Lingerie industry, look out: Silicon Valley's female founders are coming for you

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 27, 2013

From The News Desk

Victoria's Secret just filmed its infamous annual Fashion Show, replete with Taylor Swift bedecked in British flags and Candice Swanepoel in the $10 million Fantasy Bra. Per usual, the models, scarily thin and smirking sexily, strutted in style. As they celebrated the company's utter dominance of the lingerie world and America's collective heart, little did they know that Silicon Valley was coming for them.

There's been a string of companies making headlines recently that aim to take on the intimates industry. There's Michelle Lam's data-driven approach to finding the perfect bra fit with True&Co. There's Heidi Zak and her hubbie Dave Spector's ThirdLove company, that claims you can snap a picture of your chest and they'll size you perfectly. There's Yun Ah Lee and Jiabei Chen's Ampere, which offers 28 sizes so everyone can find the right fit. It just raised over $26,000 on Kickstarter to expand the line.

And the latest, Naja, launched just yesterday. It's not doing anything techie, like using algorithms to help you find a bra, or gimmick-y, like subscription bras-in-a-box. Instead, it's taking the traditional route: build an e-commerce brand that offers women high quality, affordable bras and underwear. The clothing comes from Colombia, as does the company.

Naja is the brainchild of second-time founder and Colombia-native Catalina Girald. Girald started the brand Moxsie in 2007, building up an impressive social media presence and loyal followers. But as Girald tells it, she eventually fell out with her lead investor and quit, leaving the company in the hands of others. The startup fizzled from there, selling to FashionStake in 2011 -- which eventually sold to Fab -- for undisclosed terms that Girald says were "a pittance."

"I didn't think I would start another company again, because I was absolutely crushed," Girald says.

But she eventually decided to give entrepreneurship another go, this time swearing not to relinquish the reins to anyone else. She wanted to start a company that would help support other women, and tackling lingerie came to mind.

"The lingerie industry is fascinating. It's a 14 billion dollar industry and Victoria's Secret owns 44 percent," Girald says. "There's not a lot out there in the mass market brand."

True&Co, Naja, ThirdLove, and Ampere all have similar purposes in mind. The founders believe that the big intimates' companies like Maidenform and Victoria's Secret have had far too much power for far too long, despite providing substandard products at a high cost. These new entrepreneurs believe that if they can set up a vertically integrated system, they can cut costs, improve the quality, and make women ditch Victoria's Secret once and for all.

All three startups have a lot of challenges ahead of them. E-commerce brands are notoriously difficult to build. They take time, money, and a certain level of scrappiness. Even with all those elements, things can still go wrong, as we've seen with Fab's recent struggles.

For now though, Naja's Girald isn't worrying too much. She's just trying to survive the present, getting the company off the ground on very little money.

She raised $100,000 from serial entrepreneur Mike Rothenberg and Mayfield's Mike Levinthal, and convinced an engineer to move to Colombia so they could start the company for cheap. She drew the initial product prototypes herself, and then hired a tattoo artist from San Jose to help her design the textiles.

"Together we bought books on Amazon. 'Let's try to figure out how to do a repeat pattern,'" Girald says.

In a Tom's like approach, Naja has also partnered with the Golondrinas Foundation to employ three low-income single mothers from Colombia to sew lingerie wash bags in a program called "Underwear for Hope." Every bag comes with the woman's signature card inside, so that purchasers can go online and read about her story.

Its "Underwear for Hope" and personal brand might not be enough to carry Naja. The intimates space is heating up with competition, and there's a lot of well-funded companies jockeying to disrupt Victoria's Secret.

There's not really room for all of them, given that the majority have raised venture funding and their investors will be hoping for sizeable exits. We're in the early stages but as time progresses some of these startups will either fade into oblivion or cannibalize one another.

For now though, there's enough out there with unique, customer-centric approaches that the lingerie industry should be feeling a wee bit nervous.

[Image by Helmut Newton via Media Bistro]