In my new Fashion Insiders series, I'll be speaking to successful people that I admire in fashion and retail (that are incidentally all women at the time of writing). I see it as a chance to get behind the curtain and have a nose around in every aspect of the industry. I'll be speaking to directors, founders, buyers, designers and much more.
For the first instalment, I caught up with Georgia Larsen, the founder and director of Dora Larsen, a lingerie brand devoted to colour in a world pretty much saturated in black and nude. Now beloved by WGSN, Vogue, superstar bloggers and underwear insiders everywhere, Dora Larsen was only officially launched last summer.
Georgia, an ex-lingerie buyer from Topshop, started working on Dora Larsen two years ago after seeing a gap in the market for a brand that focuses on colour combinations, combined with expertise in fit and support. Her background helped her understand the current market, gave her contacts with the right suppliers and an in-depth knowledge of sales and customer reactions.
We talk about how it was scary starting the business, being strong, taking it personally and about how being subtle is sexier. She gave me her tips on dealing with pressure, managing every role in an emerging business and how to care for underwear.
Congratulations on the success of Dora Larsen over the last year or so. How do you describe Dora Larsen to people for the first time?
It’s all about colour and how colours can be combined together to create a feeling. It’s all about fit, and comfort too. It’s every day, but it’s also special. I actually think we have a very varied customer, which is important to me. Each colourway reflects a different girl, and we also offer different shapes for different needs. We make sure we offer bra’s for small busted girls, as well as E/F cup girls. Pads, no pads, we want to be the ‘go to’ brand for anyone who wants to inject a bit of colour into their lingerie drawer.
How much preparation did you do before starting your brand?
I always had it on my mind when I was working as a lingerie buyer, and I guess this was part of the ‘prep’ in itself as I was always staying aware of what customer reactions were like to particular styles we produced. But ultimately, I produced something that I wanted to wear myself, that I felt wasn’t being produced by another brand. I wanted something available in different colour combinations, each one would suit a different mood or feeling. For example, I usually make sure that there’s one ‘bright’ one, a ‘sophisticated’ one and an ‘experimental one’. I also wanted something that was super flattering, comfortable and not overtly sexy. Rather it was ‘subtly’ sexy (which I think is ultimately a lot sexier anyway!). I’m constantly on the look out for new lingerie brands (and still am), as well as a genuine interest in the new collections each brand brings out every season, this helps me a lot with regards to knowing my market and competition. I think knowing the market was really important for me, to establish myself as different from the rest.
How did it feel to finally take the plunge?
RIDICULOUSLY scared. I had this intense feeling of ‘what if it fails!!’ for at least a year and a half, but fortunately, I think we’ve got to a point now where I feel really happy with what the brand has achieved so far, of course, it’s important to never get ‘too’ relaxed!
Dora Larsen has now been in business for over a year. Has it flown by?
It’s odd as yes, it has flown by, but at the same time, I can’t imagine or believe I even had a life before it?! The best bit has been the extreme highs of getting a big piece of press or achieving a high profile retailer. There is nothing more exciting or satisfying. The biggest challenges have been the moments when things go wrong. You want it to go so perfectly all the time, that any setbacks are pretty devastating. It’s hard to stay strong when all the responsibility is on your shoulders. While I think I have the right personality to run a business, my fault is that I take everything too personally, I’m too sensitive. I’m a lot tougher now than when I started though!
Do you have any tips for someone wanting to start their own brand?
100% know your market and where there is a gap. It’s the most important thing in the world. There are millions of insanely beautiful lingerie brands, producing some of the most gorgeous things in the world, but unless they look different or offer a different service/price point, they don’t grow. Be aware that the hardest part is production, if you don’t have experience here, then it’s wise to get help. Always stay positive, take the attitude of YOLO, and remember you’ll never regret it!
It's definitely easier to start a brand these days. I think we would have needed a lot more money in the early days to gain customers, as we may have needed to advertise. Also, the internet has opened customers minds to trying new brands, rather than just always relying on the old ones. It’s caused more competition, but it’s only healthy, as designers are pushed into putting in more effort in my opinion!
