Q&A with Estelle Puleston of Esty Lingerie
Having started one of the most popular online shops for independent lingerie designers, Estelle Puleston, avid lingerie addict turned successful entrepreneur, speaks to us about her start and the industry.
Estelle, could you tell us a little bit about what Esty Lingerie is all about? How did you start in the lingerie retail business?
I actually set the website up on a whim one day whilst I was studying in Paris, a few hours after the idea first popped into my head! I was doing a business degree and wanted some real-life experience of managing a company, and I’ve always loved lingerie so it seemed the obvious choice.
Now, a little over three years down the line, we’ve got over 30 independent designer brands in store and plenty more due to launch in 2013. The site is all about bringing these indie brands most people have never heard of, but who are creating beautiful pieces, together in one place.
How do independent designers reach out to you, or do you seek them out?
When I launched Esty Lingerie, I spent hours trawling the internet and social media sites for great, handmade lingerie brands and contacted them one or two at a time. I still do contact any brilliant new brands I come across if I think they’re a good fit for Esty, but I’m lucky that our brand name seems to be ‘out there’ as I get tons of emails from interested designers. In fact, I’ve worked up quite a backlog so expect to see a lot of new indie brands launching on Esty Lingerie over the coming months.
Which European brands have been successful on Esty?
We’ve sold quite a few pairs of The Mistress Collection‘s signature silk tie-sides, which are handmade in the UK. They’re such a simple and classic design, but one that’s hard to find in a luxury fabric at this price (£27.50) and such a range of colours and sizes. There’s a pair for everyone!
Love Me Sugar‘s eye masks are popular too, which are handmade in Paris. Again, there’s just such sheer variety – you can get one in almost any colour – so I think every customer can pick one out that’s perfect for them.
Which foreign brands have been successful on Esty?
We sell lots of bridal garters by JL Weddings, which are handmade in the USA, and again it’s exactly the same reason – choice! There are close to 100 styles to choose from so no matter what wedding lingerie style or colour you’ve gone for there will be a JL Weddings garter that matches it perfectly.
Knickerocker is another popular brand, also handmade in the USA, but this time I think it’s their quirky designs, funky prints and bright colours that catch the eye. There really is nothing else like them.
What is your opinion of the UK lingerie market compared to the US lingerie market?
I haven’t been to the States for some years (and I’ve never bought lingerie there) so I can only really go by what I read and see online, which seems to be that there is far more choice here in the UK, especially when it comes to the independents.
The only US high-street brand I ever hear about is Victoria’s Secret, whereas in the UK we’ve got La Senza, Ann Summers, Boux Avenue and of course Marks & Spencer, and there always seems to be another London-based handmade lingerie brand starting up each week.
Are there more opportunities in the UK for emerging lingerie designers?
I think it’s difficult to start a brand from scratch wherever you live. However, I suppose that in the UK it’s relatively easy to get to London, one of the world’s fashion capitals – it takes 8 hours by train to get there from Inverness at the other end of the country which is long but it’s do-able, especially for an important trade show or photo shoot.
In the US on the other hand, if you don’t live in central New York I’m not sure there are so many shows and such you can attend!
It also seems that there are more UK government programs designed to assist new brands. We’ve heard of some programs that help offset costs of tradeshows, do you know of these programs?
I know of a government scheme designed to help small businesses attend trade shows overseas but I haven’t heard of any inland ones. If they exist, I’d love to hear about them!
What markets (outside of the UK and US) do you feel have potential?
China has a pretty bad rep for being the birthplace of low-quality, mass-produced fashion but I can definitely see that changing in the next decade or two. The country is becoming richer and richer and the women there are going to start demanding better-quality garments.
Specifically for the UK, how healthy do you see the lingerie market?
Very! La Senza might have fallen down recently but in general high-street lingerie is still out there and still doing well – even relatively new brands like Boux Avenue have expanded rapidly recently, and La Senza’s working its way back. Plus, as I mentioned, new indie brands are popping up in the UK on an almost weekly basis so it’s definitely still a product that women love and want to buy.
Do you have any current concerns for the lingerie market (and why)?
Not particularly – as I’ve just described, I think we’re doing pretty well on the whole. I can see very expensive, high-end lingerie possibly being hit quite badly though since women (and their partners) are more likely to look to cheaper brands when budgets are tight.
In your opinion, what does it take to be successful in the current industry?
You need to be able to source fabrics and come up with designs that look great, but don’t cost the earth to buy or manufacture. You need to keep production costs down as much as possible so you can offer your products to customers at a price they’re willing and able to pay even though they may be on a budget.
What are some of the trends you have seen emerging in the lingerie industry?
Two days ago I created my first infographic for Esty Lingerie! Infographics and other visual marketing techniques such as video are rapidly becoming more popular than traditional blogging / new articles as a way to get your message across to customers, and the lingerie industry is no exception.
Also, social media has been around for a while now but it’s become even more ‘social’ – I’m noticing more and more lingerie brands actually interacting with their customers and replying to questions or comments, rather than just pushing their message out.
What style trends do you anticipate for the next season?
At the moment, absolutely everything I see seems to have a hint of ‘bondage’ – harness bras, cage frames and lots of leather and elastic straps everywhere. In fact, this is the style that the vast majority of new independent brands I’ve seen have adopted. As much as I love it (and I do love it!) it would be nice to see something refreshing and unique so I think in 2014 we’re going to see a return to a softer, more feminine look. But probably still with the odd elastic strap or two.
How important is it for lingerie designers to stay aware of other trends?
I think looking at fashion trends is always a useful source of inspiration, but in my opinion the lingerie industry and the fashion industry are pretty separate things and it’s far more important for lingerie designers to stay up to date with trends in their own industry – by attending trade shows, browsing the net and of course reading The Lingerie Journal!
What is the most important marketing tool in a lingerie companies’ arsenal?
Social media! Not only is it a brilliant way to engage with customers on a personal level, which makes them trust your brand so much more than a print ad or a TV ad, it’s almost free too which means it’s the perfect marketing choice for independent designers who don’t have a huge advertising budget.
What social media trends should lingerie designers take advantage of in 2013?
As I mentioned earlier, social media is 2013 is all about making a visual impact, whether that’s through well-researched infographics, informational videos or just pretty pictures on your Facebook page and Pinterest page.
And for Esty, do you have some exciting developments for 2013?
Plenty! I won’t reveal too much just yet but we are taking a new direction with our own-label brand, which is designed by myself. I’ve just finished putting together the concept for a new collection of lingerie accessories which I’m very excited about. Plus, we’ve got lots of new independent brands launching before summer and I’m also on the lookout for columnists for our blog to get more great content on there.