A Photo from Lille Boutique’s 5th Anniversary Party
Portland, OR lingerie boutique, Lille Boutique, recently celebrated its 5th year anniversary. I visited Lille almost 3 years ago, shortly after moving to Seattle, and was amazed by their style…which reminded me more of an opulent ladies’ dressing room than a typical lingerie shop. Lille Boutique is also one of the few independent lingerie boutiques that allows for a comprehensive online shopping experience. In this interview, Sarah Wizemann, Lille’s Founder, talks about why she started her boutique, the role of tradeshows in determining which brands she picks up, and her advice to aspiring lingerie entrepreneurs.
For more advice to lingerie businesses, take a look at Ellen Lewis’ interview from last year – “How to Break Into the Lingerie Industry.”
1) Thanks so much for taking the time for an interview with us, Sarah! I know you’re super busy, and I definitely appreciate sharing your expertise with my readers. Every week, I get a ton of questions around starting and running a lingerie boutique. Why do you think so many people are interested in the lingerie industry now, and specifically in starting their own shop?
The lingerie industry has been experiencing a sort of renaissance period these past few years, particularly in America, with more and more young women getting into the business. I think today’s body-conscious fashions, as well as the growing popularity of the ‘innerwear as outerwear’ trend, have contributed significantly, but I also feel that it was a case of innovation arising out of necessity.
So many of the old lingerie houses failed to respond to their customers’ needs by staying on trend and adjusting their prices in light of the economic crisis, so there was a void in the market just waiting to be filled. I am so thrilled to be able to support so many up-and-coming young designers who are manufacturing in a morally and ethically responsible manner, creating fun, fashion-forward lingerie for modern women that is priced appropriately for the amount of work going into each garment. As for ladies interested in opening their own shops, I think that trend can also be traced back to the economic crisis and the desire to be your own boss. I know that was a huge part of my motivation!
2) You probably don’t know this, but I visited your store a few months after moving to Seattle and I thought it was absolutely gorgeous. What made you want to open Lille Boutique? And what’s the story behind the name?
Thank you so much for your kind words! I have always had a love of fine lingerie and an appreciation for beautifully constructed garments, not to mention an obsession with the 1920s, when the flappers liberated themselves from the corset. My mother used to be a seamstress and a costume designer, and I was a ballet and modern dancer, so she made a lot of my leotards and tutus throughout my adolescence. Dance costumes and lingerie have a lot in common in terms of construction, so I think that was the seed that sprouted my lingerie obsession.
When my husband and I moved to Portland from New York City in 2005, I realized that many of the brands I had come to know and love were not available here, so I started doing my research and saw that there was a great opportunity to fill that niche. I feel so fortunate that the ladies of Portland, as well as our online customers, have an appreciation for what we do and have continued to support us so loyally over the past five years! The store is named after the city of Lille, France, which, along with Calais, used to produce fine bobbin lace at the turn of the century. It hearkens back to an appreciation for quality, hand-made, delicate things and an bygone era, not to mention my own Francophile nature!
3) Tell us some of the most challenging things about running your own boutique. And since it’s no good to stay in a negative headspace, what are some of the most rewarding?
It’s funny, but the best and worst aspect of running your own boutique are one and the same: you wear a lot of hats. This keeps things fresh and exciting every day, but it also means that you work non-stop and have a hard time turning off at the end of the day. In any given moment, I may be acting as a buyer, visual merchandiser, trend forecaster, party planner, photo/video shoot production manager (those are all the fun ones!) or I may be juggling scheduling, handling payroll, dealing with customer returns and QC issues, or simply washing dishes after an event! It’s fantastic for people who can’t sit still, like me, but it can also be very anxiety-inducing, as anyone who owns their own business will affirm. You’re always wondering if you remembered to check everything off of your endless To-Do list.
4) A lot of designers, especially independent designers, read The Lingerie Addict. What goes into deciding whether or not you carry a new line? Does lingerie market (CurveNY, for example) factor at all into that decision?
There are so many factors to take into consideration, and I think they really vary quite a bit from store to store. It’s interesting how often a designer will tell me that something is “their best seller” but that clearly is not for the Lille customer. We definitely do not fit into the lingerie store mold! But I would say that the most important determining factors are as follows, in order of importance:
1. Do I love it?
2. Does the quality justify the price point?
3. Is it fulfilling a need?
4. Is the designer manufacturing in a conscientious manner?
5. Can I sell it?
Curve is a fantastic market, and we attend it every season religiously, but I scour the earth for new lines, and it makes no difference to me if they are showing at Curve, in a showroom, in a hotel room, or at their apartment. In fact, I prefer the latter, because it allows you to get inside the designers head and have a more intimate knowledge of their raison d’etre.
5) I have to ask…what’s in your personal lingerie drawer? Any faves you come to again and again?
I’m so glad you asked! I recently acquired an incredible vintage card catalog from the 40s that has about 12 drawers, all of which are very deep and approximately as wide as a bra folded in half. My dear, sweet husband lined them in hardwood that was left over from renovating our house, so each drawer has a nice, smooth surface.
I organize my lingerie by brand, with my favorite everyday basics in front, and the lesser-worn, special-occasion lingerie in the back. My absolute favorites are Stella McCartney, Eres, Princesse Tam Tam, and Huit for everyday underwire bras and boyshorts, Malia Mills for swim, The Lake and Stars and VPL for fashion-forward, peekaboo bra outfits, and Araks or Eberjey cotton for comfort, especially when I travel.
6) What word of advice would you give to aspiring lingerie entrepreneurs?
Put your heart into it, and try not to listen to what everyone else thinks you should do. I’ve seen a lot of young designers launch a beautiful new brand, then completely change stride for their sophomore collection because of buyer feedback (i.e. we need you to make more padded bras!) I think it’s important to take into account what the customer wants, but you have to follow your dream and listen to your own inner voice, otherwise the collection won’t have any integrity. It’s also extremely important to get the fit right, even if that means you have to go through 20 different fittings and change factories as many times as is necessary.
7) Last thing…congrats on recently celebrating your 5 year anniversary! What’s next for you, Lille Boutique, and Lille Trousseau?
Thank you so much! We are so happy to still be here in light of economic crisis. It’s been a labor of love, and a testament to perseverance for me and so many of my friends who also own small boutiques. Hang in there, ladies! We have our sights on California for the next possible Lille location, but I also love Seattle and Vancouver. Only time will tell!
***Treacle is a 25 year old knickers junkie who started writing because her friends threatened to tape her mouth shut if she didn’t stop talking about her underwear. As a blogger, she interacts constantly with the people this industry needs most—customers. The Addict Expose is all about bringing you, the lingerie store owner, the perspective of the lingerie consumers. She welcomes lingerie lovers of every nation and persuasion to her blog, The Lingerie Addict. ***