Ruben Soto is as accustomed to acclaim as he is to criticism, probably because he’s had plenty of both.
The whiz kid behind the Chicago-based e-commerce website Hourglass Angel, which sells waist-training corsets and other body-shaping undergarments, has been one of the most closely watched entrepreneurs in the lingerie industry since his small startup cracked Inc. magazine’s annual Top 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies in 2013. Hourglass Angel came in 509th that year among all businesses, and #30 in the retail sector. It’s still flying high, ranking #1188 last year after reporting a three-year sales growth of more than 350 per cent.
And last month Soto picked up another major accolade when he was one of three lingerie business owners named in the retail category of Forbes magazine’s annual 30 Under 30 list, which celebrates America’s most influential and successful youthful entrepreneurs.
As his business boomed, however, Soto also found himself at the center of a growing debate about both the effectiveness and long-term health impacts of “corset training.”
The practice of wearing restrictive compression garments to create an hourglass torso shape has been around for generations, but it achieved trend status a couple of years ago when celebrities such as Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian used social media to promote waist-training as a way to regain their figures after pregnancy.
Waist trainers are different than traditional fashion corsets or cinchers because most are made of latex, which retains heat and increases perspiration to assist in weight loss. Hourglass Angel recommends customers wear their trainer for up to 10 hours a day, and sells sport versions meant to be worn during fitness workouts.
Countless medical professionals have weighed in on the subject, typically expressing concern about the potential for long-term damage to internal organs. But without scientific studies to support their skepticism, most doctors resort to intuitive it-must-be-bad-for-you warnings.
In a widely seen episode of the Dr. Oz show, for example, host Dr. Mehmet Oz used thoracic MRI images to show what corset training “could be doing to your insides.” Dr. Oz also spoke with bariatrician Dr. Nicole Florence, who warned that waist-training could lead to an increased risk of recurrent pneumonia, severe constipation and even fainting due to low blood pressure, adding: “It’s just not healthy.” The doctors’ arguments, however, did little to dissuade a pair of female guests in the TV audience who had successfully used corsets to lose weight and reshape their figures.
The ongoing controversy hasn’t deterred Soto, whose company raked in $8 million in sales in 2014 and “higher than that” in 2015. Still, he’s careful not to overhype his products or oversell their benefits — or even dispute medical cautions.
“In the media it’s a good story to tell, but we don’t hear those kinds of horror stories,” he told Lingerie Talk.
“We’ve been selling these products for a long time. If a user measures themselves and gets the right size, the products work well and don’t have the negative impact you see in the media.
“But if someone gets overly aggressive to try and get a smaller waistline, that’s when you see problems.”
Soto, who turned 30 in January (four days after the cutoff to qualify for the Forbes under-30 list), launched Hourglass Angel in 2007 while still in college and in 2009 opened a retail location in Chicago that lasted until 2013. Despite his relatively young age, though, he has — get this — more than two decades’ experience on the front lines of the women’s intimates business.
Soto’s family owns the independent department store Almacenes Maria’s in the largely hispanic La Villita (Little Village) neighborhood of west Chicago, and Ruben started working in the family store at age 8, helping with paper work or at the cash register.
“That’s essentially where I grew up,” he said. “I did my homework in the back room.”
The store was a go-to destination for Latinas looking for fajas reductoras — plain waist cinchers imported from Colombia and Brazil that became popular in the 1990s with new mothers looking to lose weight.
Soto worked in all areas of the business, and when he was old enough to drive he would staff the store’s booth at local swap meets and flea markets. He took special notice of the growing number of customers who requested fajas and, when he got to college, he launched the first Hourglass Angel webshop to see if there was a wider market for the shaping garments.
“Initially it was just a small thing,” he said. “I would answer customer service emails and calls after class at college.”
After graduating with a business degree in 2008, Soto helped out with the family business briefly, until Hourglass Angel commanded his full-time attention. Today, the company has 21 employees and specializes in a wide range of waist-training products mostly from Colombian brands like Ann Chery, Squeem and Vedette.
After more than five years in business, Hourglass Angel turned into an e-commerce superstar almost overnight, all because of a single, unexpected social media benefactor — Kim Kardashian. In October, 2014, the ubiquitous reality TV star posted an Instagram photo of herself in an Ann Chery corset and proclaimed she had become “obsessed” with the waist-training craze following the 2013 birth of her first child. Other celebs (and other Kardashians) quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
“The last two months of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015 were really big just because of her influence,” Soto said. “Overnight our traffic doubled and our revenue doubled, and from there it stayed elevated for quite a while.
“She took the product from being a little more underground to being mainstream overnight. It was really impressive what the (Kardashians’) impact was.”
The celebrity bump not only boosted Hourglass Angel, it also pushed the market for waist trainers — which were originally developed as utilitarian post-surgical garments — in new directions.
“When we first started, we just sold black and beige,” Soto said. “But after Kim Kardashian, all the colors started to sell.
“We’ve seen a lot of innovation involving materials, fastenings and more fashion. We’re seeing it mature as a market.”
Perhaps to offset the negative publicity surrounding the waist-training craze, Hourglass Angel markets its products as supportive accessories for health- and fitness-conscious women.
The company says its mission is to help “women redefine their body image while staying true to who they are,” and the website includes a blog filled with workout tips, diet plans and health-related topics. And rather than make outlandish promises about weight loss, Hourglass Angel instead promotes benefits such as optimized workouts, improved posture and elevated confidence that come from wearing the tight garments.
“Lots of women who try waist training are not disappointed with the results,” the company says in an understatement that is at odds with the sheer hucksterism often associated with other weight-loss products. “Wearing a waist trainer feels a lot like receiving a constant hug.”