[Ed. Note: Laurie van Jonsson operated the independent label Vanjo Lingerie from 2005-2009, and is the author of the new book How To Become A Lingerie Designer. Lingerie Talk invited Laurie to share lessons from her experience running a small lingerie business. Her thoughts are below, along with some images from Vanjo's catalogue.]
What can make one lingerie company successful and yet another close it doors?
I had survived the dreaded first four years of running a business, was being stocked internationally, and when I finally rolled up that last bit of elastic and turned off my machines I had just been approached by Bravissimo. I had exceeded far more than I ever thought I would.
So why close it down?
There’s no straightforward answer, but I do have the luxury of hindsight so I can share what I would do differently if I could do it all over again. Though it’s not all black and white, my mistakes are tightly woven with the best decisions I ever made. But there are certain things I have learned:
Have a good network of people around you.
I started my label when I left Thailand and moved straight to Northern Ireland, arriving with just a backpack and knowing only a couple of people. Financially it worked, as there were many grants I was able to apply for. Plus there were no jobs for lingerie design there, flights to London were cheap and I could tackle the international market with Dublin just being over a two-train ride away.
But at the start, when I was working from home from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., it became lonely and I had only the postman to distract me!
Although I didn’t have anyone close at hand, what I did have was a godsend — a friend in a similar boat who had started her own grading company in her home town in Wales. She became my lifeline, because no one else really understands (or cares) that your second batch of overlocking thread doesn’t match the first and the dilemma of whether to unpick the whole lot or just to carry on.
Never try to be bigger than you are at the start.
This is one I found hardest to sit with, having already worked for large high street stores, where everything was done fast and on a big scale. I found myself working as a one-man band, and because of the speed I knew I could go, I wanted things done quicker and better than I could physically do them.
I sometimes envied the designers who had no experience in the trade as they couldn’t compare themselves to what they had previously done. Instead of relishing the fact that I hand-made all my lingerie to start with, and needed to build slowly, to build and establish my brand, I headed straight to the top and started saying yes to all stockists who wanted me — including Topshop, which told me that they didn’t want next season’s range, they wanted this one, and soon. Then they kept upping their order and I kept saying yes, working seven days a week on the dreaded 7 a.m.-11 p.m. shift for three months solid.
If I was aiming to go high again so soon, I would make sure I have the goods to back it up with.
Don’t spend money you don’t have.
Sounds pretty simple, but when you’re in a big warehouse with every shade of elastic and trim, you do end up going crazy. Did I really need to buy 500 metres of black brushed back elastic in two varieties?
Decide the style of your brand.
When I first started my brand not only did I design lingerie, I also did men’s trunks (under the name Vanjon) and just for good measure I did men’s and women’s T-shirts. Looking back I do wonder, what the hell was I thinking? The time and money I spent on that I could have spent on the lingerie.
Save money where it counts.
Yes, another one about money, but without a cash flow you have no business. Be realistic where you can save money, and where you should spend it. To start with, I paid my model with underwear, as well as the make-up artist. I also managed to get a shoot done in a vintage shop for free by using some of the shop’s jewellery and mentioning her shop in my local press releases.
Have a business plan.
Even if you don’t have an accurate vision at the start, ensure you update your plan yearly. My first business plan was basic: who I was aiming at, a list of magazines or blogs I wanted to cover me, what shops I wanted to be stocked in. I also had a rough cash flow plan, wildly inaccurate in the first year, but each year I came back to it and I could see how and where I needed to improve.
That said, trust your instinct.
Don’t be scared if it feels right or it’s a last-minute decision to do something outside your business plan, this gets easier the longer you go on. Many people told me from the start not to include 28-inch backs in my size range because they wouldn’t sell, so I’d be wasting my time getting the fit right. From the start 28FF was one of my best sellers, and I’m glad I didn’t listen to them.
Know where you are heading.
Where do you want to end up finally? Four years in, I found myself wondering if I’d ever get out of the cycle of having not enough time or money. Self-doubt started to creep in, mixed with the fact that I was a crossroads where the label was too big for me to do by myself, but not big enough to outsource. And since I didn’t know where I finally wanted to be, I didn’t know what to do next.
Knowing I couldn’t keep up the momentum of working the hours I did with the little I paid myself, I closed down the label.
Did I regret it at the time? Yes and no. When I saw lingerie magazines covering designers I felt a stab of envy and wondered what I would do next.
Now, though, I have no regrets. If I hadn’t closed Vanjo, I would never have gotten the chance to follow my other passion and write (How To Become A Lingerie Designer has finally been finished and is available to buy). And I would never have gotten the chance to spend my time after I closed Vanjo down traveling to different parts of Europe.
Running Vanjo made me aware of how much I could achieve. I never flourished in money, but the thrill of a stockist wanting to stock your brand, or a magazine choosing to showcase your lingerie, or a customer writing to thank you for your designs — they’re the highs that you seek.
Would I do it again knowing how hard it is?
Without a shadow of a doubt. Just next time I’ll make sure that I’m where I want to be in life first, and have a plan of where I want to end up.
[Laurie currently works as a lingerie designer for a major brand in Australia. You can read our earlier review of How To Become A Lingerie Designer here.]