, to find a bra that doesn’t double as a medieval torture device.

I think I’m supposed to feel empowered. I don’t.

In 2016, women are caught in a murky nomansland between a growing momentum of body-positive Instagram hashtags – #effyourbeautystandards, #droptheplus – and Photoshopped lingerie billboards continuing to push impossible beauty ideals. We’re thankfully way past the “skin color” pencil crayon era, but still years away from seeing a fully-inclusive cosmetics palette. We’re getting there. But not fast enough.

Companies like Victoria’s Secret, leaders in lingerie, continue to set the standard. Why? Lingerie is a $110 billion dollar market, dominated by just a handful of large companies who manufacture under several different labels. Manufacturing is largely done in Asia, and because of the technical intricacies of underwear and bras, special skills and expensive equipment are necessary. Breaking in as a small brand is like trying to sit at the cool kids’ table on the first day of school.

Catalina Girald ignored the “you can’t sit with us” message, and did it anyway.

Today, she’s running Naja, a lingerie business with a staff of 23 people in two countries. Her team manufactures and ships ethical, eco-conscious, and women-first underwear worldwide every day.

Catalina started her career in law, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. After moving on from her legal practice, she ventured into her first gig as an entrepreneur. She started her own networking software company in 2006, building a marketplace for independent designers.

But the catalyst for launching her current venture wasn’t her business background. It was the travelling that followed. She spent a significant part of her time away living with indigenous people – an experience that changed her perspective on gender roles.

What struck me was how empowered the women were. Because I lived with them, I was able to observe how they operated on a day to day basis. There was a relationship between women and men that was very cooperative. The roles were very different – females had certain female roles, males had certain male roles, but it wasn't unequal. I looked back at my friends and even myself and felt like in the States there is still a very big inequality between women and men. I think it has a lot to do with the way that we're raised. I was surprised to see that this wasn't the same standard.”

What struck me was how empowered the women were.

When contrasting the experience against her own – in business, where she found she had an ingrained deference towards men – she was inspired to start a company that empowered women.

“I worked with so many women that were poor or lower income. Tribal women don't make any money, but they were so smart and they were so handy. I wanted to think back to women in the Third World that were in those situations, but I also really wanted to empower the consumer. That was where the idea started. I thought, ‘What kind of company can I start where I can touch both the consumer as well as the person who makes our product?’”

The answer was underwear. She saw the industry as one in serious need of an overhaul.

“When you look at the lingerie industry, their advertisements, it's always a woman in some sort of sexual position. There's always a sexual connotation to it. It's about her pleasing somebody else. I don't think that that's a positive message for young women and girls.”

When you look at the lingerie industry, it's always a woman in some sort of sexual position. I don't think that that's a positive message for young women and girls.

So she pursued Naja as a means to empower these women, but she didn’t stop there. Catalina built a factory in Colombia, and committed to training and hiring women, primarily single mothers living in the slums.

Unlike the other limited employment opportunities for these women, Naja offers flexible working hours, and an education benefit for dependents that pays for school uniforms, supplies, and lunches.

 

In Colombia, as a single mother, when you have obligations with your children and you're also employed, you can't really be both at the same time. Especially when they're low income earning, their job is always at threat if they favor their job over their child. I feel like that can be a difficult situation for women.”

Naja employs an additional team of Colombian women through its Underwear for Hope program.

“I went to visit a foundation that builds schools for poor children in the slums and they told me that they were having issues with the mothers because they were pulling kids out. I met a little girl who was twelve and she was working on an entrepreneurship program. She built a candy store and she's done a really good job. When we walked out, I said, ’Wow, she's a really smart girl, it's so nice that you build these schools to be able to give them opportunities.’ Then, she told me that the little girl had been rescued from prostitution when she was nine."

"The problem that we have in these areas is that the women aren't employed and a lot of them have many children. Since there's no other way to bring food to the table, as soon as the oldest girl is old enough, they put her out on the streets. It's usually the mother who does that.”

Since there's no other way to bring food to the table, as soon as the oldest girl is old enough, they put her out on the streets.

Through this foundation she learned about a program that taught women skills like sewing hems or making tortillas – jobs they could do from home to make money while still caring for their children. The program was implemented to keep women from pulling girls out of the schools they were building.

Initially Naja began to donate a portion of proceeds to the program, but soon started employing the women directly. Underwear for Hope employs women in the slums to sew wash bags for the lingerie.

We now have six women that are working for us and they all have different stories. One of them is in her eighties – she can't really walk around much. One of the other women who leads the program goes and drops off the bags and the eighty year old woman threads the ribbon for the drawstring closure.”

