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December 4, 2019

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Founder Spotlight: Michelle Lam of True&Co

We are so pleased to welcome Michelle Lam, who founded the digital intimate apparel brand True&Co in 2012 to solve one of women's most misunderstood tasks: finding the correct bra size. Now, beginning in her own living room, Michelle created the very first intimate apparel fit quiz together with a group of women and has 500 bras that she bought on her own personal credit card. Since then, over seven million women have taken the quiz, sharing over 200 million data points about her body, her life, her tastes.

True&Co has compiled this feedback, and through the help of the community drives incredible personalized marketing and consumer-centric product design. Michelle is here to give us insight on this hugely successful brand, which was sold to PVH Corp., the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, in 2017. 

Tell us a little bit about True&Co and how it got started and the mission behind it.

Well, True&Co started while I was completing what you called one of women's most misunderstood tasks. I had never been fit for a bra before in my life. That is not an uncommon story among our consumers. One day I walked into a department store fitting room and decided it was time to do that, and I was stuck in that fitting room for about two hours and did not find a bra that actually fit my body. And as I was looking at myself in the mirror, I asked myself two questions.

One of those questions was, "Is there something wrong with my body?" and I chose not to think that it was my body. Instead, I chose to think it was a problem with the bras that I was trying on and the shopping experience overall. And then the second question I asked myself was, "Given the advent of the internet and the rise of direct-to-consumer brands, the ability to connect with consumers, to listen to what they had to say on a scaled basis, could I create a business whose mission was to listen to women and to share the insights and the information and the desires of these women with a product development team who could create products that might better fit our bodies and make us feel great about the clothes that we are wearing?"

Intimate apparel is an incredibly emotional category, and it seemed like that if we could solve this problem for women, we were doing our part to build female identity. At the time, women's empowerment is not what it is now, even seven years ago, and I do feel that True&Co has played a really important role in making that happen in the intimate apparel space.

Yeah, absolutely, and the way that you've been able to connect with the community has been incredible. Some of the news that came out recently in the past two weeks, Shoptalk, which as everybody listening here knows is a retail and eCommerce conference, announced in 2020 they would have 100% female speakers on the main stage as well as every single panel, which is just incredible, and many folks have been following some of the struggles that companies like L Brands have run into over the past decade as well. 

Now, more consumers are looking for inclusiveness in brands, which is evident in the latest headlines. How have you seen True&Co really set itself apart and create a community that's so authentic and inclusive?

Well, first of all, as one of Shoptalk's early speakers, I really do applaud their decision to do that. I think it's a very bold move and I think that promoting diversity, particularly in the speaking ranks, is really important, so that's another reason why I'm glad to be here on this podcast with you here today.

I agree. People are looking for more inclusivity and diversity everywhere, and that I don't think has been a new desire. I think now consumers realize that they do have a voice and that they have the right to ask for this from brands. It is no longer a game of accepting again what is a product that was made for mass production and hoping that it fits you, and it's not a matter any more of looking at an image and trying to shoehorn your own definition of beauty and a perfect body shape in with what you're seeing in the advertising.

So with True&Co, it started with our mission. From our fit quiz from the very early days, the first 250,000 women who completed the quiz, they taught us something really important, and they taught us that there was this "perfect" breast shape that manufacturers naturally assume that all women in America has. I think we all know as consumers that that's not the case, and we discovered really only 27% of our consumers completing the quiz have those characteristics, which means the other much, much larger portion of the population was not being served adequately through the product.

So one of the first things we did in terms of setting ourselves apart in inclusivity was to create bras that catered to different breast shapes, and we did that with our first private label collection, which we launched in 2013. We've also taken a lot of time and care to push for more sizes. The intimate apparel industry is filled with brands who claim that they provide every single size under the sun, and that actually should cause a consumer to question, because there is a lot of time and care and frankly engineering. Engineering is a really huge part of the bra business, to make sure that the bras that are produced are the right bras for that particular size. So most recently we've gone up to a 2X size in our bestselling True Body line. We're about to launch what we're calling the all stretch bikini bottom, which goes up to 3X, and that took our teams months, if not years, to make sure that those products were high quality, that addressed the needs, that delivered on the value proposition. It's not just simply a matter of scaling up the pattern.

