Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.
These days, we’re obsessed with self-care. We use pricey face masks, book appointments with acupuncturists, drink ceremonial cacao, and download meditation apps. But Shelly Domenech, owner of I.C. London Lingerie in Charlotte’s SouthPark, is suggesting a new approach to personal improvement.
“Bra fitting is life-changing for women,” says Domenech, “especially for women who’ve never worn the right size in their entire life.”
Since 1992, when the award-winning lingerie boutique first opened, Domenech has emerged as a bra fitting expert — an artisan and entrepreneur whose life mission is to make sure women (and their bosoms) feel cared for. We sat down with Domenech to hear about how she rocked the Queen City with high-quality bras and panties.
Where did your passion for women’s fashion come from? Not many kids want to grow up to own a lingerie store.
It’s funny because it actually started very early on. In high school, I was part of the Distributive Education Clubs of America program and one of the things we did was study fashion merchandising. So I was working in a little boutique and this woman came into the shop. She was surprised that I was still in high school. She told me, “I would like for you to come work at my new lingerie store.”
I worked for Barbara through college. I was taking marketing classes at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and thought I’d soon be working for some big Fortune 500 company. But three years into my job with Barbara, she announced that she was selling her store. She had young children and didn’t want to continue the grind of retail. I came home and told my parents this news. My dad just looked me in the eye and said, “Well, why don’t we buy the store?” I was like, “Yes! I’m 20 years old. I can do this.”
Wow. That’s very young to dive headfirst into a business.
I laugh now. I had so much confidence for only being 20 years old. I had been working hand-in-hand with Barbara for several years and was getting ready to graduate from college. So we bought it as a family business and my sister and I ran it. When I graduated in 1991, I came to Charlotte for graduate school and left the store behind in our hometown. My mom and sister were going to run it and I was moving on to the next phase in my life.
Since I knew how to bra fit, I decided to go around Charlotte to the lingerie stores and look for a part-time job. But there were no lingerie stores. So this idea started to formulate in my head: I should open a second location in Charlotte. I thought I could let my sister have the one in our hometown and I would start a new one. But my sister, who now owns a hair salon, soon told my parents that selling lingerie wasn’t her cup of tea.
At that point, I had been in Charlotte for a year. I was going to graduate school, writing my business plan, meeting with bankers, and getting turned down left and right. Nobody wanted to invest with me at the time, which just made me all the more determined to do it. Finally, in the fall of 1992, I packed up and moved the store to Charlotte. Our original location was in Dilworth. We were there for ten years. Then I opened a second store in the Ballantyne area of south Charlotte.
Throughout that whole time, the Dilworth store had continued to grow. I started with 1,000 square feet and then, in 2008, I doubled the square footage. Of course, in the fall of that same year, the stock market crashed.
The Great Recession was a turning point for many entrepreneurs. Was the same true for you?
Looking back, it was probably the biggest struggle in the history of my 28 years in business. When the recession happened, a lot of people — especially in the Ballantyne area — were living good lives. They had beautiful homes and beautiful children. But they were hit the hardest when the stock market crashed. They were the ones who just stopped shopping. Wives would come into my Ballantyne store and say, “I can buy one bra but it needs to be very basic. Please don’t tell me about anything else because I can’t afford it.”
We saw a big downturn at my newer store. My older store fared a little better, but business went down overall. The very next month after the stock market crash, my sales were down 40 percent. We didn’t start recovering until 2011. So for three years, I barely scraped by. At the same time, I was a mom of two kids in preschool. My husband was trying to hold on to his job. It was crazy stressful.
How did you adapt to ensure your business and family came out on the other side?
Because I had been open for so long, I had great relationships with my vendors. I contacted all of them immediately and said, “This is the situation and these are my sales.” I kept the communication lines open and would send what money I could each week. They would send me small orders in return. That’s how I sold my way out of the hole.
I also came up with a crazy idea to offer a customer loyalty card. Customers would buy the card for $40, and it would give them 20 percent off every purchase they made for a year. I really do believe the customer loyalty card saved me because, even though I was losing 20 percent of the sale, customers were spending money at my store instead of going to a big-box retailer.
