The thought alone of buying new underwear is all the reason I need to convince myself that life still exists in my greying pants and stretched-out boulder holder. You might laugh, but finding underwear as cool as your outerwear is a hard feat the further down the alphabet you find your cup size. If boobs come in all shapes and sizes, then how come the design of a bra changes drastically from one cup size to another, or worse, you’re deemed too small or big chested to fit into what might have been your new favourite style?
After watching their parents’ lingerie manufacturing business, Aura, flourish over the last thirty years, sisters Mazie Gardner and Abbie Miranda saw a gap in the market and decided to go into business together and create Beija London. “Having ownership over a create vision is something I have always dreamt of,” Mazie tells us. “I was adamant from a young age that I would strive to do my own thing or something with Abbie,” she continues. The label’s innovative sizing range is what makes it unique – it creates every bra in three different iterations to suit a wide range of shapes – and it’s the growth of the company that keeps it constantly in momentum. “We are small and can be dynamic and receptive,” explains Abbie. “ We are marching to our own drum, which feels hairy but exciting.”
We sat down with the sisters to talk about the challenges of working together, how they operate on a “shoestring budget” and why the fear of the unknown can be the most inspirational force. “It’s funny,” Abbie begins, “business has never been better and I’ve never felt so insecure. It feels like you’re always trying to outdo yourself.” Oh the irony of it—as the girls explain, if you can listen to your inner self, and drown out your inner critic, only then can you move forward.
WHAT THEY WERE DOING BEFORE BEIJA
Mazie: After graduating, I was fortunate to land what would turn out to be an all-encompassing role as a garment technologist for a high-end streetwear brand. My pattern cutting skills were almost non-existent. To this day, I’m still not quite sure how I managed to get the job but I was propped up by a thorough understanding of the manufacturing process. I was in the menswear role for just over 2 years. As the brand was small, I became immersed in all aspects of the business, mostly the production process, sourcing fabrics, trims, critical path and fitting. I was also involved in photoshoots, styling and selling the collection at the various trade shows all over the world, as well as press and even packing the web orders when it was busy. This role was invaluable in allowing me to launch Beija. I was exposed to many of the intricacies in business that you just cannot learn any other way. The experience that I acquired running online brands was invaluable. I just wouldn’t have known where to start otherwise. You could argue that Google is now the mother of all mentors but you need to be exposed to the decision-making process. You learn quickly when you’re making decisions and are accountable for the outcomes. There is also so much to be learnt by watching others working. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t listen, you don’t last.
Abbie: After graduating from Cordwainers having done a footwear product development degree, I began working as a junior designer at Aura lingerie, our family’s lingerie design and manufacturing business. That’s where I learnt the ropes and all aspects of the development process from sketch to delivery. Making connections within the industry, especially with fabric suppliers, has been key to enable what we are doing now. And, knowing how to knock out a pattern and make fit amendments keep our running costs low. When we started the business, I knew where the hidden costs are in lingerie manufacturing and how long things take to make. Throughout my career, I’ve had long spells in Brazil, where my husband is from-which may have hindered my salary progression but I wouldn’t change it.
EARLY ENTREPRENEUR AMBITIONS
M: Having ownership over a creative vision is something I have always dreamt of. I was adamant from a young age that I would strive to do my own thing or something with Abbie. I don’t excel at any one thing so I was always concerned that this would be to my detriment. In fact, this has forced me to strive for competence in all areas.
A: We’ve always wanted to do this. We would have been crazy not to try! There definitely was an element of, ‘if not now, when?’ Since we launched, my skills have adapted and developed more than at any other point in my life. Timing wise, it just felt that there was a spot within the market that we could fill. I’d never felt that previously – the market had always seemed so saturated but post-recession, lots of small brands fell by the wayside. It’s been a real learning curve, though. There was a lot to see and learn when we started, mainly about creating a strong brand identity – having that is so important now to survive. The consumer is looking for more than a great product.
