How I Started My Own Lingerie Business Side Hustle
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello there! My name is Jessica Ding and I started Love Lorn Lingerie.
Love Lorn Lingerie is a handmade brand specializing in bondage-inspired leather harnesses, lingerie and gothic accessories. I’m forever looking for ways to transform the standard “bdsm” look into something higher end, influenced by fantasy, feminism, and self-aware cynicism.
My customers tend to be women who like to feel good and look good, for themselves more than for someone else’s gaze. They are women who chase their own pleasures, who are comfortable in their own skins, or are working their way to becoming comfortable and confident. I hope that my brand can help outfit them on their journey.
At the moment, this business is still a side hustle. Between my online store and the in person events I do, revenue averages to about 1.9k per month. Not bad for something that was started on a whim!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I graduated from Pratt Institute in 2012 with a degree in fashion design, focusing on costume design.
At the time, I just wanted a job that could support my life in New York City - stability, a salary, healthcare, that whole thing. While I’d have loved to get a job in costume design, that’s tougher to get into without connections.
Being able to change is, in and of itself, a trust in your innate abilities to grow in ANY field, rather than shackling yourself to one particular look.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have connections, but what I did have was student loans and rent that needed to be paid. I was lucky to find a decent job in intimate design. But a few years in, I realized just how creatively stifling a “corporate” fashion job was - in short, I was bored. In 2014, a friend gave me a shoebox full of black leather scraps. I made my first few designs (a simple harness bra, a body harness, and a collar) and threw them on Etsy just to see what would happen. One of them sold within a few weeks (faster than anything else I’d tried on Etsy and I’d dabbled in it since I was 16). And then another piece sold. And then I got a great review. This was enough for me to continue making, to continue designing and merging my current experience in the lingerie industry with my past experience in costume design.
Then (and now), it was a side hustle that quickly became self-sufficient and provided me with both a creative outlet and extra income that I used to pay off my student loans. Everything is self-funded, I don’t have investors or outside funding, particularly since at that time I didn’t even think about taking this beyond the side hustle. I consider myself an artist and designer first, small business owner second.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Since I’m still the only one working on this business, my process is pretty simple! I carry around a sketchbook all the time that I use to scribble down designs. I pull inspiration from a variety of things (sometimes just an interesting shape on a building can lead to a whole set of designs), but I’m especially inspired by the femme fatale/ warrior woman archetype, the combination of soft and sensual against a core of steel.
Of the scribbled designs, maybe 10% of them actually make it to the prototyping stage. I map out times where I can experiment with making the designs, and it usually only takes one or two tries to nail down the right sample. Designs are loosely grouped together in sets - each set has similar design details, hardware and leather or fabric quality.
Once the fit is just right, I write down the construction and measurements and start figuring out the size grade for sizes XS-XL. From there it’s just shooting the product photos, editing the photos and posting it online. Once I finish a large group of design sets, I reach out to photographers and models to get a nice lookbook shoot done, followed by collaborations with influencers to promote the newest collections.
I have a small “studio” section in the living room of my one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. This is where I make all the pieces. The rest of my samples hang on a separate tension rack on the other side of the living room, and I take product shots in my bedroom as it gets the most natural light.
There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning when I started sourcing my materials. At the time I started the business, I had no experience working with leathers. I bought far too many leathers that ended up being too thin or soft, or too thick for me to work on without heavier machines. I’ve finally found my sweet spot when it comes to the quality of leather I like to use. Now the only problem is making sure it stays consistent. Since I buy in small batches from leather suppliers in the US, sometimes leathers end up being discontinued while I’m still trying to sell certain sets so I end up either scrambling to find a replacement or have to take a big chunk of my inventory offline. I make a point now to design with stock leathers that are staples from my leather suppliers, and to always have another design set with a different leather ready to go online.
With hardware, the sourcing difficulty came more from finding supplies that were priced well, were consistent and would allow me to buy smaller quantities. I have a few trusted sources that I order from all the time now, but I still try to use hardware pieces that I can get from at least two suppliers. In case any of them went under, I wouldn’t be quite as panicked. One of my suppliers DID suddenly disappear from the platform I was buying from them on, AND they carried the more unique hardware I was using. Luckily, I was able to track them down through their paypal address!
Describe the process of launching the business.
