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In January of 2020, Cami Tellez dropped out of Columbia University to pursue her underwear start-up full time and has since grown it into a $10 million company. Going headstrong into the $272 billion underwear market, this brand is no Hanes or Victoria Secret—it is Parade.
Parade is a direct-to-consumer brand that has a commitment to sustainability and all-inclusive feminine power. The brand’s core fabric, Re:Play, is made of 85% recycled polyamide, and all other packaging is compostable and Oeko-Tex certified. But Parade’s social impact is equally profound as its environmental one: the brand’s mission is to create underwear for people of all shapes, sizes and races. Instead of marketing models wearing expensive lingerie, Parade markets everyday people. “It inspire[s] me to see so many women and femme-identifying people posting pics in their underwear as an act of self-expression. It’s already changing the face of the category because it’s not really about sexiness or the male gaze,” said Tellez.
The company’s manifesto states that “sexiness isn’t one-dimensional—it’s a voice, it’s a feeling, it’s a technicolor mirror that reflects whoever is holding it. With you, we’re rewriting the American underwear story—in full-spectrum color.”
Now, Tellez is 23 and still rewriting that story. Tellez launched Parade with her co-founder Jack DeFuria on October 21, 2019, just months before the COVID-19 economic shutdown. Since then, Tellez was featured in 2021’s Forbes 30 Under 30 for her work in retail and e-commerce, and Tellez has $6.5 million in seed funding for Parade. Her story is a keystone for Women’s History Month, as it showcases a young, female minority becoming CEO of an industry-defying brand.
Before Parade, Tellez worked for various venture capital start-ups starting at the age of 17, so she’s aware that it can be difficult to be taken seriously when starting a company at 21—especially as a woman in college creating something for the younger generation. “At the very earliest parts, it’s difficult for older, white male investors to really understand what you’re building when it’s such a personal, emotional category for such a young consumer,” said Tellez. Yet, being the customer is what she believes to be the biggest advantage: “I know her better than anyone else because, in many ways, I am her.”
Tellez’s advice to young entrepreneurs is that “there’s tremendous power in galvanizing all of your lived experiences to use that to show that there is no one better than you to run a business.” Lived experiences also highlight markets with undervalued customer segments, and they can provide the opportunity to occupy this niche. Tellez knew she could occupy this niche for those uninterested in the pricey and sexualized Victoria's Secret.
As the largest lingerie retailer in the U.S., Victoria's Secret established itself as one of the most notable apparel brands starting in the 90s. This is in part due to the brand’s hypersexual marketing, which has influenced the industry’s standards and socio-cultural body image norms. In Parade’s manifesto, Tellez reflects on how she “grew up going to the mall, seeing supermodels blown up on storefronts and thinking: this is what it means to be sexy,” undoubtedly referring to the famous (or rather, infamous) Victoria's Secret Angels.
In November 2018, Victoria’s Secret’s chief marketing officer Ed Razek, who has since resigned, gave an interview to Vogue ahead of recording the Victoria's Secret fashion show. The interview features comments about intentionally excluding transgender and plus-sized models since they would not sell the “fantasy.” In a world where consumers now expect brands to welcome diversity and embrace inclusivity, these comments caused an uproar. Following the interview, model Karlie Kloss terminated her relationship with Victoria’s Secret, noting the image was not “truly reflective” of who she was and the “kind of message [she] want[s] to send to young women around the world about what it means to be beautiful.” His comments also drew ire from shareholders like Barington Capital's CEO James A. Mitarotonda, who voiced his complaints about the company's brand image: "Victoria's Secret's brand image is starting to appear to many as being outdated and even a bit 'tone deaf' by failing to be aligned with women's evolving attitudes towards beauty, diversity, and inclusion."
Between 2016 and 2018, its U.S. market share dropped from 33% to 24% with the emergence of new companies. In a 2017 consumer survey by Wells Fargo Securities, 68% of consumers said they like the brand “less than they used to and 60% of consumers said they think the brand feels ‘forced’ or ‘fake.” In 2018, the New York Times declared Victoria's Secret a name in "steady decline," and The Wall Street Journal said the vision of sexiness that defined Victoria’s Secret had "lost its appeal.” Finally in May 2019, the brand announced it would no longer broadcast its annual fashion show as the sexualization of the Victoria’s Secret Angels lost much of its popularity.
Companies like Parade filled these customer voids by offering a wider range of sizes, making social impact commitments, and prioritizing comfort and fun over sex appeal. While companies like Victoria’s Secret struggle to stay afloat, as of December 2020 Parade has sold over 700,000 pairs of underwear and brought in $10 million in revenue. Parade’s “Angels” are their ever-growing and diverse range of customers, affiliates, influencers, and models who span respective gender, size, and sexuality spectrums. Thanks to CEO Cami Tellez, make way for Parade because these Angels are about to take flight.