OVERCOMING FEARS TO GET STARTED
M: For me, the vastness of the project we were about to embark on appeared daunting. So many ideas, questions, or decisions. I also feared that Abbie and I wouldn’t be able to handle the load. We do face pressure, but none more so than the pressure we place on ourselves.
THE STEPS THEY TOOK TO LAUNCH
M: In hindsight, we did too much at once. In one week the website went live, we presented the collection at a trade show and a hosted the launch party. All were vital to the launch, but not all within one week. Talk about hit the ground running! We were just so excited to show the world.
Abbie: We started with research into price point and our position in the market; started developing the brand name and logo and created a business plan (which has completely turned on its head) and a financial forecast with predicted shares of the market. Next up was website development, packaging design, range building, design, patterns, fabric sourcing, costing and fitting. Looking back, there are things I would have spent less time on, and things I now know we should have given more attention to, but you only learn that with hindsight. I would have done fewer ranges in the launch collection and I would have made a lot less knickers. We were so intent on being believable and having a full range, but I think it was too much work for me with a new baby but also for the brand.
M: They mainly came through Instagram and word of mouth. We put budget into Facebook and we have ran some billboard campaigns throughout London. Having a pop up shop was, without question, the best thing we have done to date. If anyone is considering starting a brand, I recommend doing this as soon as you can. You cannot account for the value of face to face interaction with your customers. You learn so much about them and so many new customers will stumble upon you. In such a saturated market, people enjoy discovering something new and unique. The women we encountered loved hearing our story and we loved telling it.
THEIR FIRST & ONLY BIG HIRE
M: We try to do as much ourselves as we possibly can. We took Fae on board the week we went live. We needed someone with an existing knowledge in… everything! We had no idea what exactly it was that we needed. The job description was a little ridiculous but Fae contributes to almost all areas. She’s also a professional photographer, which is of great value. With the rise of social, the demand for a brand to create new content is relentless. The only thing done out of house is PR.
A: She is a photographer and so much more! What we are selling is an image and she can consistently and beautifully churn them out. Because she is seeing the product without the same background Maze and I have, her opinions are different and helpful.
ON BEING SISTERS & BUSINESS PARTNERS & WORKING ON AND NOT JUST IN, THEIR BUSINESS
M: We were up front from the get-go about each of our skillsets. We are different and the aim here is to complement each-other. Abbie’s strength as a creative is her ability to introduce new, weird and wacky ideas without hesitation. I am a little more pragmatic in my approach; there are times that I have to reign her back in! In terms of my role, I’m constantly thinking about the future and about the opportunities for us to grow. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of running of the brand, you can forget where you’re headed.
A: As much as we have specific roles, we always check in on each other on important decisions. We ask each other for help and are good at communicating how we are getting on with our workload. Priorities are always shifting so it’s important that we are working in a way that is nimble and constantly having a strong sense of communication is key to enable that.
My advice to other business owners is to constantly zoom in and out of your business. I do that because I’m always working on collections for the future so I see where our look is going and how I want that put across but commercially, we need to be reactive and fast moving which is difficult with bras because they need so much time in development because of fitting all the sizes. We always make a concerted effort to speak to people with more experience than us; to learn more about increasing brand exposure without wasting money. Honestly, it does affect me creatively. I sometimes get stuck thinking about how to appeal to an even broader range of customers but I always remember that my duty is to our customer; selling to her and not annoying her.
NAVIGATING CREATIVE OR BUSINESS DISPUTES
M: Creative decisions are often led by subjective opinions. Minor details like the alignment of text to big decisions, like the colour of a photoshoot backdrop are all made together. This maybe isn’t as efficient as it can be but we are determined that people take ownership when working for Beija. It does drive me a little nuts that there is no right answer – we just aim to reach a decision together that we’re all happy with. Fae, a much-loved member of our team, often uses the phrase “would our girl like that” to influence the decision-making process. We will also look to inspiration from brands that we admire. Would Acne or a Finery use that word or post that picture or use that font? If it doesn’t sit well, don’t do it. We are privileged to have access to a wealth of ‘fresh eyes’. We share our workspace with the family business so we’ll often skip in there and ask them what they think.
