Imagine walking out of a 30 minute interview with two women you just met and feeling like the world is your oyster - like you can go out and start a fashion label if that's what you so choose. It's a pretty powerful way to feel after spending such a short amount of time with complete strangers. However, when the strangers are best friends, inspirational entrepreneurs and occupants of your DREAM studio space, it's pretty easy to quickly get comfortable. I met Lauren Schwab (below left) and Marissa Vosper (below right), founders of Negative Underwear, at their SoHo studio and immediately fell in love. Not only is their recently launched lingerie line everything I've ever wanted in an undergarment, but they are two of the most badass female business owners I've ever met.
Marissa: I'm from Colorado originally and Lauren is from Maryland. We met and became friends during college at UPenn and ended up simultaneously moving to NYC in 2006 to follow two different career paths - me in branding and Lauren in finance. We connected over a shared love of fashion and after four or five years in our respective jobs we both had this moment of "what are we doing with our lives?!" UPenn tends to drive its students into consulting, finance, medicine, law, etc... so that's what we did at first. But after a while we wanted to find something we were truly passionate about and figured if we started something on our own in fashion, we could build it into whatever we wanted.
Lexi: What steps did you take to figure out what that passion was?
Marissa: We began taking classes at FIT together at night. We did the night-and-weekend hustle for probably four years before we launched Negative. First and foremost we spent a lot of time together thinking about the fashion space and the opportunities, ultimately deciding on an underwear line because we felt it was the biggest white space. We slowly honed in on this concept and learned the industry from the bottom up.Lexi: How were you educating yourselves? Were you meeting with people, reading books? Obviously school played a huge factor but how did you come to understand the lingerie category in particular?
Lauren: It was really an organic process. We talked to anyone who was willing to talk to us from all sides of the industry. It was a lot of experimentation. We probably spent the first year researching. We would just walk into any lingerie store, try on bras and underwear and see what we liked and what we didn't like. We tried to find a sample maker and pattern maker in New York and ended up working with a woman who has a sample room in the Garment District. We would bring her the bras that we liked and we would make adjustments verbally because we didn't have any sort of technical background.
Lexi: And what sort of look and feel were you going for? How was it different than what is out there already?
Marissa: The beautiful underwear we were seeing was quite expensive and so delicate that there's no way you'd wear it everyday. At the other end of the market we saw companies like Victoria's Secret that has a feminine aesthetic but is not contemporary. Women don't want to be pushed up, sexed up anymore. We looked at the Rag & Bone wearer and the Helmut Lang wearer... she's not wearing a push up bra with rhinestones.Lexi: I completely agree which is why Negative is so appealing to me...What was the reasoning to sell direct-to-consumer as opposed to selling wholesale?
Lauren: There's a lot more flexibility and opportunity if you're in control of the brand and customer experience. We want every single piece to feel and fit amazing on the body - this makes our product much more akin to our luxury peers but because we sell direct-to-consumer, it's accessibly priced.
Lexi: It sounds like you guys are also very interested in improving the overall shopping experience when it comes to buying lingerie?
Marissa: Definitely. It shouldn't have to be a chore or hassle for women to update their lingerie. We thought if we could improve the experience by having a really simple and easy to navigate e-commerce site that was well merchandised with easy returns, etc. then the process would be much more enjoyable. Being direct-to-consumer enables us to manage the entire supply chain.Lexi: How have your backgrounds in finance and branding helped you in this new endeavor? Do you think your experience in the non-fashion world was beneficial?
Marissa: I think that is one of our biggest advantages. We came in and questioned everything because we didn't know anything. We didn't feel like we had to do things the same way everyone else has aways done them. So many fashion companies run themselves the exact same way - they have the exact same photography, materials, etc. We questioned everything...from the way the product is made to the way it is marketed and sold.
Lexi: Can you speak to the personal sacrifices you both made when you quit your old jobs to start Negative?
Lauren: It was a huge challenge. I worked at a financial firm so the hours were really demanding. A twelve hour day was a short day...many days it was 15-18 hours. So building Negative on the side was challenging. We both persevered because we believed that what we were doing was not only going to create a better product out there but we also believed that it would create a better life for ourselves. We are obviously very close and having the opportunity to work together was so exciting. I would say even up until the day we launched it was a real struggle because we had no idea what the reaction was going to be.Lexi: And what was the reaction like the day you launched?
Lauren: Fortunately it was very well received. We had an article in the Wall Street Journal and business exploded. The customer response has been insane... we get emails from customers telling us we've changed their perspectives on their own bodies and what underwear can feel like. It's been unbelievably gratifying.
