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Victoria’s Secret alum built multi-million dollar lingerie business by putting people before panties

By Jackie Mallon


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Fashion |Interview


Almost an overnight success story, Michelle Cordeiro Grant founded her direct-to-consumer intimates brand Lively in 2015. A veteran of Victoria’s Secret, which built its global megabrand on the pillars of exclusion, unattainable beauty standards and a male gaze fantasy, she set about doing things differently. Her product celebrated comfort, community and inclusivity. As the fortunes of Victoria’s Secret plummeted and the image of its “angel” fell into irrelevancy, Lively grew and grew. In 2019 Cordeiro Grant sold Lively to Japanese lingerie company Wacoal for 105 million dollars.

“I started Lively because I saw a need for a brand that embraced human uniqueness at its core, had products that conformed to our bodies rather than the other way around, and utilized social media to connect directly with customers,” Cordero Grant tells FashionUnited. In contrast to the gem-encrusted, underwired and pushed up VS variety of lingerie, she created a new category called leisurée, a blend of lingerie and athleisure, designed to empower women to feel purposeful and confident in their everyday lives without compromising on function or fashion. 

Initially Lively’s growth was fueled by an army of online ambassadors, real people wearing the product in relatable ways, rather than a parade of idealized supermodels on a glittering runway. It started with 100 ambassadors, and a refer-a-friend email campaign. Now the army is 165,000 strong across the U.S. “We knew from day one that we would take a community-first approach, so we were hosting events to bring people together and build that connection over shared interests and passions,” says Cordeiro Grant. “Within 48 hours of launching, we received over 100K emails, and in just over one month, we shipped to all 50 states.”

The value of community extends to an appreciation of the team she surrounded herself, having personally chosen every member. “While recruiting, I was very strategic about hiring people who I was confident had a natural curiosity to learn and grow with the brand,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily focus on resumes with the highest education or biggest accolades. That’s paid off for me in spades. I’ve built this incredible team that’s small but nimble, able to pivot to the climate and demands of our consumer. We’ve always been very flexible and we find joy in figuring it out together.”


Storytelling at core of lingerie brand's retail success

In the world of intimate apparel, messaging governs. It’s hard to radically redesign bras and panties, those small triangles of prettily trimmed fabric connected by straps, but a brand's story and how it resonates and welcomes consumers is everything in today’s retail climate. Cordeiro Grant understood this from the outset. She actually launched the brand without having yet developed product, then involved her ambassadors in decision making, product offering, marketing, eventually creating campaigns around them. Despite the growth of the business and even after the sale, as founder, she remains committed to connecting with the community.

“We always say that the ambassador program is a two-way street. They tell us about their passions and interests through direct messages, emails and polls and we ask them what they want to see in upcoming launches, events, content,” she says. “Then we respond to those interests by offering opportunities that allow them to share and connect in real life, or host events, or learn from experts in a given industry.”

The movement she created on social media prior to the launch generated a flood of DMs and comments from women who wanted to be a part of whatever she was building. “Women with wild hearts and boss brains,” says Cordeiro Grant. “They literally helped us come up with that tagline!” She developed a revolutionary approach to pricing: make all the bras cost the same, 45 dollars.

From Victoria's Secret's male gaze to women-friendly lingerie brand

When Cordeiro Grant looks back at her experience as senior merchant at Victoria’s Secret from 2008-12, it was during a period of enormous growth, and she believes it all came together to bring her to where she is today. Despite Lex Wexner’s tarnished reputation, Cordeiro Grant gives credit to his business acumen. “He knows how to build brands, and that’s through a really strong discipline of being concise, consistent, and focused,” she says. “He talked about building a brand like creating a movie. I was always fascinated by that. He would say, ‘The models that you put in the images, those are your actors. And the words that you put in your copy, that’s your script. So what kind of movie are you writing?’”

The experience convinced her that she could carve out a new space in the category, in fact compelled her to do so. She had absorbed the power of brand storytelling but the movie she was creating was more of an indie darling, cast with unknowns, than a big budget blockbuster starring Gisele Bündchen or Gigi Hadid. And the audience showed up. “We actually talk about the things we want to do, and we're supporting each other to go after those crazy things that we call dreams,” says Cordeiro Grant of her community. “What could happen in the world if women actually lived to their full potential versus living in the safe zone?” 

Still, it must feel strange to take stock of where she is now, considering Lively’s success, versus where Victoria’s Secret is, under new leadership and desperately trying to raise its stock value, both financially and culturally. Given Wexner’s close ties to millionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and the company’s glacial response to consumer demand for racial, gender, and body diversity, some might derive a certain poetic justice from this David and Goliath scenario. But Cordeiro Grant doesn’t have time for that.

For her Victoria’s Secret was a brand built on Wexner’s vision of what the world needed at that time and what he created was undeniably loved for decades. As the world started to shift, and malls closed, social media became the predominant way for brands to connect directly with their audiences, but Victoria’s Secret wasn’t changing and became out-of-touch. The space opened up for smaller, independent, social media-savvy, women-led brands. Brands like Lively.

She doesn’t see herself in competition with former market giants, even ones she worked for and learned from, because her focus is on customer experience. The intimates space in the US alone is estimated to be worth over 13 billion dollars and she believes the opportunities for further scaling up in the sector are vast.

“In my opinion, the focus should not be about who I am taking market share from but on how are we changing the industry? How are we giving customers and communities better options? How are we creating products for women, with the actual women in mind?” It’s a strategy which looks beyond bras and panties, but stays true to the company’s origins when the founder built a women’s collective around an anonymous product. People before panties. “For us,” she says, “if the consumer wins, we win.”

Direct to consumer
Lex Wexner
Victoria's Secret