In April 2016, Michelle Cordeiro-Grant left her senior post at Victoria’s Secret to launch Lively, a direct-to-consumer lingerie startup aiming to challenge the traditional branding and design of women’s intimate apparel. “Usually, it’s bras that are corseted, with lace, pushup and all,” said Grant.
Having worked in corporate retail for more than 15 years—including five years as a merchant director at Victoria’s Secret—she knew what she was up against. According to various retail reports, Victoria’s Secret has a hold on 35%-40% of the $13B market for American women’s underwear and lingerie.
“For me, creating Lively was a YOLO moment,” said Grant. “I wanted to take everything I learned and throw it out the window.” Before Lively entered the scene, other brands like Aerie as well as startups like AdoreMe, ThirdLove and True & Co had sought to disrupt Victoria Secret’s dominance. Despite newcomers and the rollercoaster of quarterly sales, the chain remains the largest retailer for women’s intimate apparel in the U.S., with more than $7B in annual sales and 1,500 stores around the world.
Nonetheless, Grant felt her former employer was dropping the ball in key areas. “Conversations like maternity and comfort weren’t really part of the program,” said Grant. “What was lacking was authenticity and real life because what we had built was really about the angel and the fantasy.” According to Grant, this was largely because men still had a role in steering the massive retail ship.
She started Lively in New York City in 2016 with a team of four women that has since grown into a team of 15, all-female employees. Lively’s products are inspired by the sporty cuts and comfortable cloths used in athleisure lines, dressed with modern prints like pressed palm leaf patterns and feminine details like a touch of breathable lace.
“At first, we were cutting waistbands off yoga pants and stapling them to bralettes,” recalls Grant. “We had no idea what we were doing. It was like a chem lab for fashion. But we realized that our product was unique, and it was different because it was inspired by athleisure, inspired by swimwear and the most functional pieces of lingerie to create what we now call leisurée.”
Within its first two years, it raised $5.5M from GGV Capital and a number of angel investors. Grant says Lively gained early traction due to Instagram and influencer marketing strategies but owes a recent jump in sales to its experiential pop-up shops. In the past ten months, Lively has netted more than $10M in revenue, according to Forbes estimates.
“I wanted to see a new way of retail, which was: How do you take the element of what a brand truly was?” said Grant. “We can’t treat it like a store. We need to create it like an experience.”
Within the first two years in business, Lively held a total of 30 pop-ups in the Northeast, mostly in New York City, the Hamptons and as far north as Boston. To build hype around events, they’d partner with brands popular among young women, like SoulCycle and beauty startup Skin Laundry.
In April, Lively raised $3M, which will fund Grant’s goal to take Lively’s pop-up shops across the U.S. She believes investing in permanent brick-and-mortar locations would be a fruitless effort, bringing Lively nowhere near Victoria’s Secret’s imprint of 1,170 stores and 60M Instagram followers, but she believes the highly interactive retail stores will build a loyal and engaged customer-base. Currently, the startup has 100,000+ followers and 10,000 brand ambassadors.
Beyond A Bunch Of Bras On Racks
The first stop on Lively’s roadshow was Dallas in January. Each pop-up has a strict budget of up to $12,000 dollars to cover not just space rental and store design, but travel, room and meals for her entire team. “When you’re a startup, you have to be really scrappy. The interesting thing is we didn’t actually think we would make money on it but we did. We had a positive ROI on that store,” according to Grant. Each pop-up is also customized to celebrate the host city. For instance, at Lively’s next stop in Nashville, the 10-day pop-up featured live musicians as well as popular small businesses in Music City.
The design of each story is also an extension of branding. Lively differentiates its stores from other lingerie boutiques by creating white, open spaces that feature more succulents and greenery than pink wallpaper, carpets, roses and carnations. “You’ll see clean lines, natural woods, and elements that always remind you of the beautiful things of nature.”
Grant tests other ways to ensure the pop-up is more than just a typical sample sale. All bras, for instance, are set at a fixed price tag of $35, so that shoppers can focus less on affordability and more on the community and brand activations. Grant says each retail project allows her startup to act nimble and scrappily. “Every pop-up we do, we see as a beta. It’s allowing us to learn and engage and react.”
Other Lively pop-ups this year will include Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Denver and Los Angeles.