Marissa: I think there is a big cultural shift for us. Being able to be in an industry where we create our own rules and establish our own culture is amazing. The New York lifestyle is very career driven and cut-throat so working with your best friend is quite refreshing - you can create a very nurturing environment. It's changed how we feel about what we do everyday.Lexi: The impact your brand has on a woman's perspective of herself is pretty powerful and obviously this comes in part from the decision to focus on lingerie. It seems like you are exceeding your expectations for the business. What if the response had not been so positive? Did you have a plan B?
Lauren: By nature we are both very cautious people. We did not leave our jobs until we had proof of concept and three full months of response. It got to a point where we could not maintain our full time jobs and run Negative so we both cut back our schedules and were working part time. By the end of April (we launched in February) it was clear that if we really wanted to continue building Negative we couldn't work our other jobs. Regardless of what happens I will forever be grateful for having taken the risk.
Marissa: I also think to be an entrepreneur you have to be unconditionally confident and irrationally optimistic. Both of those things have to be at play because if you don't feel like you are going to beat the odds then you can't start a business. I mean every odd is against you, right? You have to believe that you are exceptional and unless you believe that, you are not going to be a good entrepreneur. So I feel like it's important to be cautious, considered and calculated, which we certainly were, BUT there's an aspect of irrationality where you tell yourself, "I'm going to jump, because I believe in this, even if some people tell me it's not going to work."Lexi: What were some of the insecurities you faced and what have you learned about yourselves through this whole process?
Marissa: I think having gone to a school like UPenn where you are very much trained with the mentality that you have to make use of your degree and go down a certain career path to be successful can make you worry that you are not doing good by the opportunities you have been given. When we "strayed from the path" we worried we were leaving behind something that would have otherwise led to a very successful career. That insecurity is insular and narrow, however, and it quickly gets dispelled as you grow your business. I think people get trapped in their careers for whatever reason and feel like they can't do anything else. You feel like if you leave you'll have to start at square one and go fetch coffee for all the girls that work at Vogue Magazine... So I think that starting our own business has given us the confidence to know you can do a lot of things with your career. Just because you did something for eight years doesn't mean you can't do something completely different for the next eight years if you're a smart and driven person who is willing to work hard. A lot of people we talk to feel very stuck in their careers and feel like they have to stay on this path because it's what they've established and they're making good money at it. I love that we took a risk and have shown ourselves what we are capable of.Lexi: How did you find the motivation to go to school and work full time?
Lauren: It's definitely having a partner... You have someone who holds you accountable and shares every moment with you so when it's really hard, that person is there to remind you why you are doing it. I think you have to make sacrifices and decide whether it is more important to go shopping and have brunch and hang out with your friends or pursue creating your dream. There were lots of times that we couldn't go on trips or go out with friends but there was a point that I remember very clearly when all I was doing was having brunch and shopping on the weekends and I felt sort of unfulfilled. That's why we decided to take classes at FIT. Now we are at a point where we are starting to see payback for all the hard work. It took a long long time but you have to have the deep belief that it will come. Nothing great comes without a lot of hard work.
Marissa: I think it also came down to what our priorities were. It's really hard to know what you want to do when your 22, 29...whatever age...and I don't think Lauren and I went in thinking lingerie was something we were going to be passionate about, but building a business is something we've grown very passionate about. There are so many times in life when you question where things are headed. These moments of doubt are things we'd actually talk about at brunch with our friends and finally we told ourselves we were going to take action and do something about it. I always tell people that if you're spending your free time working on something - whether it's taking cooking classes or painting or writing - and you'd rather be doing something else, then it is not your path. We would spend our entire Sunday working together and rarely would we feel like we wanted to be doing something else.Lexi: This is more of a personal question I've been trying to answer lately, but it relates! You mentioned how socializing became less of a priority while you were building Negative, but I would say that the socializing aspect is actually very important when it comes to networking. How did you work hard but also find time to attend events and meet people that would be vital to the success of Negative?
Lauren: I mean networking is huge. Everything in life is about relationships and we never say no to a meeting. Sometimes it's a great conversation and sometimes it's not. LinkedIn has become our best friend! Very rarely will someone say no to a coffee, especially if you are asking interesting questions.
Marissa: Lauren is right and I also would say that networking gets a bad rep. You think about awful cocktail parties with name cards where you are forced into awkward conversation. Instead we look at it like we have an opportunity to learn something from every person that we meet. This mentality has changed my entire perspective on New York especially. Two years ago if I had walked into a New York Fashion Week event I would have not known one single person. Now we walk in and know 15 people! That's just from being open to learning and meeting new people.Lexi: I guess that's a good segue for my next question... How has your perspective on NYC changed now versus when you first moved here?
Marissa: Well it's cheesy to say but it's cool to get older in New York! Your friends start to be in high places and if you have cool driven friends, all of a sudden the girl that was running for coffee at Vogue is now an editor and your friend who was in coding school now has a start-up with 100 employees. I feel like there are so many opportunities now to collaborate with our friends outside of just our social lives. I like that about getting older here in New York. There really is no place like it!