The following article is part of the "30 minutes" series, where Retail Dive talks to top executives about some of retail's hottest topics. For more, check out our landing page.
Helen MearsChief Design Officer at Adore Me
Mears joined Adore Me in 2013 and has led the design team since. Prior to Adore Me, Mears was a design director at top lingerie players Wacoal and Victoria's Secret.
Chloe ChanudetChief Marketing Officer at Adore Me
Chanudet joined Adore Me as an intern in 2013 and has built the company's marketing department from a team of one to around 25. Prior to Adore Me, Chanudet previously worked in Shanghai in multiple startup marketing roles.
Adore Me was founded by Morgan Hermand-Waiche, and he continues to lead the company as CEO today, but much of the company's direction has come from two top women: Helen Mears, Adore Me's chief design officer, and Chloe Chanudet, the brand's chief marketing officer.
Both Mears and Chanudet joined Adore Me after being connected with Hermand-Waiche — Mears said she was offered a job on the spot after speaking with him — and they've each been with the company about eight years. For a startup founded in 2011, it's long enough to remember being virtually alone in their respective departments.
"As I like to say, I'm one of the older members of the Adore Me team," Mears said. With 32 years of experience, including at Wacoal and as one of the first designers hired for Victoria's Secret's in-house design team, Mears came to Adore Me out of curiosity.
"I'd worked for so many different manufacturers and retailers and private labels and brands. But this was a time when, yes, working for a DTC company was all completely new and different," Mears said. "And of course, we grew so quickly, so it was super exciting."
Perhaps most importantly for Adore Me, Mears came with experience designing for top companies in the space — she specialized in contour fashion while in university — and was given free rein to design the budding startup's products.
Chanudet started her career in fashion e-commerce, at a company selling bespoke cashmere sweaters, and decided to give Adore Me a shot as an intern. She recalls there being some 10 people when she joined the company, and she's since grown the marketing team from just herself to about 25 people, as the company itself has grown from approximately $1 million in revenue in 2013 to well over $100 million in revenue today. This year alone, the company is growing at a pace of 50% year over year.
"I thought the product was really interesting and really fun," Chanudet said, adding that being at a growing company is noteworthy enough in retail. "Each year is like a different challenge."
Over the years, the two have played an integral role in forming Adore Me's strategy and product offerings, from launching physical stores to a lasting focus on inclusivity. Part of it may derive from the agile, scrappy nature of startups, but it's also thanks to Hermand-Waiche's willingness to hand over control, according to Mears.
"I was given so much freedom," she said. "At Victoria's Secret you're answering to a whole hierarchy of design people and then a merchant buying team, and of course there's nothing like that here at Adore Me. I don't have to answer to anyone. Morgan basically said, 'It's up to you, Helen, just do whatever you want to do.' I was able to just use all the experience that I had gleaned and gained over the years and really hone into creating a brand and a team to enact that vision of product."
Building Adore Me's foundation
At a base level, Adore Me was built on fun.
"I was used to kind of more basic products, creating T-shirt bras, creating the base of a line and then layering on the fashion over the top of that," Mears said. "At Adore Me, it was really the fashion product that was selling better than the basic product, which from a designer's point of view is a lot of fun."
The result was a product assortment that from the start was focused on fashion, novelty, prints and colors, with more basic styles developed later. With the holidays upon us, the site is filled with red and green plaid prints and products like the Gynger bra, made with a large red bow, which is consistently popular every year, according to Mears.
A carefree tone is also part of Adore Me's core marketing message, which Chanudet summarizes as "Here for it."
"A lot of brands in the lingerie industry are very prescriptive of what women should be," Chanudet said. "You had everything around the angels and I think … when we looked at the landscape among our competitors, we kind of thought, 'OK, what should Adore Me say? What is our brand about?' And what we decided was that we were not here to tell women what to do and who to be, and we were really just here to support them."
That has included building out multiple different ways to buy with the brand. In addition to the traditional pay-as-you-go model, Adore Me offers a VIP membership, a subscription where customers get a showroom every month and choose to buy a set for $10 off or skip (there's a $39.95 fee in store credit if they forget to do either), and a try-at-home model that involves filling out a quiz and receiving curated products to try on and either purchase or return, for free.
"This last model has been doing really well. It really kind of boomed also during the pandemic," Chanudet said of the try-at-home offering. The idea for it came about after Adore Me opened its first store two years ago and Chanudet was able to see women's interactions with the products and their revelations on quality, among other things, when they saw them in person. With stores being shut due to the pandemic, it's been a particularly useful feature.