I built the business on Etsy first (still on there!) but I realized I needed another place to put all my lookbook images, announcements, somewhere to really solidify the branding. I funded everything myself, from my day job salary. I had little interest in taking on additional debt when I didn’t know if this would go anywhere, especially as I was still trying to get rid of my student debt.
Consequently, that meant I did pretty much everything myself since I couldn’t afford to hire someone. I built my website using Managed Wordpress and a purchased theme. I didn’t have to do much other than find the right plug ins, set up my pages, menu, payment options and upload my products. Sometimes I do think my website is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster and sometimes the plugins don’t play well together so I’m considering other options or ways to streamline it.
While I’m happy with how much I’ve done on my own, I do wish I’d just bitten the bullet and hired experts to some of the digital work for me. Changing it now will be tougher simply because of how big it is, and how much of a foundation it has.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For the first few years I had this business, I pretty much ignored marketing. The only thing I did was make sure my listings were optimized for Etsy search (not even Google search), get some nice professional photo shoots done and set up some social media accounts that I didn’t touch (but at least the handles were there).
I’m focusing more on marketing now since I can see how much not doing so in the past has impeded my future growth. I’m more active on social media, especially Instagram. As a visual platform, it’s the best for fashion, art and accessories. It’s also been the best networking tool for me as it connects me with photographers, models and influencers. Social media growth is happening, but it’s slow, surprisingly so since women in lingerie is usually a pretty popular image online. I have to be careful to avoid being too scandalous because that puts me at risk for getting my account shut down.
Here’s a shot of my current instagram stats:
The only downside with my business is that since my products are adult in nature, I can’t use Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest ads. I’m trying to work on increasing my organic traffic as well as getting my name out in the kink community. That just means stepping away from the digital world and trying out in person markets. I’ve started going to events, handmade marketplaces, etc. I work with local photographers and dominatrixes and just make sure I’m seen at various events and parties. This has led to many referrals for other events and groups along with future PR options.
I’m dabbling in Google Ads now, but not seeing too many results. If I want to continue using this, I will probably delegate that to someone else. I keep falling into the trap of trying to learn how to do it myself, and that just doesn’t work!
I’ve recently hired a digital marketing consultant to write targeted keyword blogs and build the overall marketing strategy. The blog articles tend to be about the bdsm/kink community, sexual wellness, and feminism, just a few of the subjects that I really care about and want to be part of my brand image. On the personal side, I have some posts that are inside looks to my home studio or behind the scenes of photo shoots.
I tried a few more specialized digital marketplaces, such as I Am Attitude, and even Amazon! Amazon came out with Amazon Handmade a few years ago, and I opened an account on it. However, before I could list more than two products on it, I realized that this would be a mistake. No matter how much traffic Amazon had, I felt like it would cheapen my brand. Whether or not that would have actually happened, I decided to close that down and focus on the growth on my own website.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Love Lorn Lingerie was and still is a side hustle. It’s not profitable yet; at one point it was, but as I tried to grow it, the scales tipped the other way. Luckily, it’s still going well enough where I am only working part time at my day job now.
The other days are spent on a combination of working on new designs and completing orders. I tend to spend mornings looking over my website, answering emails, ordering any diminishing supplies and looking for new opportunities. Then I go to my studio area in my living room and work on the more hands on part of my business.
Overall costs of running the business tends to be in the 1.5-2k costs per month. This includes raw materials, shipping and packaging materials, display materials for markets, fees (website, etsy, transaction fees), photoshoot costs and travel costs. At the moment, I am spending very little on marketing or ads - just about $200-300 a month. I intend to increase this with a combination of google ads, collaborating with blogs and overall heavier social media presence. Here’s a quick look of where my traffic comes from both on my Etsy and my website in 2018.
While I sell both on Etsy and my own website, Etsy still counts for about 40% of my overall revenue. The other 40% comes from the conventions and markets I go to, 10% from my website, and then 10% from my current wholesale business. If you look at the graph below, you can see that 2016 was the peak of my revenue on Etsy. As my Etsy slowed down, I’ve had to find other avenues of growth, which is what led me to markets, wholesale, etc.
