This is the time of year when most lingerie brands are focused on one thing: making the most of the all-important pre-Christmas sales period by unveiling holiday collections, running promotions and flooding the media with gift ideas.
But not Hayley Besheer. The founder of Kansas City’s MADI Apparel will spend next week in Haiti, giving away free underwear to hundreds of women and girls living in impoverished communities.
While there, Hayley and another MADI staff member will spend a few days volunteering with the Texas-based humanitarian group Circle of Health International, which operates a safe birthing clinic in the Fond Parisien border camps that are home to Haitians forced to leave neighboring Domincan Republic. They’ll tour nearby villages to hand out hygiene kits and talk to women about menstrual hygiene, and they’ll leave behind 300 pairs of MADI’s comfortable, moisture-wicking bamboo briefs.
It’s a small gift, but it makes an unimaginably big difference to women in such desperate circumstances.
And far from being a one-off, feel-good act of charity, MADI’s visit to Haiti is an essential part of its business. Giving away underwear is what they do — in fact, the team paid for the trip with a fundraiser in Kansas City last month, where they also distributed 400 pairs of briefs to local women’s shelters.
With a mission “to empower women through underwear donations,” MADI Apparel — its full name is Make A Difference Intimate Apparel — is probably the most unique underwear brand in America.
MADI is an unusual for-profit/non-profit hybrid and an example of the growing desire among entrepreneurial millennials to create sustainable businesses that fulfill a social purpose — what business writers have called the “profitable good”.
The company designs and sells stylish bamboo and lace women’s panties through an online shop and retail partners, but it also operates a registered non-profit charity (MADI Donations Inc.) that supports its activities.
At the heart of its business model is its buy-one-give-one pitch: For every pair of underwear sold, MADI donates a free pair to shelters and other organizations that support victims of domestic violence, rape, homelessness and natural disaster. Since entering the lingerie market in 2014, the company has made bulk donations to about 20 organizations, with another 30 groups currently on a waiting list for one of its deliveries. Next week’s Haiti trip is MADI’s first international outreach and, it hopes, the first of many.
“We are not like your typical underwear company, where it’s all about the brand and the style,” Hayley told Lingerie Talk. “We are trying to change a mindset for people to be open to a new kind of underwear brand.
“We lead with our quality-of-product and hope people see it as an added bonus that we donate a pair,” she added. “But it’s really a feel-good product. Women feel great about the product that they are buying, and women who receive a donated pair feel great knowing that someone cares about them.”
There is no shortage of compassionate do-gooders in the intimates industry — in fact, it’s one of the most distinctive and commendable features of this corner of the fashion world. Countless brands partner with charitable organizations, often supporting groups that empower other women. And for some independent labels — Empowered By You, Naja, Thinx, Naked and Pants To Poverty, to name just a few — a commitment to social change is central to their brand identity.
Few entrepreneurs, though, are as passionate about making a meaningful impact as Hayley.
“I believe I was put in this place to start this business,” she said. “I could never have seen this for my future, but I have never in my life felt more gravity toward a certain path.”
MADI owes its existence to a couple of ‘Eureka!’ moments and an unexpected lesson learned in college.
Hayley, who has a double degree in fine arts and journalism from the University of Missouri, was in her senior year in 2011 when she participated in a career-planning exercise to determine students’ personal strengths.
“My greatest strength turned out to be empathy,” she said. “Everybody else had these practical strengths like ‘organizational skills’ that look good on a resumé.
“At the time I never thought I was going to start an underwear business, but I’m a very empathetic person and that has helped me live this business out.”
Around the same time, she stumbled across an odd — and alarming — statistic that said underwear is the most needed, but least donated, item of clothing in U.S. shelters. Curious, she called homeless shelters to confirm that statistic and was encouraged to contact domestic violence shelters as well. All agreed there was persistent, urgent demand for new underwear.
“It’s one of those things that just sticks with you,” she said. “When I heard that statistic, I wanted to spread awareness and educate others.”
Hayley’s second ‘Eureka!’ moment came from her own closet, where she kept a pair of well-worn loafers from TOMS Shoes, the trailblazing social-purpose brand that pioneered the ‘One-For-One’ donation model that was later adopted by Warby Parker and other brands. If it worked for shoes, glasses and other necessary consumer products, why not underwear?
The buy-one-give-one model also mirrored the bond that often exists between abuse survivors and those who help them. Hayley hadn’t experienced domestic violence herself, but she had been deeply moved by the harrowing stories of a family member who escaped an abusive relationship years earlier — something that still motivates her today.
“Anytime I meet a survivor and she thanks us for donating underwear, I picture my family member telling me her story, years ago,” she writes on the company website. “I wanted other women who buy MADI undies to picture a woman — with a name, who matters — and know that her purchase of underwear will help a woman in need.”
Hayley, now 27, began developing MADI in 2012 and launched two crowdfunding campaigns in early 2014 that netted almost $20,000 to cover start-up costs for the business.
Her objective wasn’t simply to appeal to consumers’ charitable spirit, but to build a brand that “focuses on you as a person and makes your purchase really worthwhile.” In other words, a brand that both reflects and validates its customers’ values by selling useful, high-quality products that also benefit others.
MADI’s uncompromising altruism is evident in all aspects of its business. It uses environmentally sustainable bamboo as its fabric-of-choice in many of its designs, pays fair wages and promotes American manufacturing by producing everything in Kansas City.
MADI’s first range of six panty styles ($28-32) reached the market in March 2014 and last spring the company opened a storefront and showroom in the city’s historic Westside district. (Its first retail partner was nearby Birdies Panties, which we profiled here.) Earlier this year MADI also received 501(c)(3) charitable status for its subsidiary MADI Donations, which allows them to accept tax-deductible donations that are used to expand its underwear donations.
And last month, MADI took its advocacy work on behalf of abuse survivors to a new level with the release of a video called “Her Superpower” (below). It features four survivors of domestic assault or rape discussing their experiences while also acknowledging the “superpowers” that give them strength. The video is supported by a hashtag campaign, #hersuperpower, that invites women to show how they are “using everyday superpowers to make a difference.”
In spite of everything MADI has achieved so far, Hayley is the first to acknowledge that giving away underwear is not a business concept everyone understands.
“Some people have a hard time grasping it because it’s such a small thing,” she said. “They can’t imagine themselves in a situation where they’d never have underwear.
“But when a woman is going through so much chaos in her life, if she doesn’t have that most intimate item of clothing it’s going to be harder for her to recover. It’s important and it’s special, especially if they don’t have any.
“It’s not like we’re working miracles here,” she adds. “But it’s one of those things that really makes a difference.”