By GREGORY ZELLER //
Most startups must deal with a few curves. And then there’s Impish Lee, the Sea Cliff-based lingerie maker founded by sisters Noelle and Kali Ventresca.
Manufacturing intimate apparel wasn’t part of the discussion when Noelle was studying music business and film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and Kali was an art student at SUNY New Paltz. But Noelle started designing lingerie as a pastime, and Kali started photographing the designs, and suddenly Impish Lee was in business.
It started with small runs on Etsy, the peer-to-peer e-commerce site with a penchant for the handmade, then a modest wholesale deal with Urban Outfitters. While the Pennsylvania-based multinational clothier was an impressive get for the two-woman show, it was also an eye-opener, Noelle noted.
“Experiencing the wholesale side of the retail business really motivated us to move away from wholesaling and into more of a B2C model,” she told Innovate LI.
In what Noelle calls a “very huge pivot,” Impish Lee would go where no lingerie designer had before: an online shop offering customized garments based completely on user input.
The company left Etsy and refocused on building a new website around an “online configurator” that would enable shoppers to design their own garments. The sisters completed a successful $15,000 Kickstarter campaign and raised another $30,000 in personal and family/friend investments, using the funds to rent space – they lease about 600 square feet inside a Sea Cliff art studio – and purchase manufacturing equipment, including industrial sewing machines.
They also hired Austrian software developer Combeenation (link alert: bring your German dictionary), a cloud-based Software as a Service provider specializing in “configurator management systems.”
With Noelle as CEO and Kali as chief creative officer, Impish Lee officially relaunched in November. At its heart is the configurator, which starts with a type of garment – from bras and panties to full-flowing robes – and lets shoppers choose the lining, fabric and finishes.
Starting with 25 different designs and 50-plus fabrics, the configurator ultimately offers over 30 trillion possible combinations, Noelle noted. (We didn’t check her math.)
More remarkably, every custom-designed garment is stitched, by hand, by the sisters or their one part-time seamstress.
“We definitely can’t scale up incredibly quickly,” Noelle said.
Another big challenge is marketing the design-it-yourself boutique, not easy for a cash-strapped startup with no advertising budget invading a marketplace filled with established competitors.
Instead of taking those entrenched intimate-apparel superstars head on, Impish Lee offers a more personalized experience and “a higher-end product,” Noelle noted.
“We’re not really competing with Victoria’s Secret or other companies selling in a lower price range,” she said.
And with the online configurator, “the customer creates a personalized experience,” Noelle added. “You don’t just go to the site and pick something and click ‘buy.’”
That ability to “create something that’s one-of-a-kind, that is their exact size, that only they have,” will go a long way, the CEO said – but only if the bootstrapped startup can “get to the point where we can educate customers about our website.”
To get there, the Ventresca sisters are targeting social media. While it doesn’t always translate to sales, posting pictures of beautiful women in lingerie never fails to attract attention – “We get a lot of likes,” Noelle noted – and they’re also working directly with bloggers, who are beta-testers, of sorts, for the personalized lingerie-design experience.
“It’s really giving shoppers some confidence in purchasing with us,” Noelle said. “When somebody they admire goes through the experience and purchases something on our site and loves what they’ve made, it gives others a little more confidence.”
The entrepreneurs are also planning YouTube videos to show potential customers how the online configurator works. Traditional advertising is cost-prohibitive right now, but according to the CEO, that’s not a terrible thing.
“Our lack of funds has kept us from blowing up, and that’s been a good thing, in a sense,” Noelle said. “We want to grow sustainably, so we can build a business that will actually last, not a business that gets a ton of early investment and can’t keep up.”
Sales have been mixed so far, according to Noelle, who described a “whirlwind” six months filled with “incredible feedback from customers” and a recurring theme that the American Dream is not for the fainthearted – a lesson not lost on entrepreneurs who handle website design, product manufacturing and just about everything else themselves.
“Thankfully, we have each other,” Noelle said. “Kali and I aren’t just sisters, she’s everything to me, my best friend.”
While keeping up with current demand is tough, the sisters do have a growth plan, including incorporation of high-tech upgrades – computer-aided design software, laser cutters and even a mobile app that take pictures of the customer’s body and runs them through an analysis algorithm, creating a more intuitive customer experience.
Those upgrades will require “a decent capital investment we don’t have right now,” Noelle noted, as will expanding Impish Lee’s manufacturing capabilities beyond what the sisters and their part-time seamstress can produce.
For quality- and cost-control reasons, off-shore manufacturing is not an option, according to Noelle, who said she’d consider appealing to outside investors “only when I think we’ve reached the point where we’re a viable investment.”
For now, Impish Lee is focusing on those social media collaborations and working with mentors like Phil Rugile, who runs LaunchPad Long Island’s Huntington co-working space. The company is also working with the Long Island office of the Albany-based Workforce Development Institute, which is investigating state business-development resources that might be available.
That level of assistance is crucial to the plan, according to Noelle, who suggested a slow seduction of the marketplace might be the startup’s best chance.
“We have some very big dreams that might not happen within the next six months,” the CEO said. “But if we can survive our first year in business, we’ll be looking to incorporate some really interesting technology, and we’ll see where the path goes from there.”
What’s It? Online customized lingerie boutique
Brought To You By: Entrepreneurial sisters Noelle and Kali Ventresca; the name comes from Noelle’s middle name and her “sassy” personality
All In: $45,000, including a $15,000 Kickstarter campaign and family/friend investments, for equipment purchases and software development
Status: The secret’s out