Five years out of college and working in successful and challenging careers in finance and marketing, Marissa Vosper and Lauren Schwab felt something was missing. Having always loved fashion, they knew with their backgrounds they could address a real problem area within the retail market aside from just fulfilling a design aspiration. They went with lingerie and spent years taking night classes at FIT and traveling the world doing research on fabrics and factories, and not to mention tried on every bra humanely possible. Vosper and Schwab launched Negative Underwear as their answer to the lack of cool underwear options earlier this year and their second collection will be released soon. In order to keep prices low without compromising quality, they have gone the direct to consumer route via their website. A friend introduced me to the line and swore the bras were the most comfortable bras she had ever worn – a hefty statement I can now affirm!
Your backgrounds include experience in finance and marketing – how did you find your way to a lingerie line?
We certainly never expected to be underwear entrepreneurs, that’s for sure. We had this moment – maybe 4-5 years out of college – where we looked at our otherwise successful careers and felt something was missing. Both of us had always loved fashion but never pursued it professionally. Instead of waiting another 4-5 years and wondering ‘what if,’ we decided to do something about it. We started with night classes at FIT and found our way to lingerie out of a desire to solve a real problem – in our minds, a lack of cool, comfortable, affordable, underwear options. We thought our business backgrounds would better lend themselves to this kind of a market challenge, so we took it head on and taught ourselves everything about building an underwear business from the ground up.
What was missing from this market you are hoping Negative can fill?
We think about it from a few angles – first, we saw a market full of frilly, pushed-up, impractical options, secondly, a world of boring t-shirt bra basics that had zero sex appeal or cool factor. We also saw a spectrum of high-quality, well-made luxuries that were totally unaffordable for everyday, and mass-produced, polyester pieces that fell apart after a few washes. Lastly, we saw a shopping landscape that was dire – overwhelmingly over-assorted department stores, specialty stores and generic chains that didn’t fit into a contemporary definition of service or convenience.
We wanted to change all that – offering something that was both comfortable and cool, both well made and well priced, with amazing customer service and a simple shopping experience. We decided to build our company as an online-first, primarily direct-to-consumer business model to make this equation a reality.
Can you describe the process of discovering the materials and production for the collection?
Because we were new to the industry, product development took (by far) the most time in getting Negative off the ground. And with such a clear aesthetic and emphasis on fit and feel, our approach to sourcing was very tactile – sifting through thousands of materials to find only the softest, silkiest, most luxurious materials that would feel amazing on the body. Underwear is extremely intimate – we wanted our materials to live up to that role.
As such, we spent years sourcing and experimenting, meeting with the best suppliers from around the world to find our ultimate ingredients – elastics from Japan, fabrics from the U.S. and Belgium, hook & eyes from France. In a garment as complex as a bra, it’s very easy to cut corners and compromise. We consistently came back to our brand mantra of ‘less is more’ as a guide – if you’ve refined something back to less component parts, each one of those remaining parts has to be exceptional. In other words, doing ‘simple’ well can actually be quite complex.
What were the most daunting obstacles to overcome during R&D?
SO MANY THINGS! No seriously – our lives would have been so much more manageable if we’d chosen something straightforward like a wrap dress! When it comes to bras and underwear, there are so many minute pieces that all need to work together, in the right amounts, at the same time. Getting all of our suppliers to work with us, across countries/cultures, within our small quantities, as an unknown entity, without any experience in the industry… you could say that was an obstacle (or 100 obstacles!)
And on top of that, bras have WAY more sizes than regular clothes, so the amount of fit testing required to get it right is exponential. Making a great size S, soft cup triangle bra is one thing; making a great structured underwire demi cup bra that fits a size 32A-DD is entirely something else.
Did you ever have a moment of “what are we thinking!” and thoughts of giving up?
Yes and often! Since we started Negative alongside our rather demanding full-time jobs, we had to make a lot of sacrifices over the course of many years. We spent so many late nights and weekends working towards this goal – we’d be lying if we said it always felt achievable or that we never questioned our commitment. Ultimately, this is where our strong partnership came to play. Having that person to share it with, vent to, rely on, and push forward was so crucial. We absolutely wouldn’t be here without each other.
What is the division of labor between the two of you?
As a team of two (give or take a few interns and partners!) we do almost everything ourselves. Which means we both do a bit of every piece of the business. At the moment, given our backgrounds and networks, Lauren is handling much of our product development, production, events and partnerships, while Marissa is taking on marketing, PR, customer service and fulfillment. The reality is, we spend so much time together that we both feed one another’s roles. And of course that doesn’t begin to describe all the moving pieces – nor is it very reflective of the happy chaos that ensues, but it gives a taste of who’s spending more time where.
Why did you decide to sell direct to consumer?
There are a few reasons. First, because it allows us to source amazing luxury quality materials from the best suppliers while maintaining a definitively non-luxury price point. That equation isn’t new – Warby, Everlane, Bonobos – they’ve all blazed the trail.
But, second (and equally important), being direct to consumer allows us to set the standard of what it means to interact with Negative as a holistic brand – not just a product on a shelf at a store we don’t run. We get to define our service principles, we get to interact first-hand with our customers – to hear their praises and critical feedback – we get to leverage this invaluable data as R&D to help feed our product development process and continue to improve the line. To us the alternative is so much less appealing.
Most women hate bra shopping – how do you simplify this experience as an online-only brand and get customers to trust you?
Bra shopping is the worst! When we first started exploring this concept, we did a survey of close to 1000 female friends on Facebook. We learned that not only were women dissatisfied with their current lingerie options from a product standpoint, but (and even more so), they really disliked their current lingerie shopping experience: overwhelming, over-assorted, frustrating, confusing, uncomfortable.
With Negative, we felt it was important to simplify in a strategic way – it’s why we have such an edited collection on our site, it’s why we encourage our customer to try on in the comfort of her own bedroom. Designing a web store that was clean, clear and easy to shop was a big piece of this – there’s very little distraction (or even copy) on our site, just highly detailed imagery. We also wanted to take away the main barrier to ordering (shipping), which is why we offer free shipping on orders over $100 (basically any two items) and free returns/exchanges on all first-time purchases and gifts.
When it comes to trust in a highly intimate, fit-dependent category, it takes time and it takes external validation. We can talk about how amazing our line is every day in every possible variation, but ultimately, it takes a personal connection to see it through. Some of this comes through great press – from the WSJ to Elle to The Man Repeller – people trust editorial voices they respect, which can come in many forms. Some of this comes from more organic word-of-mouth, and we’ve been very lucky to have quickly loyal customers who tell all their friends how much they love our line. And some of this comes through hands-on offline interaction, which is why we’ve been so focused on targeted offline events and partnerships to give women a more intimate opportunity to see, touch, feel and try on the line in-person. Having a solid blend of the three is what’s been consistently driving our business forward since launch.
Now that you’re on the heels of your second collection – what have you found to be the most challenging and rewarding parts of running your own business?
Most challenging… moving from our previous jobs/careers where we did a few clear things very well, to running a start-up where we do a million new things all the time, some of them very well, most of them fairly poorly! But hey, we’re learning!
Most rewarding… making a physical product that women (and men) really love. Our customers are amazingly proactive and we get goosebumps every time we read a personal note telling us how Negative made someone’s life better. There’s nothing like it.
Where do you see yourselves and the company in the next 5, 10 years?
We always say – we’re building an underwear empire, no question about it. So in 5 or 10 years? Hopefully running that empire!