But those were still very tough years. When we finally started coming out of it, the leases at my two locations were coming to an end. I told my husband, “Once these leases are done, we’re scaling back.” I was going to close my Ballantyne store and scale back the Dilworth store to 1,000 square feet. But as I was literally packing up the Ballantyne store, a leasing agent from SouthPark came by to tell me about a spot she thought would be perfect for me. I took my husband by the place and he said, “You belong here.”
Is it safe to assume that consumer shopping preferences have changed in the nearly 30 years you’ve been running this business? If so, has your business model changed in response?
Gosh, in 1994, a friend of mine came to me and said that computers were one day all going to be connected by what was called the world wide web. He asked if he could build me a website — I didn’t even know what a website was back then. So my first website came out in 1994. I’ve tried other eCommerce sites throughout the years. But I do old-timey bra fittings, and I need that one-on-one connection with people.
When Amazon came along, people’s expectations of what a website should be like changed. People now think merchandise should always be available and that it should be shipped out in 24 hours. For me to have an eCommerce site, I would have to constantly update the online inventory. That’s not feasible. If I can’t do a website well, I’d rather not do it at all. So I haven’t had an eCommerce website in over five years.
Everybody thinks I’m losing out but I’ve focused my energies on making my store the best it can be and cultivating personal relationships. For example, I have a lady that was a Charlotte resident but has lived in Florida for the past five years. I still do business with her. I’ll send her a photo of a bra I know she’ll love and then ship the bra directly to her. I communicate with customers all over the country via text or phone. I did this even more during COVID.
As you’ve mentioned, your business is better suited for a brick-and-mortar setting. So was it challenging to sell lingerie over the phone during the pandemic?
Oh gosh, yes. A lot of people’s bodies changed during COVID. They were home and they gained a little weight, so I did a lot of virtual bra fittings. Since I’ve been in the business for 30 years, I know my brands well. I can say to someone, “I see from your profile that you were a 34J. Now you’ve got some spillage and it’s tight around the back. Let me send you a 36JJ. Try it on and if it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, send it back.” I did a lot of that last year.
People had this strong desire to support local businesses. Customers wanted me to survive this. So in April, when we were closed, I ran a gift card special. For every $50 they spent on a gift card, I would add $10 to the value of the card. I would call customers and ask if they would like to buy a gift card. That way, when they came back into the store, they would have $60 waiting for them.
That’s such a customer-centric approach. To adjust to such a high level of personalization, did you have to add more staff or add more hours to your day?
I went into COVID with two full-timers and one part-timer. Of course, I laid everybody off right away because we closed in March. We were following mall guidelines, so we didn’t reopen until early May. For those few months, I would go into my store every day with sweatpants on and work the phone. We also weren’t receiving any shipments, so I was in my store looking at what products I did have and calling people who I thought might be interested.
I also did so much on social media. I was taking my mannequin, dressing her, and snapping photos. I was just trying to engage people. Customers were so sweet. They’d call me and be like, “Do you still have those flamingo pajamas?” And then they’d pull up the store, open their trunk, and I’d stick the bag in their car. I did that until May 10 or so. When I reopened, I was working by myself because there just weren’t enough people shopping for me to bring back employees.
There were many days when I pulled some crazy, long hours between being physically at the store and then doing billing or answering emails at night. But you do what you have to do. The crash in 2008 gave me the skills I needed to survive the pandemic. I learned how to adapt — how to be an entrepreneur.
What advice would you give your younger self?
When the store had been open for seven years, I wanted to sell it. I was so sick of working six days a week and never having any money. I was envious of all my friends who were in careers and getting paid vacations. I felt like I was tied to my store. Then I met with a business broker and he told me the assessment of what my business was worth. I was so insulted but it lit a fire in me. I remodeled my store that year. I changed my merchandise selection. I repainted. I created a logo. That fire continued for the next ten years until I opened my second store.
Like other young entrepreneurs, I wasn’t patient. I wanted it all right away. I saw everybody being successful and I was frustrated. So I would tell my younger self to be patient. It will come — just continue to work hard. Don’t expect to become an overnight success.
What is one skill you’re learning right now?
Social media is one thing that I’ve had to learn over the past couple of years. I’m always looking for inspiration within my own industry for a better way to communicate, especially because I’m always searching for new customers. When you’ve been open as long as I have, customers who were in their 50s at the beginning are now in their 80s. So I’m constantly trying to look for a 20-year-old to become my customer. I want to go through her marriage with her and be there for her first baby. But I have to figure out how to coax her away from a big-box retailer.