Victoria's Secret lingerie challenged by Parade, a start-up selling underwear for all body shapes, founded by 24-year-old Cami Téllez

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

Cami Téllez never liked buying underwear, but maybe that’s why the 24-year-old is suited to take on Victoria’s Secret.

As a teen in Princeton, in the US state of New Jersey, her visits to the biggest retailer in women’s undergarments left her feeling inadequate, or worse. There were the images of supermodels in that faux boudoir setting cribbed from some male fantasy. And then came the products, like a push-up bra called the Bombshell that promised to add two cup sizes.

Victoria’s Secret “made me feel like I wasn’t enough”, said Téllez, a first-generation American whose family is from Colombia. “It wasn’t a brand for me or for people who looked like me.”

By the time Téllez entered her senior year at Columbia University in 2018, she’d had enough. In her eyes, Victoria’s Secret was still helping maintain a “cultural hegemony” over what’s supposed to be pretty, and that was hurting women. #MeToo was in full swing.

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

Parade founder Cami Téllez held a quick Facebook survey to find out how women felt about buying underwear.

Others had to be sick of this, too, she thought. She aimed to find out by posting online polls in Facebook groups. Téllez got 10,000 respondents in two days and a definitive answer. No matter which part of America she asked, attitudes were the same: lots of women disliked buying underwear, too.

From there, Téllez moved quickly. She created a 40-page plan – including a logo – in two days. The brand was called Parade because the word “feels celebratory, but also it’s about collective action”, she said. In early 2019, she dropped out of college to pursue her idea. About six months later, she secured her first investors.

Despite being in her 20s, Téllez had been around the start-up world for some time. Her father, Omar Téllez, has worked as an executive at young tech companies. (He doesn’t have a formal role at Parade.) She also had a job at an online mortgage start-up and interned at a venture capital firm.

Anchored by colourful basics starting at US$8 and marketing filled with diverse faces and bodies, Parade won over teens and younger 20-somethings – the oldest members of the Generation Z cohort that established brands are desperately trying to lure. A little more than two years after its debut, Parade is valued at US$140 million.

The company declined to share revenue numbers. However, according to Bloomberg Second Measure, which analyses anonymous credit card transactions, sales have more than tripled this year.

They were sold something based on their insecurities by people who didn’t look like them

Cami Téllez on respondents to her survey that led her to found Parade

“We want to become the next big underwear brand for everyone,” said Téllez, who serves as Parade’s chief executive officer and creative director.

Taking more than US$40 million from investors so far has no doubt raised the stakes.

Nowadays, the cost barriers to starting a consumer brand have been drastically reduced by e-commerce and sophisticated digital advertising. In women’s underwear and basics, there are a slew of brands, including ThirdLove and Skims, selling similar, simple designs, with marketing also aimed at various body types.

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

A model wears underwear from Parade. Its sales have more than tripled in the past year, according to Bloomberg Second Measure.

Amid the boom in digital brands, or what are often called direct-to-consumer firms, lots of companies have found a slice of customers for an initial pop, but most plateau after that. Téllez and Parade, which has 50 employees, are now at that step, essentially having to prove themselves again. And to get there, the company is leaning on a well-worn expansion playbook for brands founded online.

Parade, based in New York, is opening its first store next month in Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood. It turns out that a store is still a good way to acquire customers, and with digital ad rates continuing to rise, it’s now often less expensive.

The store “aims to rewrite the way that people interact with their underwear”, Téllez said during a tour of the unfinished store. She offered little on how exactly that will be accomplished, but more locations are being considered. “We’re going to be aggressive and opportunistic in our approach to expanding.”

In the underwear category, about 80 per cent of sales still happen in a store, according to Téllez. That’s why the brand is also working on wholesale deals to sell its goods through established retailers across the US as soon as next year, she said, while declining to discuss potential retail partners.

The company has also expanded into adjacent categories – another hallmark of digital brands – with bralettes, tank-tops and loungewear.

Parade’s ambition comes as Victoria’s Secret tries to mend itself. The brand had been sputtering for a few years, and then in 2019, long-time CEO Les Wexner’s close ties to Jeffrey Epstein surfaced. Wexner’s connection to Epstein, who was charged with sex-trafficking minors before dying in prison, renewed scrutiny of the company and dovetailed with allegations of sexual harassment in its ranks.

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

Parade has expanded into bralettes, tank-tops and loungewear (above).

All the bad publicity didn’t help matters. Parent company L Brands spun off Victoria’s Secret earlier this year into its own public company. Its executives now talk in terms of transforming a brand that still generated US$4.6 billion in sales in the first three quarters of this financial year.

Marketing has been overhauled to include plus-sized and transgender models. The angels, that group of scantily clad supermodels that tormented Téllez, have been retired. It has also brought on prominent female celebrities, including tennis star Naomi Osaka and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Victoria’s Secret is focused on “creating an inclusive environment for our associates, customers and partners to celebrate, uplift and champion all women”, the company said in response to being asked about Téllez’s criticisms.

Téllez is convinced she is tapping into an open space with a brand that’s designed for Gen Z by Gen Z. Parade aims to make customers feel good about their bodies, avoiding oversexed looks, she said.

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

Underwear from Parade modelled by actress Sydney Sweeney.

The brand’s models have everyday aesthetics, with tattoos and stretch marks. And the products don’t make people look like they are trying to seduce someone, with their vibrant colours and lack of lace and push-ups.

Targeting teenagers and twenty-somethings is a smart move because many brands are focused on courting millennials because they have more money right now, according to Janine Stichter, an analyst at Jefferies. “Parade’s really different from what’s out there,” she said.

Another big differentiator is Téllez, according to Jason Stoffer, a partner at venture capital firm Maveron, which has a stake in Parade and a history of investing in digital-first brands that includes Allbirds and Everlane.

Skims, direct-to-consumer firms, bralettes, Naomi Osaka

Parade is a celebration of diversity and inclusivity.

When it comes to start-ups, founders are often what attracts investment, even more than the actual business. Stoffer, who is also on Parade’s board, said Téllez possesses a “special” mix of business savvy and creativity.

Stoffer points to how the brand has quickly connected with customers as not only a sign of Téllez’s “incredible creative talent”, but also how the company will keep growing and defending its business.

“We see thousands of women posting selfies of themselves in their underwear on social media,” Stoffer said. “Whenever you’re taking a selfie in a way that’s vulnerable in that regard, what you’re really saying is this is a brand I trust.”

Téllez landed on a similar theme after asking women what they want.

“They were sold something based on their insecurities by people who didn’t look like them,” Téllez said of the women who responded to her poll questions three years ago. The world was changing, and underwear wasn’t keeping up.”

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