And as a result of that, our community understands that. They understand that we do take the feedback that they offer us and that they share with us. We do semi-automated sentiment analysis on every single piece of information they send us. We love returns. We love product reviews. We scan every word and we take those learnings back into our product development process to not only see what new products we can produce, but also to continuously improve the products that we put out there in the marketplace and to pinpoint potential supply chain issues or potential quality issues with the product so that we can proactively reach out to the consumers and say, "We've got you." That as a result has created a community that is not only authentic and inclusive, but I also like to think very kind, very accepting of their individuality, particularly the individual definition of beauty.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And the strength of the community and being able to build such a loyal group that understands your mission and wants to support that mission is really part of what has driven so much of this growth. Back in 2017, you launched a new category called "True Body" with the original bra from that launch selling out 7 times across 6 months. How did you come up with this and why do you think it was so successful?"

So just like every other product, the women of our community help us create products for the women of our community, and so in that particular case, we noticed a really interesting trend. We noticed that the number of women who wanted a push-up bra or who wanted a bra that changed their shape into something that they were not was dropping like a stone, and that taught us that natural shape was here to stay. We had also known from countless reviews and return form submissions that comfort was key, that wire-free was an emerging trend. And here's where we partner with our manufacturers to say, "Show us what you have. We've communicated the consumer needs to you. How can we partner together to find something innovative?"

The potential samples that they sent back were not great to look at. We call True Body the ugliest bra that you must try on because literally the day that the sample came in, you're ready to throw it out. And then I put on the bra over my clothes in the middle of the office, and every woman on the team stood up and looked at it, and said, "But your body looks great in it." And isn't that the role of the bra, the silent "supporter," and I do mean that pun, and as something that you wear under your clothes that disappears under your clothes. And so we launched it with the slogan of feel naked but better, because that's exactly what it does. It does not make you what you're not. It flatters your natural shape. It's flexible enough, by the way, to accommodate all kinds of different breast shapes, and it's something that women can see online and have a sense that this product could work for them because it's so elegant and so simple.

Since that launch, True Body, we now have multiple variations of True Body, again, because the women of our community have raised their hands and said, "This product is amazing, but for a woman like me, the shoulder straps are slipping," "I need a little bit more support here and there," and then you see us introducing a product line extension that is also more often than not sold out at launch in a very short period of time and has also garnered us consumer loyalty.

Yeah, that is great. How has the manufacturing changes and really the length of time that it typically takes to manufacture a new product, how does that give you a competitive advantage over larger more traditional players?

I would say that the strength of your supply chain is going to determine the quality of the product that you'll have, and I will say that established brands have more developed supply chains and had ecosystems of fabric, elastic, and other kinds of suppliers to be able to provide the best quality product possible. So I think here that the industry has made strides in terms of providing a quality product to the consumer.

I think that's the missing piece that a direct-to-consumer player like True&Co, particularly one who is so focused on what its community has to say, what we can do is offer a consumer-centric view of what are the consumer needs that should be fulfilled by that supply chain. You could have the most brilliant supply chain in the world, but if you don't know the characteristics of the woman that you're trying to serve, you're not going to give her the product that she wants nor are you going to engage in the innovation.

Yeah, and it sounds like the feedback from the community is so key in being able to close that loop from learning from the community and then turning that into a high-quality product and into kind of the next iteration.

So the holiday season is quickly approaching. This year we actually have one less week in between Black Friday and the end of December compared to previous years. What have you learned from previous holidays and how is that helping you to prepare for this year?