Abbie: I’m a designer so am pretty sensitive. If people don’t like my idea, I feel like they don’t like me and I get upset. I’m such a wimp! I’ll fight it but get over it quickly and understand Mazie’s judgement is a lot more commercial than mine and her intention is to sell more bras. I just get carried away with an idea or a fabric and need to be reigned back in. It is hard to push for something that you know feels right, without being able to guarantee that it’ll work.
ON CUTTING THROUGH THE NOISE
M: Having spent our lives immersed in the lingerie market, we saw an opportunity to design lingerie for our friends and the women that we aspire to be. We place value upon our blog where go into the homes of women we find inspiring and shoot them wearing Beija. Our customer base is growing. What we’re doing seems to be working!
A: I feel fortunate to be in our position. We are small and can be dynamic and receptive. We are marching to our own drum, which feels hairy but exciting. We are able to do intimate and fun events quickly and simply where we can communicate with our customer directly. Connecting with a broader customer base is harder. There are lots of brands out there fighting to speak to the same consumer, but I believe in our message and our product, especially for our big cup-sized customers. She is always on the look out for better things. We know we have to be better than the rest to win the sale.
ON THEIR SIZING STRATEGY THAT HAS EVERYONE TALKING
A: We have grouped sizes into categories X, Y and Z categories to deliver to the customer bras relevant to their size. So, within one range there are 3 bras. 3 times as much work, but 3 times as many customers. X is for small cups – those with a flatter chest who don’t require wires and added bulk with unnecessary support fabrics. The X category is designed for A cups, but we find a lot of women up to around a C cup are buying the X bras and sacrificing support over style. They want a super comfortable non-wired style for the aesthetic even if it’s not giving them the lift they necessarily need. The Y category fits 32 B to 36 D. We found that this customer was being given overly fussy constructions that just weren’t necessary. We’ve split these sizes into their own categories so we could design things that were relevant to women’s requirements according to their size. For sizes 32 DD to 36 G, there is the Z category. They are the hardest working bras and big performers for us sales-wise. Catering to this girl was so important to me because I know so many of them and I know she was after a cooler, cleaner aesthetic and brand experience. We strongly believe that the X, Y and Z girl are all the same in terms of lifestyle, fashion and so on but they were having totally different experiences of buying lingerie. We want to sort that out.
M: We’re fortunate to have support of the family business but without ever sacrificing the quality of our product, we look to operate on a shoestring budget. We’ve been lucky to meet amazing people who have been willing to help. We always need support and ultimately, “if you don’t ask… you don’t get!” In the long term, to do the brand justice, we will seek investment. Right now though, it’s crucial that we lay the foundations and solidify the brand’s identity. Finding your voice takes time.
A: We are on a very tight leash financially, which isn’t a bad thing as it’s pushing us to turn a greater profit so we can do bigger things. In terms of resources, we get to share the parent company’s office space, sample room and technicians. That said, we are sort of like a customer of theirs so there will always be a battle for more machine time etc. because Aura’s first responsibility is to the clients they already service.
THE TOUGH & EXCITING MOMENTS
M: In business, success and failure can feel very black and white so the pick me ups are vital. Naturally, our friends and family think everything we do is fabulous but sometimes it just doesn’t feel enough. I guess the fear of the unknown can be an inspirational force. One of the moments that stands out since we started was when a director from one of the biggest lingerie players in the world purchased 8 sets of lingerie in our pop-up shop. It gave us the confirmation that we might just be onto something…
A: It’s funny, business has never been better and I’ve never felt more insecure. It feels like you’re always trying to out do yourself. If a range has done particularly well, then the pressure to make the next one even better can feel intense. Self-doubt is just something you learn to cope with. Everyone is feeling a little bit anxious, however calm and confident they seem.