For some, running out of underwear means it’s time to do the wash. For others, it means a trip to buy new underwear to avoid doing the wash. But for many, comfortable and appealing underwear simply isn’t available. Carmen Liu, founder of GI Collection, the UK’s first transgender lingerie brand, knew she wasn’t the only one feeling underserved and underrepresented in the lingerie section. On this week’s episode of WERKIN with, Hayley chats with Carmen about tuning out negativity, mums as mentors and the joy of making people cry tears of joy.
Hayley: What motivated you to launch GI Collection?
Carmen: It all came about from my own experiences as a trans woman, with a lack of many products, but in particular lingerie. When I transitioned four years ago, it was the first thing that I tried to search for on Google, but I found nothing that was feminine and sexy.
And after about two years of frustration of not having lingerie, and hearing other trans women talk about not having lingerie, I just started to think about how I would create my own lingerie that would be suitable for trans women.
Luckily, last year I got the investment, and I began creating all the designs, the company structure and everything last July 2018.
Getting investors on board for a new idea can be a challenge. How did you find support?
I was quite lucky. The first investor that I approached was really interested, and had actually been looking for an LGBT business to invest in. So it worked out very well for me.
In my previous business, I often had to let go of ideas when I wasn’t getting investors. I would have to go back and start working for someone else, which I haven't done for many years, and obviously wasn't very interested in doing that again.
I just thought:
‘You know what? I've been wanting to create a trans business for two years now. It’s now or never. Someone else is gonna do it and I want to be that person that does that for our community.’
I heard your launch in London was incredible. One of WERKIN’s junior analysts was there and said, ‘We must get Carmen on the podcast.’
Yeah, it was amazing. The response from the launch event was incredible. And it wasn't just trans women that were there. There were cis men, cis women, all kinds of people from different backgrounds.
It was really nice to bring a mixture of people together and most of them that I spoke to, said how empowering it was just to see trans women on the runway. To hear that from a guy is quite odd, but it's also really nice, to know that we are making an impact on people that aren't necessarily transgender.
It's normalizing, it’s acceptance. It's fantastic that this is such a visible and real approach.
Yeah, when I was speaking with my investor at the beginning, I said that I was happy to make everything so public. I had been quite private with being trans. For three, four years, I never put that I was transgender on my social media because I don't feel it is necessary to say it.
I don't want people to just assume anything about me just because I'm trans, or to talk to me differently, look at me differently.
But I feel that it's so important that I make my life and this company very public to help those progress as a trans community, and help everyone understand us better.
Well, not only are you living the brand, you are the brand. Your story is the brand. It just makes so much sense to just be authentic. What are some of the main lessons you would share with anyone else looking to start a business?
Firstly, for anyone that wants to start a business, I would just say go for it. Don't put it off. Just do it. You never know, someone else might have the same idea. They may do it before you. Don't put it off.
It's nice to have a business of your own, especially something that's got a meaning specific for you. My company’s got a big meaning to my life.
Also, I would probably say sleep more.
I would say don't listen to what other people say. I've had a lot of people tell me within the first month we launched on social media that just said 'Your business is going to fail.’
That's the first thing they said to me,
‘Your business isn't going to go anywhere because it's not a big enough market.'
And I'm just thinking to myself,
‘You haven't even seen anything about the company yet, you don't know what we're launching.’
So don't let what other people say change your opinions on how you feel the company would impact the lives of whoever you're trying to market to. We've got a lot of hate comments. Just ignore them. Don't read the comments.
Do what you feel is right in your heart. Since the launch, I've got a greater meaning in life. I feel a lot more accepted as a trans woman because of the company, and it is making a big difference to a lot of women.
We get so many messages every week about customers crying when they try on the lingerie. It feels amazing to feel sexy. I know that we're doing the right thing.
If I had listened to these people saying that the business isn't going anywhere, I wouldn't have helped all these women today.
How has mentorship played a role in your career? Any tips for mentors or mentees?
I get a lot of my guidance from my investor, from a business perspective of how he would run his businesses because obviously he has many businesses. I like to pick his brain a bit, but I pretty much lead everything myself. It's quite hard because there aren't other trans businesses to get advice from. In terms of mentorship, I ask my mum a lot because I used to work with my mum when I was younger.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to an individual or even an institution seeking to be a better ally or advocate for the transgender community?
Research. You need to understand us as a community to be able to help us.
Know what our needs are. Trans people have specific needs, not just in clothing. And I feel people don't know enough about that to be able to provide for us.
If you can at least understand certain needs of a trans woman or trans man, then you can help us by either providing better products from your company, or just providing a better service and understanding us a lot better. We do have a lot of insecurities.
For example, if you're a makeup brand, understand that we are conscious of facial hair. It takes a year and a half to have laser hair removal. So, if you’re doing a trans lady's makeup, be more conscious of that. It's just simple things that if people could just read up a bit more, try and understand us a bit better, then they would be able to help us.