Lingerie is an extremely technical area of the industry, have there been any unique challenges you’ve faced that perhaps clothing brands wouldn’t?
Oh yes!! Just changing a fabric to be of a different quality, even if it's exactly the same design, can affect the fit enormously. Fit is 100% the most important thing in lingerie, if you get it wrong, then you won’t sell your range. It’s that simple! Thankfully, I already had some experience here, which helped!
Are there any trends in the market that concern you or that you’re excited about?
I love the importance customers put onto transparency these days, it’s amazing that people are so much more aware of the ethics of the brands they’re buying from. Although I would like there to be more education on this… For example, we get our product made in China, and China doesn’t always have the best reputation. Which I think is unfair, as our factory has very high ethical standards, and is also expensive to produce in. There are many ‘unethical’ factories in Europe and the US. People need to be more aware of this.
It hasn't really affected us yet but I think Brexit will if tariffs are introduced in Europe. I think as we are now quite worldwide, we don’t feel too negative and like we rely on Europe too much. What will be will be, if it’s tough in Europe, we’ll deal with it, everyone will. I think it will affect the big businesses more than the smaller ones.
Do you still work with others and how has that compared to your previous roles?
Yes, mostly my husband, and we do tend to end up shouting at each other, as he’s very logical and I’m very chaotic! But I have a lot of personal day to day interaction, with my supplier, with retailers, customers and I currently employ an assistant too.
In my old job I was often told I was ‘too nice’. But I think this has worked out a lot in my favour running the brand. Being ‘nice’ has encouraged others to help me out a lot, and anyone I’ve employed has felt comfortable and confident in the job they’ve done for me, which has brought out their best work. I’m not a pushover, but I don’t believe in being overtly professional or bossy with people. It just makes them nervous and they end up making mistakes.
Is it hard being the designer, buyer, packaging expert, merchandiser, marketer, social media manager, logistics and every other role in the business?
Packaging expert yes!! I hate all the logistical side, it’s a nightmare! I also hate the accounting side, but my husband pretty much does that now. I’ve surprised myself by how much I love the sales side! The designing is fun, but definitely not my favourite bit as I find sketching boring after a while. The strategy element to it is probably the most exciting.
I use an agent to help me with patterns and fit. I’m not trained as a technical designer, so this is important. I use a graphic designer for my lookbooks, but everything else I do myself. I taught myself Photoshop, which helped a lot. My husband is a photographer and accountant, which also helps a lot! My studio has warehouse space upstairs, which is invaluable, as I’ve heard it's pretty tough managing warehouse logistics, and warehouses based in London are hugely expensive.
Tell me a bit about your fashion journey; when you fell in love with it, how your education, work and life led you to this point in your career
I don’t have any creative education actually if I’m honest largely because I was a lazy teenager that liked going out too much, and knew art would take up too much of my time…! I always drew and made clothes from an early age though, and set up a fashion blog at 18. The fashion blog really helped me actually get a job in fashion, and then I coincidentally was placed on the lingerie department at Topshop, an area which I’d never had an interest in before. But took to it immediately!
Topshop taught me the basics with regards to production, dealing with people, trends, range planning and so on. But I’ve never liked being told what to do. The best bit about what I do now is having freedom and confidence in my own decisions and opinions. Understandably, at a big company, you have to be very conscious of everyone else’s differing points of view.
As a buyer I learnt negotiation skills, organisation, management of teams, range planning (very important!), fabric sourcing and quality control, knowledge on suppliers, presenting to management in my old job is a bit like presenting to a buyer now.
Do you feel more pressure now that you have your own business and how do you deal with it?
Yes, but it’s a different kind of pressure. It’s a more empowering pressure I suppose, as you don’t have someone telling you what to do. But in many ways its more stressful, as all the responsibility is yours. I don’t deal with it very well, lots of sleepless nights!! I need to start meditating or doing yoga!
I’m very fortunate that I share my studio with another brand, so we have quite a lot of hustle and bustle! I would recommend anyone to look into sharing a studio, or get involved in a co-working office space. It makes the world of difference to your every day, and it’s amazing to get feedback from others, they end up being integral to the decisions you make in your business.