One thing we learned from previous holidays is that you're normally not going to buy a bra for your mom, and in our brand, our brand stands for a woman buying underwear that she would wear every day and be comfortable in every day, and that includes lingerie and a woman who buys for herself. So for us, holidays are a moment of self-care and reflection on the part of our consumer community, and True&Co is there to provide the message that we hope they have a great time and enjoy that time with their families as opposed to being worried about scoring the biggest shopping season of the year, because for us the holidays are not the biggest shopping season of the year.

The lead-up to Valentine's Day, which is right after the holidays, we're all resting up for that because we know that all consumers are coming back from their holiday plans ready to start the new year right, ready to take care of themselves in the new year and love their bodies, and that's when True really shines. Like every other business, Cyber Week of course is a major part of the business, and our challenge is always, this year more than ever, is to make sure that the elevated brand message that we have and that message of community doesn't get lost among your usual Black Friday to Cyber Monday holiday messaging.

We're all excited for True&Co and how far the brand has come. Can you give us some insight into what's new or coming up soon in the future?

True&Co was founded seven years ago, and at the time we really set the standard for what the direct-to-consumer apparel brand could look like online. We had a beautiful logo. We had a beautiful web presence, and over the years, competition has intensified in the industry. There's a lot of new entrants and a lot of direct-to-consumer companies starting to look the same, so I'm pleased to announce that over the last six weeks that we've relaunched the brand. Our direction to the team was the only thing that's sacred is the community, the fit quiz, and the name True. Everything else about the brand, let's see what we can do as we head into 2020, and the theme of #togetherwearetrue still stands, but it's a much stronger part of our brand than ever before.

We're not just about female empowerment. We're about a group of women who are stronger together and the collaboration and the sisterhood and the amazing things that come out of that, so that was one big piece of the brand. And we were even happy to change our logo, which our logo before had really special significance. It was a very deep intellectual meaning of how it came about that our community loved, but we decided it was time to become much more human in our font and in our look, and be a lot bolder as well as a direct-to- consumer intimate apparel company. Everybody loves skin tones and everybody buys a beige bra in America, but there's no reason why we can't stand up and say that our brand can be fun and playful, and really reflect the voices of the community.

So if you go onto our website, it's an all-new look and feel, and you're going to see that rollout across our wholesale partners as well. We are carried all across Nordstroms in the United States, we have two wholesale partners in Canada as well, and then we have a diffusion line called True Everybody that's carried at Target, and you're going to see a whole new look from them in the near future as well. We're very excited about that.

Yeah, some pretty exciting stuff coming up. We're in the customer service space, so a question that we always like to ask, what's your favorite customer story?

So we recently featured a story on our Instagram from a woman who wore a True Body bra and took a photo of herself with an insulin pump, and the outpouring of support from the community and the women who wrote in to say, "Wow, I have never seen a photo of someone like me represented in advertising, much less intimate apparel advertising," I think that was a very powerful story. And the stories of women who have said, "My body has changed since I've had three children." We had a woman write in and talk to us about that and the stretch marks and the weight gain and so on. And she said, "I actually look at this body now wearing True Body, thinking about the brand True, and I understand that my body is a product of my history and I've done something amazing. I created a miracle. I've created life three times, and so these stretch marks are a testament to that."

And so I think it's stories like that that give us hope that the definition of beauty is changing and that the acceptance of our own bodies is growing amongst women, and I'm just so fortunate that True&Co, the company that I founded, is able to be a part of that.

Yeah, and what an incredible mission of just being able to build a stronger community and helping women really support other women and building out that level of comfort, positivity, and, acceptance.

 

To learn more about True&Co, visit trueandco.com. That's T-R-U-E and C-O.com. A Business Insider review recently called one of the company's True Body collection bras the best bra that they've ever worn. If you ever want to join the journey with Michelle and team, True&Co was featured as one of the best companies to work for in fashion by the Business of Fashion.

The team that you're leading, you've been named as the List of People Shaping Retail's Future by NRF, Fast Company said one of the most creative people, and so if you're interested in joining this mission, check out the job section of trueandco.com as well. Michelle, thanks again for joining us.

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