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The 24-Year-Old Who Wants to Dethrone Victoria’s Secret has a lofty plan to become the “next big underwear brand”

The company’s first store is up next.

Cami Téllez has never liked buying undergarments, which may be why the 24-year-old is well-suited to take on Victoria’s Secret.

Her visits to the Quaker Bridge Mall and the largest store of women’s underwear as an adolescent in Princeton, New Jersey, left her feeling inadequate, or worse. There were photographs of supermodels in that artificial boudoir setting ripped from some male ideal (unsurprising, given that Victoria’s Secret was founded as a lingerie store for men). Then there were the items, such as the Bombshell, a push-up bra 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.”

Téllez had had enough by the time she started her senior year at Columbia University in 2018 as a double major in art history and English. Victoria’s Secret, in her opinion, was still contributing to a “cultural hegemony” over what is considered attractive, which was harming women. The #MeToo movement was in full swing. She thought that others must be sick of it as well. She went to find out by creating online polls and posting them in Facebook groups. In two days, Téllez received 10,000 responses and a decisive solution. No matter where she went in the United States, the sentiment was the same: many women detested buying underwear as well.

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

Téllez had been in the startup sector for a while, despite being in her twenties. Omar Téllez, her father, has worked as an executive at a number of start-up companies. (At Parade, he doesn’t have an official function.) She also worked as an intern at a venture capital firm and worked at an online mortgage startup.

Parade won over teens and younger 20-somethings — the eldest members of the Generation Z cohort that traditional companies are urgently attempting to lure — with bright essentials starting at $8 and marketing filled with varied faces and bodies. Parade is now worth $140 million, just over two years after its premiere. The company refused to reveal revenue numbers. Sales have more than tripled this year.

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

Having already secured more than $40 million from investors has undoubtedly raised the stakes. E-commerce and sophisticated digital advertising have significantly decreased the costs of launching a consumer brand today. There are a slew of businesses selling similar, simple designs in women’s underwear and essentials, including ThirdLove and SKIMS, with marketing focused at diverse body types.

Many companies have found a chunk of customers during the surge in digital brands, or what are sometimes referred to as direct-to-consumer firms, but most have plateaued. Téllez and Parade, which has 50 employees, have reached that point and must now prove themselves once more. To get there, the company is relying on a well-worn expansion playbook for brands founded online. Parade, based in New York, is set to establish its first store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood next month.

It turns out that having a store is still a good method to get customers, and with digital ad rates continuing to grow, it’s becoming increasingly affordable.

The 2,000-square-foot location on Broadway shouts Color Field and Abstract Expressionism, two cultural influences mentioned by Téllez, who assisted in the design of the room. The store’s interior is decorated with bright, geometric totems, and a lush, crimson carpet covers the floor. A rainbow archway will welcome shoppers. It appears to be a candy store for twenty-somethings.

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.”

According to Téllez, around 80% of sales in the underwear sector still take place in a store. That’s why, she said, the business is working on wholesale partnerships to sell its products through established shops across the United States as early as next year. She declined to name potential retail partners. With bralettes, tank tops, and loungewear, the company has moved into neighboring categories, which is another trademark of digital brands.

Parade’s ambition comes at a time when Victoria’s Secret is attempting to repair its image. Long-time CEO Les Wexner’s close ties to Jeffrey Epstein surfaced in 2019, after the business had been sputtering for a few years. Wexner’s connections to Epstein, who was accused of sex-trafficking minors before dying in prison, reopened the company’s investigation and dovetailed with charges of sexual harassment among its ranks. All of the bad publicity didn’t help matters.

Victoria’s Secret was spun off into its own public business earlier this year by parent company L Brands Inc. Its executives are now talking about changing a brand that brought in $4.6 billion in revenue in the first three quarters of this fiscal year. Plus-size and transgender models have been included to the marketing mix. The angels, the group of scantily clad supermodels that tortured Téllez, have been retired. It has also brought on prominent female celebrities, such as tennis player Naomi Osaka and actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, to help it revitalize.

In response to Téllez’s concerns, Victoria’s Secret said in a statement that it is committed to “creating an inclusive environment for our associates, customers and partners to celebrate, uplift and champion all women.”

Téllez believes she’s tapped into an expanding resource space with a brand created by Gen Z for Gen Z (at 24, she’s the beginning of the budding generation). She explained that Parade’s goal is to make people feel good about their bodies while avoiding oversexed looks. Models for the brand wear daily looks, including tattoos and stretch marks. With their vibrant colors and lack of lace and push-ups, the products don’t make people look like they’re attempting to seduce someone.

According to Janine Stichter, an analyst at Jefferies, targeting teenagers and twenty-somethings is a sensible decision because many firms are focused on courting millennials because they have more money right now.

“Parade’s really different than what’s out there,” she said.

According to Jason Stoffer, a partner at venture capital company Maveron, which has a stake in Parade and a history of investing in digital-first brands such as Allbirds and Everlane, Téllez is another key differentiator. Even more than the actual business, founders are frequently what attracts investment in startups. Téllez has a “unique” mix of financial competence and creativity, according to Stoffer, who is also on Parade’s board of directors.

Stoffer sees the brand’s ability to rapidly connect with customers as a proof of Téllez’s “incredible creative talent,” as well as a hint of how the company will continue to expand and defend 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.”

After asking women what they desire, Téllez came up with a similar theme.

“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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