My husband is my ‘rock’ I suppose!! The business is basically his too, he gets so involved. If I’m completely honest I don't really keep balance in my life…! I find it hard to switch off, but I have always been like that, I was like that at my old job too. The hardest bit is I can’t really go on holiday or enjoy a weekend without emailing. But I do think this is largely because the business is so new. This problem has got better with time, and I think will continue to get better. However, I don’t work late. I’ve always hated working late, and would rather work on weekends. This is an advantage, as I definitely get to enjoy my evenings now, and that makes the working week seem easier.
How does it feel when you’re featured by large publications and your garments are worn by world famous bloggers? Do you ever feel like you can stop and take it in or do you feel like you’re always on to the next thing?
It’s very surreal indeed! It doesn’t really make sense in my head at all! It’s always onto the next thing for sure! There is a big part of me that doesn’t really reflect on what I’m doing half the time, I just do it!!
We’re constantly told how important social media is for brands. Can you tell me about some specific occasions when it’s really boosted sales or you’ve seen how it raises the profile of your brand?
Yes, interestingly, we’ve gifted to a very high profile fashion blogger before, who posted a gorgeous picture of herself in the underwear. We didn’t get many followers from it, and definitely no sales. We also gifted to another blogger, but this girl a bit more like a Zoella, very personable and more ‘normal’. We gained nearly a thousand followers and a number of sales after she just posted a story on Instagram (so not even an actual post!) I think it depends on the influencers. Some influencers look incredibly cool and perfect, but people don’t tend to listen to them as much as they can’t relate.
Instagram is definitely the most important, as it’s the most visual and we can easily show what inspires us on it. It’s very good at getting across the ‘image’ of your brand. Facebook is good too, but I don’t feel that people take it as seriously. We definitely get the most sales from Instagram. Twitter is pretty dead for us! Pinterest too… We still have them, but they’re nothing like Instagram with regards to gaining customers.
Do you wholesale and if so how have you found this?
Yes, wholesale is the majority of my sales, I love it as it’s a way of getting your brand ‘out’ there for people to try on, and expand into new countries. It’s tough margin wise, however, I didn’t realise the markup retailers needed to make in the early days. It’s important for me to keep price down,
Do you visit trade shows and how useful do you find them?
I love them! They are by far the best way to get your product into stores. Which is understandable, as all buyers want to see your product in the flesh before buying it. They’re exhausting to do, but also really exciting. They cost a lot of money, but the return is far beyond any other marketing tool.
I want to expand into new product areas – swim, nightwear, accessories, you name it! I also want to ‘crack’ America at some point, we plan to do a trade show in New York fairly soon so hopefully, this will open some doors for us.
What are your key lingerie trends for AW17?
Well, seeing as I’m all about colour, definitely shades of red and mustard are key.
What can we look forward to from Dora Larsen over the next few months?
We’re insanely excited about the launch of our SS18 collection, it sees us bring in new shapes, pads (!!!!), E/F cups and of course exciting new colours. We’ve also decided to boycott Photoshop going forward, in an aim to maintain total transparency. It’s also important to me on a personal level, owning any business has to reflect your beliefs too, otherwise, it can never be truly authentic. We’re also excited to expand quite rapidly in the Asian market, in particular, Japan, China, South Korea and Kuwait. We have a Japanese website launching soon which is exciting!
I think I’m just constantly doing so much research all the time, on Instagram, on Pinterest, looking at the fashion week shows, I’m always being inspired by what’s going on socially and culturally. It’s a natural interest of mine though, it’s not something I feel I have to force myself into doing. I think I was less interested in fashion when I worked for a corperation for some reason, maybe because I wasn’t as happy, I rejected it a bit.
Finally, do you have any tips on how to care for lingerie?
DO NOT PUT IN THE WASHING MACHINE!!! Always hand wash, in cold water. Make sure you have your cheap pants for the washing machine, as I know it’s a nightmare to do this for every pair. But savour your expensive pairs!!