The goal is to grow this enough to replace my day job. I plan to expand more into wholesale beyond just the two clients I have now. I attended my first alternative fashion trade show called LondonEdge this past February and intend to attend more as my budget allows. I am learning to be consistent and persistent, simply because being seen by people over and over again establishes a sense of stability to my brand. I won’t just disappear in 2 months after they’ve placed an order.
I’m excited to start offering more designs for men, as well as accessories like bags, and to continue creating more and more extravagant designs.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
A few of the mistakes I made in the past: tried to compete on price instead of uniqueness and quality of products; didn’t use social media enough; didn’t do any marketing.
Now I try to make sure my designs are attractive while also being different from whatever else is out there. It’s a fine line between unique and not so crazy that no one would know how to wear it. I’m still struggling with it today, testing what works and what doesn’t. Some designs are great for getting attention online, while others are the ones that actually sell. I coasted for awhile when it seemed like I was making a steady profit and would do so for the future. That clearly didn’t happen and more lower priced competition crept up on me as the strappy/bondage trend suddenly exploded a few years ago. This is what has pushed me to make my designs more unique and to cultivate my own particular style.
I also now understand that YES, I DO have to spend money and time on marketing. I was too resistant because I thought if my designs were good, then they would just sell. And if they weren’t selling, well, that just meant my designs weren’t good enough. But it doesn’t work like that unless you get really lucky! Which I’m not.
Putting more of my personal life into my business has actually been a boon for me. I tried to keep the business impersonal in an effort to seem more professional, but I realize now that was a poor move. For an independent, handmade brand, having a face to go with the designs really helps build trust with the consumer. I feel like that’s a pretty obvious statement, and it really bothers me that it’s taken me this long to figure out. I’m engaging more with my customers, and they trust me more to ensure that the quality of what they buy stays high. I do this by going to conventions and offering opportunities to buy in person (as mentioned above), as well as showing more of my life on Instagram stories. I think this also helps justify the price of my products to other people: it really shows them that it’s just one person making things in her apartment and hoping people like them.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I still use the Etsy platform, and my website is Wordpress with WooCommerce. I purchase my shipping labels directly from them, which has been the best thing ever. Waiting in line in an NYC post office is one of the last things I ever like to do, just above getting stung by a wasp.
I use fairly standard tools - Mailchimp for emails, I use Preview to schedule out and set up my instagram posts, and IFTTT to push my Instagram posts to my other social media channels.
I’ve still stuck with PayPal as a payment processor for both my online store and live events. (I was actually denied the original payment processor that came with WooCommerce because of the adult nature of my products!)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and my favorites (no surprise) tend to be ones that discuss business, entrepreneurship, science and self-development.
One of my absolute favorites is the Jordan Harbinger show. I find him to be really great interviewer and has a very down to earth quality that some other interviewers lack. Other favorites include:
- How I Built This
- The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe
- Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income
- Entrepreneurs on Fire
- Hidden Brain
The most influential book for me was actually a book that was a collection of blog posts! It’s called Rationality: From AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky. It completely changed my thought process. It’s a great intro into rational thinking that I think everyone could benefit from.
While it’s not about business, the lessons it imparts about thinking logically and making decisions based on data vs emotions is a great complement to entrepreneurship.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t be so in love with your ideas that you aren’t willing to pivot or listen to feedback. I made this mistake when I thought my designs should be good enough to not need marketing. Not so! I still love what I do right now but there is still a chance that this particular bondage trend will dry up. That’s the nature of fashion. I believe that I would be able to change up my design style to be an interesting take on, say, athletic wear or home goods if I had to.
Being able to change is, in and of itself, a trust in your innate abilities to grow in ANY field, rather than shackling yourself to one particular look. You just need to learn the rules of the new field, and practice.
Do as much as you can on your own; but after that, be ready to delegate work you don’t like or can’t do well on your own. Be ready to invest in other talent.
Get unique branding! Make sure it stands out! I’ve seen a lot of niche fashion brands starting out - but so many of them look the same that they blend together when I think about them. Even if you’re following the same trends, there ARE ways to make sure you’re not creating the exact same thing as the other person.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: LoveLornLingerie.com
- Facebook: LoveLornStore
- Instagram: @lovelornlingerie
- Twitter: @LveLornLingerie
- Pinterest: @LLLingerie
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
LoveLornLingerie has provided an update on their business!
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with LoveLornLingerie to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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