Juli Lee’s job requires a firm grasp of three-dimensional rendering, visual optimization, and mass-production technologies–knowledge that, in part, she gained studying computer science and management at MIT. Her media, however, are lace, silk, and fine cotton. As founder, designer, and chief merchandising officer of JuliannaRae.com, an online lingerie company, Lee is targeting an overlooked yet formidable market force: women 35 to 55. And she’s succeeding beyond her wildest imagination.
Lee started in the apparel industry at Victoria’s Secret, where she managed a small account that produced high-fashion items. Within four years it became the company’s biggest account. She returned to MIT for her MBA and then held positions in strategic consulting and business development for the Boston Consulting Group, Microsoft, and EMC.
Although she loved her work, Lee missed the apparel market. Prompted by her 30-something friends, she launched her own lingerie company in 2005. “They said, ‘Juli, you used to work for Victoria’s Secret. Their lingerie just stinks. It doesn’t work for those of us who are above 30,’” she recalls. Lee recognized the potential of targeting women older than 35–who she believes are more active and independent, and have more disposable income, than women of a generation ago.
Lee’s products are geared for what she calls “the more established body.” Unlike many major clothing designers, she doesn’t use perfectly proportioned models for her designs. The result is a much better fit for her clientele. She gets inspiration for designs from all around her: an autumn leaf, a lamp shade at a friend’s house, a swatch of gift wrap.
So far, her strategy is working. Revenues and the rate of repeat business have surpassed Lee’s expectations, and the merchandise return rate is under 10 percent, notably better than the industry average of 25 to 30 percent.
Lee, who lives in Somerville, MA, plans to expand the company. She intends to add to her staff of five, introduce catalogues, and create active wear. And she has no shortage of ideas. “Right now my design folder is 10 times as big as the collections I want to make,” she says.