It takes a brave entrepreneur to enter a segment dominated by imports, but it seems there can still be a niche within a niche if someone is smart enough to spot it. Underwear might not be the most obvious segment in which to test that theory but Ali Wheeler, founder of Hot Knickers Lingerie, has had a steady stream of customers for her bespoke shapewear since launching her business at the end of 2016.
“My focus is on elegant, comfortable lingerie inspired by the glamour of the 1940s and 1950s combined with 21st-century fabrics to meet the demands of women’s lifestyles today,” says Wheeler, who originally studied fashion design in York and worked in Selfridges and Harrods in London before moving to west Cork in the 1990s.
Wheeler became a partner in a fancy dress shop in Clonakilty and worked there for 10 years before deciding to “finally follow my dream and become the designer I had always wanted to be.” She rented a back room in a local hair salon and started creating bespoke costumes for circus, street and theatre performers, often working with the stretch fabrics now integral to her products. Her business has grown to occupy the whole premises and is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays.
The transition into lingerie happened by accident when Wheeler used a remnant of stretch fabric to made a pair of high-waisted knickers for a friend to wear under a special outfit. “She absolutely loved them, asked me to make her seven more pairs and started telling people about them and it sort of went from there,” Wheeler says. “I tweaked the design, sourced a more lightweight four-way stretch fabric and went on a start-your-own-business course which really helped me to focus and look at things like costings in detail.”
Wheeler takes the view that comfy undies are empowering. "I don't believe in fighting against nature and forcing a woman's soft curves into a ridiculously tight pair of restricting knickers, made in 'medical' coloured fabrics that give her an unnatural shape," she says. "My designs are based on supporting what you have and following natural body lines with seams where women have seams. The majority of my designs give support to the body, smoothing a tummy or waistline and the fabrics used to make Hot Knickers Lingerie products are beautiful to the touch and ethically produced."
Wheeler had assumed her main clientele would be those wearing size 14 and 16 in the 30-60 age group. In fact, she has ended up with customers aged 20 to 70 and size 8-10 is the most requested and it’s not just ladies who buy. “Husbands and partners are also customers,” says Wheeler, who sells from her shop and online. The company’s range includes cami tops, slips, vests and shrugs. Cami tops and knickers cost from about €50, with slips starting at about €80. Knickers are the top-selling item.
As Wheeler already had a premises and the skills underpinning her business are literally in her own hands, she was able to keep start-up costs (primarily to buy equipment) to €25,000, which was partially self-funded with support from AIB and the west Cork LEO. She started selling locally at the end of 2016 followed by an online pilot in July 2017. She launched her full online shop (designed by her son, Taidgh) in April this year. Wheeler is hoping to take on her first employee over the next few months and is also looking for a suitable brand ambassador to represent and raise the profile of her products.
“There are companies like Spanx and What Katie Did that mass produce shapewear and retro-style lingerie. But there is no other lingerie company I know of that is making made-to-measure garments that support the body while looking and feeling so good,” Wheeler says.