Helen Mears has a knack for crafting unmentionables. 

As a former designer with the retail giant Victoria's Secret -- where she headed up its successful "Angel" brand -- Mears has been dealing in laces, corsets, and bra sets for roughly two decades. 

Things changed for her in 2011, when she took a job as a fashion consultant at the then-nascent e-commerce lingerie retailer Adore Me. She very quickly needed to learn the value of immediacy in driving sales, and that repeating previously successful designs no longer cut it. Startups in the online fashion space need to create new looks constantly, and those looks need to pop out visually on a website. Obviously, Mears is a quick study, as she was promoted to head of design within two months.

Despite her influence, the company still doesn't look like much four years later-- at least on the surface. Its offices are tucked away on the 15th floor of a nondescript building on Seventh Avenue in New York City. Cluttered rooms, with mockups of next month's offerings tacked pell-mell to the walls, lend a distinct air of "startup" to the space.

So it's even more striking that the scrappy Adore Me -- which is headed by founder and CEO Morgane Hermand-Waiche -- is now the 16th fastest-growing private company in America. That's according to financial data tabulated by Inc., which compared fiscal years 2011 and 2014. It bills an enviable $16 million in annual revenue, or a 15,000 percent uptick from sales in 2011. What's more, it's not the first year that Adore Me has made the Inc. 5000 list: In 2014, it ranked No. 49, as the second-fastest-growing retailer in the New York City metro area. 

Direct to consumer.

Adore Me has plans to disrupt the multibillion-dollar U.S. lingerie market, with its e-commerce only, "fast-fashion" approach to undergarments. To that end, Mears is personally responsible for launching a new collection of 30 to 40 designs each month, or 500 designs per year. What differentiates the company, she adds, is the direct-to-consumer approach. Adore Me churns out quality designs at relatively low price points. (Their biggest customers are twentysomethings with modest funds.) Mears says the company doesn't compromise on comfort or fabric quality, either: It sources from the same Chinese lace manufacturer, for instance, that most fashion behemoths do -- Tianhi Lace Co Ltd. -- but a typical bra-panty set retails for just $49.95 ($39.95 for "VIP" members). That's a considerable markdown from Victoria's Secret, where a simple set can go for $62.50. 

Although Adore Me is faring well, the competition is robust. Victoria's Secret alone brought in $5.2 billion in 2014 sales (its parent company, L Brands, holds roughly 62 percent of the market share, according to recent data from research firm IBIS World.)

So when Mears joined Adore Me's staff, she knew she had her work cut out for her.

A change of pace.

Adore Me's e-commerce-only business model was the biggest change of pace to date, and one that reshaped Mears's design perspective. Her quotas are now higher than ever before, and forget trying to duplicate something that worked in the past; fast-fashion customers demand innovation. She adds that popular fashion trends among Millennial "urban dwellers," or the startup's core client base, are often unpredictable. One of the company's best-selling collections is a more comfortable sleepwear set of modal jerseys, as opposed to some of its racier offerings.

Significantly, Mears says she underestimated the selling power of a single image. "[With e-commerce,] you need to think about the aesthetics, and what's going to photograph well, so I think that does influence the type of laces and embroideries I pick out." She shies away from beiges and nudes, and deals instead with reds, pinks, blues, and purples. Yet even after color is taken into consideration, the simplest details -- such as whether or not a model places her hand in her hair -- could affect Adore Me's sales by as much as 345 percent. "We can have relatively disappointing sales on a set, and then you rephotograph it with different lighting, and all of a sudden it will just blow out," Mears explains.  

It's exhausting work, to be sure, and Mears isn't getting much rest. "I literally use every scrap of knowledge I've ever gleaned in my 20-odd years of working," she says. On top of that, Mears says she acts as technical designer, merchandiser, buyer, and preproduction planner, since each of these aspects affect how (and what) she decides to bring to market.  

If Adore Me's track record is any indication, however, Mears is certainly doing something right.   

Published on: Sep 24, 2015