"The other thing is I think we noticed that there are a lot of women who wanted some sort of style advice around lingerie," Chanudet said. Women who have been through pregnancy, for example, may be less sure about their size or in need of style advice, she said. "Being able to cater more and have more style recommendations, I think has been also helpful for customers."
In addition to the try-at-home model, the retailer's six physical stores have also influenced the company's online assortment as some sizes performed better in stores and weren't as stocked online, prompting changes. While the physical locations have taken a hit during the pandemic, prior to that the company had made "really good progress" on operating stores profitably, Chanudet said, an end-goal for any physical location Adore Me operates. Chanudet said the company was less interested in pop-ups, which she sees as brand awareness channels (and therefore less profitable investments) rather than sales channels.
"If we had a bad product, we wouldn't be a winning startup."
Chief Marketing Officer at Adore Me
In the end, though, the brand's success comes back to the product.
"If we had a bad product, we wouldn't be a winning startup," Chanudet said.
Mears credits the company's success to the variety of products they make while maintaining quality, fit and accessible price points; the frequency with which they roll out those new styles (every month); and, in part, to the flat organization structure at Adore Me, which allows her to lead the creative team and design the product with a "100% female team" of designers and planners.
"Morgan would laugh if I called him my boss," Mears said. Throughout most of her career in lingerie, Mears said she has been surrounded by women, with often whole product teams being made up of women.
"I feel like there's a lot of companies at the moment, especially the DTC brands, that really create superstars around their CEOs and it's kind of that cult of personality," Mears said. "Adore Me is not like that. We're really a team."
Design for everybody
Inclusivity has been at the forefront for Adore Me since the brand launched. Mears said that when she joined there was already a broad size range that catered to plus and other consumers, and the company has made efforts to scale its styles to every size it carries so that "there's a consistency in look of products" even when the structure has been changed to build in more support for bigger sizes, for example.
"Visually, the bras look very similar, and I think that was always important to us to be really inclusive from a size point of view," Mears said. "I know other brands talk about that being a big differentiating factor. It's a little frustrating because I think we did it really right from the beginning, and we didn't talk ourselves up enough, but I think that was a really big factor in our success."
Not all styles work in the brand's full size range, due to technicalities around fit, construction and structure, but Mears said the design team focuses mostly on styles that do. As a result, they get prototypes of products in both the regular and plus-size range (the brand uses small, extra-large, and 3X fit models) early on in the process to assess how it will work across the full range.
The commitment to inclusivity carries through on the marketing side as well. Chanudet said the company works with a variety of influencers with different body types and backgrounds, and the brand has a team to review the images they put on Instagram and vet them as a group. As part of its commitment to authenticity, the company also has a diverse marketing team and tries to be transparent about having a male CEO.
"I don't think we want to push Morgan on the forefront of our communication, but I think at the same time we don't want to hide him because that would be hypocritical," Chanudet said. "I think on the consumer facing side, the concept is just to say, 'We have a male CEO and that is what it is.'"
Internally, Hermand-Waiche tackles strategic vision, but is not involved in Chanudet's decisions on the marketing side, and the brand benefits from a company culture that makes sure all voices are heard, Chanudet said. She added that Hermand-Waiche's status as the founder of the company doesn't take away from the company's authenticity.
"I see a lot of brands that start and they have this beautiful story about why they started this company, because it's to solve a personal problem, and I think the problem is that there's a lot of companies that seem to be lying about it and just do that as some sort of marketing scheme. Which is a bit sad, I think, for the companies that are really authentic and the founder really started with a personal problem," Chanudet said. "That sort of hypocrisy, I find a bit disturbing. ... On the other side, if you have a company that started because the founder thought it was a good business idea, I think you should be honest about that."
As Adore Me has continued to grow, the brand has tested a variety of channels as well, and continues to retest them to find new ways to reach consumers.
Recently, TikTok has been a boon in terms of organic traffic — the brand started reaching out to influencers on the channel this summer — and YouTube has also been an area of investment recently that's been working well. Snapchat, too, is currently very strong for the brand, though there was a slowdown period earlier this year where it wasn't as successful.
"We always test again and again, because you never know what may happen with the audience of the different channels," Chanudet said.
While diversity has been a core value of Adore Me from the beginning, looking to the future, the brand is also starting to push more on sustainability, both Mears and Chanudet said. That includes looking at where materials are sourced from, grading manufacturers on their environmental impacts and using digital printing instead of screen printing, which uses more water, according to Mears. The company also sees opportunities for additional product offerings and is testing out new products.
"We're doing a lot on satellite brands, so kind of testing the waters in other areas," Mears said. "We have a brand called WalkPop, which is all products from the waist down, leggings, hosiery and socks, things like that. So there's a whole ton of opportunities outside of the Adore Me main brand."