When the Underwear for Hope launched, Naja employed only one woman to sew the bags, but it grew in a surprising way. The attached hangtag, which was always signed “Made with love by Maria”, began to turn up with widely varying handwriting. Catalina first noticed it on Instagram and panicked: what if her customers thought they were faking the signatures? It could be a huge blow for brand trust.

 

What she discovered, was that Maria became so busy, that her own entrepreneurial drive kicked in – she was subcontracting the work out to five other women, each of them replicating her signature in different penmanship. One of the women had been working for Maria for a year and a half. Naja embraced it and promoted her to the head of the program.

On the consumer side, the brand goes to lengths to drive home the message: this is a product for you, not someone else. Little hidden details like inspirational quotes in the packaging and fun prints hidden on the inside of the products, are meant for the delight of the wearer.

Naja Printed Bra

Naja also puts its social and political views at the forefront, tackling and siding with issues on Instagram and in marketing campaigns. Catalina brushes off any suggestion that the move might bristle some of her customers. She admits that the brand’s opinions don’t necessarily resonate with everyone, and some may have revoked their customer status.

The impact is undetectable on the books however, and she finds that her loyal customers love the brand as much for the beautiful products as the message.

When Bernie Sanders was not giving in to Hillary and he didn't want to concede, and finally he did, we tweeted out about it. People say things on social media, like ‘you've lost your Bernie customers’, but have we really? I'm not really sure. You know what? If I lose Trump supporters as customers, I'm okay with that.”

You know what? If I lose Trump supporters as customers, I'm okay with that.

In some cases, the strong social messages have garnered the brand the best kind of attention. Their 2016 campaign, Nude for All, was based on the premise that “nude” as a color in apparel and lingerie is not inclusive. Naja designed the line in seven different versions of nude, to represent most skin tones.

Naja Nude For All Campaign

Naja is sort of a living, breathing being, even though it's a company. It's okay that it has its own views. The Nude for All campaign was taking a stance as well. It was taking a stance on racial diversity and how important it is for us. We had real people that weren't models and we made a statement.”

Upon launching the campaign back in May, Catalina took advice straight from the horse’s mouth – this horse being Sir Richard Branson himself, who told her to buy “just one billboard”. Instead, she bought just one Subway station in New York (roughly the same cost as a billboard), and the campaign went viral.

Press followed, as did an offer from Anthropologie to carry the products. The partnership will be realized in the fall when the major apparel and lifestyle chain carries the bestselling Talavera print collection.

Needless to say, it’s been a great run for a company just two years young. The success, however, didn’t come without its ups and downs.

"The company started with me and a software engineer. We moved to Colombia to live in my parents house because we couldn't afford anything. I was researching how to build a bra company. My family had been in the lingerie industry before, so I was able to make some connections. I pretty much lived at a bra cup factory from 6 AM to 6 PM for about four months, learning everything there was to know. That's how the company got started. We launched on $100,000 that we had raised from angel investors.”

I pretty much lived at a bra cup factory from 6 AM to 6 PM for about four months, learning everything there was to know.

Pre-launch, in late 2013, when her co-founder had already moved on to another project, she and a group of people “working for free” were experimenting with supply chain. Catalina found a third party factory that was seemingly able to help them get to market quickly. The results were disastrous. The factory owner shipped only a third of the Christmas pre-orders before disappearing.

"He just shut down his cell phone and he disappeared until January 12th. I can't tell you how hysterical I was for those three weeks. I spent December 24th and 25th sitting on a couch, writing hand-written apologies to every single person that had not received their order. Luckily, it was a small crowd of people and it was still sort of our pre-launch, but nevertheless, that was terrible.”

By the end of January, the balance of the holiday orders were finally complete. But they were all wrong.

Everything was backwards. All the elastics I had selected were wrong. The guy used bra strap elastic on the thong of these panties. I was like ‘that's going to rip your butt apart!’ It was a disaster.”

At this stage, the new collection was already designed, and rather than repeating the nightmare with a 3rd party factory, Catalina decided to work with independent cutters and sewers and printers. But, again it was a failure. If one person was late, it affected all of the other moving parts.

"By this point, even though the collections were disasters from a shipping point of view, they were huge successes in the press. New York Magazine covered our first collection – it was featured on the homepage of The Cut – and Vanity Fair shot it on Paula Patton. It didn't end up making the final cut, but my PR firm was really excited because they said it never happens with a first collection."

Even though the collections were disasters from a shipping point of view, they were huge successes in the press.

While the second collection – the one that would later become a flagship print for the brand and catch the eye of Anthropologie – was suffering production woes in its first run, her newly hired production manager suggested the idea of opening their own factory. While she balked at the idea initially, she was eventually convinced. A local factory had recently shuttered, and was eager to offload their machines cheaply.

