Amber Tolliver met with investors multiple times for her fledgling lingerie company, Liberté, looking for a partner who would be able to provide the kind of support any young entrepreneur needs.
Tolliver, a 31-year-old former model, was prepared to discuss things like her three-year revenue stream projections, what her margins look like, whether she’d be willing to sacrifice an equity stake in her company. Business stuff. But it seemed her investors couldn’t get past who they were looking at to take her seriously.
Recalling a six-on-one meeting with a group of money men, Tolliver completed her pitch and was asked, “So, are you looking for quality control testers?” Some of the men snickered. Tolliver didn’t, but replied coolly, “I don’t think you’re qualified.”
That’s only one instance in which sexual innuendo and harassment overshadowed a meeting Tolliver took with investors. Of the many investment meetings she’s taken, Tolliver says, “they were all reading from the same ‘skeez’ script.”
At another meeting, this time a one-on-one with someone she’d been referred to by a friend, a man asked her not if she had ideas for how to manage a supply chain, for instance, but whether she was looking for lingerie shoot photographers. After that, Tolliver ended the meeting abruptly.
“I am serious about what I’m doing, and I’m not going to be spoken to with this ‘locker room talk,'” Tolliver tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “What I’m not allowed to be, especially at a table with all white older men, is the crazy black chick who can’t keep her cool, even though she’s been baited multiple times. As a woman, as a young woman of color, eyes are judging all the time. I’m a lingerie model, but I’m also a professional.”
So, rather than continue subjecting herself to unproductive meetings that started in earnest and ended in misogyny, Tolliver decided that crowdfunding her business would empower her to retain full control over her company, and forego any more shots at her dignity.
Tolliver launched the 30-day Kickstarter campaign for her brand, Liberté, on Sept. 22, with a goal of $30,000. The brand will cater to women with smaller frames and larger busts, but offers plus-sizes as well—up to a 38G. Tolliver’s aim is to make beautiful lingerie for women who, with bigger breasts, are often relegated to less-than-sexy styles or are forced to pay higher prices to find something that fits well without sacrificing femininity. Liberté bras will sell for $75, and panties will sell for $45.
“Bras for women with larger breasts are not sexy, I know because I was shopping for them myself. It’s not something you feel good yourself about putting on, and since it’s the first thing you put on when you wake up and the last thing you take off, you want to make sure the foundation for your day makes you feel empowered.”
But Tolliver’s vision for empowerment doesn’t end with the lingerie itself. She’s also hosting a series of frank panel discussions on body positivity, empowerment, and other social issues, the first of which Tolliver moderated on Friday night in Manhattan. Her panelists included meditation expert Biet Simkin, Edelman PR senior vice president Melle Hock, and fragrance designer Victorine Deych.
Still, Tolliver’s ideas about reclaiming womanhood aren’t purely philosophical. Men founded and long controlled some of the most recognizable lingerie companies in the industry. By now, Victoria’s Secret‘s founding story (a man was embarrassed shopping for his wife’s lingerie in a department store. The end.) has been chronicled too many times to count. And Agent Provocateur, once a marketing powerhouse with an arsenal of celebrity endorsers, was founded by Vivienne Westwood’s son, Joseph Corré, and was famous for casting models like Kate Moss to represent the brand.
But that was then, and now is starting to look a lot different. Women-operated lingerie companies include Lane Bryant, Journelle, Rigby and Peller, ThirdLove, Lively, and of course, Tolliver’s Liberté. Campaigns are shifting from normative messages like “you should be a bombshell” to “you should be yourself,” arguably a reflection of the fact that women are finally taking control over the multi-billion dollar industry.
As for Tolliver, she knows her way around an advertisement or two. The Chicago-native began modeling at 15, signing with Ford Models before going on to study fashion design and marketing at Columbia College Chicago. A few years later, Tolliver continued her largely-commercial modeling career in New York, with a marked change: She transitioned to the world of plus-size modeling, before returning only a few years later to being a straight-size model.
Tolliver says her decision to return to straight-size modeling was motivated because she wasn’t happy with who she was, not what her body looked like. She missed being an athlete, and wanted to reclaim that part of her identity. Success followed: the lingerie retailer Aerie cast Tolliver as its first un-retouched campaign model in 2014 year. Un-retouched ads are now a cornerstone of the brand’s marketing.
That marked a turning point for Tolliver, and as she realized what the market lacked in truthful advertising, it also lacked in actual sizing options for larger-chested women. Soon after, she began researching and shaping the foundation for her company. Four years later, she’s ready to embark.
To be sure, Liberté will face its share of challenges. Being a direct-to-consumer brand selling among the most personal items in someone’s closet means it’s tough to convince shoppers that you’re a better alternative to existing, familiar options, inadequate as they may be. Tolliver says Liberté brand ambassadors, who will be trained as bra fit specialists and based around the country, are one way she’s planning to persuade women to shop her line.
And when Tolliver isn’t crunching the numbers or finalizing the details for the brand’s six-piece capsule collection launch, she’ll be ruminating on how best to reclaim power for all women.
“I don’t need mansplaining for what womanhood looks like. It’s mine. It’s yours,” Tolliver says. “It’s for any woman to take hold of and say this belongs to us.”
She’s betting that a Liberté set will also belong to any and all women, too.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.