Within a month, they had purchased machines, hired sewers, and rented the space.

"That was November of 2014. All of 2014 was kind of a waste. We had two collections that were beautiful but we could barely sell them because we couldn't make them, or they were made completely wrong. Then, we started our own factory. By January 2015, I thought okay, we've kind of got a handle on what's going on and we managed to put our new production process into place. 2015 was a great year for us. We still messed up a bunch – when you have your own factory, now it's your problem.”

She admits that if she could do it all over again, she might not have opened the factory.

“I think what people don't realize is that starting a factory and starting an ecommerce sales business are two different companies, completely different. Even though one makes for the other, the strategy's different, the P&L is different, the finances are different. Making product is a very detail-intensive kind of business."

Making product is a very detail-intensive kind of business.

"With a major retailer, we were supposed to deliver this one particular thing and then the person that made the fabric ran out of fabric. We said let’s go and find it. I don't think everybody has the patience to do that. The reason that I would advise not to start a factory is that your risk of failing is multiplied dramatically. Even for us, it continues to be a problem. If our business scales really fast, it's not just about dealing with scale on the ecommerce side, now I have to deal with scale on the manufacturing side, which is way more complicated. I would say, if you're going to start a factory, then start the factory first and make sure that it works before you start the ecommerce business. Don't do them at once, it's not a good idea. It's a miracle we're still alive.”

Start the factory first and make sure that it works before you start the ecommerce business. Don't do them at once, it's not a good idea. It's a miracle we're still alive.

But Catalina has mixed feelings. There are benefits to keeping the production side of the business so close – Naja can be very quick to market, and the margins are much higher. Because of their ability to turn around a collection from concept to store in two months (versus the usual twelve for other companies), Naja can produce fewer quantities and afford to be more experimental with prints.

The brand has become known for bold prints for that reason, but is careful to balance with neutrals, to appeal to a wider customer base.

“We've started doing more products that are not print precisely so that we can retain that customer that would have purchased a nude bra from Calvin Klein. Instead, they can purchase it from someone that they know is giving back to society.”

Giving back is a thread that runs through every aspect of the business from hiring practices to environmental production choices. Select products are made from recycled plastics and printed using water-saving digital or sublimation printing techniques.

Though Naja is a brand that aligns itself with social issues and takes a stand, the size of the company has made it challenging to support all women of all sizes.

“The reality is, we're still a tiny company. I think a lot of people don't understand this. Right now, we carry about twenty-three sizes per bra style. Twenty-three sizes is a lot from a SKU perspective. We just carry the top of the bell curve. We don't carry the super small ones – 32A and 30s – and we also don't go above 38, for the most part. People get really angry. They say ‘How can you want to empower women, when you're not carrying my size?’ Expanding is kind of a personal issue with me, and I usually respond to those emails personally.”

The reality is, we're still a tiny company.

"Either we sell two things and we make all the sizes that we can and that's all we sell, or we sell twenty things and we limit the size. If we sell two, then people just aren't going to keep coming back. It's not enough to really carry the business. That's an issue and I wish it weren't so. I would love to be able to offer all those sizes but in general, it's just not something that is doable until we're much bigger.”

And expanding sizes, especially in the larger direction, has additional challenges.

“When we did the Nude for All campaign, we had one woman who really wanted to be a part of it and our lingerie didn't fit her. We specially made something for her. It wasn't until I actually had to hold her breasts because I was trying to fit her and I realized boobs are really heavy. You need to use special materials and really think about the construction of it for it to work. Even if we did have the traffic, I would have to build a special team for that. Bras are technical as it is, but to be able to understand how to defy gravity a little bit, you basically need to bring in almost an industrial engineer to be able to put that together.”

Naja Swim and Lingerie

What’s next for Naja? While inclusive sizing is high on Catalina’s wish list for the company, it’s forging ahead in other areas. The new wholesale clients – Anthropologie as well as Nordstrom – mean overhauling production and reallocating marketing budgets into product to be able to fulfill the orders. Naja has hired a salesperson to help rethink the structure of the business to accommodate wholesale.

This year, Catalina tells me, they also launched swimwear “better late than never” and it’s an indication for even bigger things to come. At the heart of it, always, will be the cause.

“We're in the middle of transitioning the business because what we've realized is that we're not a lingerie brand – we're a community of people that want products that are ethically made and are also beautiful."

About the Author

Dayna Winter is a Storyteller at Shopify. She follows more dogs than humans on Instagram and isn't a real redhead.

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