This Immigrant Entrepreneur Launched Her Billion Dollar Empire, Despite Speaking No English

A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

In 1904, eighteen year old Ida Rosenthal immigrated to the US, speaking only her native Russian. Shortly after arriving in New York City, her husband fell ill, forcing Ida to become the family’s sole breadwinner.

She used her meager savings to purchase a sewing machine and began creating dresses from magazine photos, which she sold for $25 each.

  1. Overnight Business Success Requires Decades Of Hard Work

Thirteen years after she began making dresses, Ida had grown her modest business to fifteen employees.

Opportunity knocked when one of her customers was spotted at a high-end boutique, wearing one of Ida’s outfits. The store’s owner, Enid Bissett, asked the customer where she had purchased the dress.

  1. Be A Partner, Not A Supplier

Enid approached Ida and proposed that she supply her with dresses. Ida refused. Instead, she suggested that they go into business together, as equal partners.

The two women established a custom dress shop called Enid Frocks. Rather than selling dresses for $25, Ida’s designs were now selling for over $300. Their partnership lasted for a decade.

  1. Be Egoless And Let Users Shape Your Value Prop

Ida’s second big break came a few years later, when one of her customers asked if she could augment her wardrobe by purchasing some of the supporting linings that Ida placed in her dresses to accentuate the wearer’s bosom.

If Ida had been a prima donna designer, she might have rejected this request out of hand. However, as a pragmatic business person, she happily complied with the customer’s request, selling the dress linings for $1 each.

Realizing the supportive linings represented a stand-alone product, Ida and Enid began giving away one bra for each dress purchased. This encouraged customers to incorporate the bra into their overall wardrobe.

  1. Go Against The Flow

In America during the early 1920’s, the predominant style in women’s fashion was the Flapper, “boyish form” look, which de-emphasized women’s curves. Products such as the Symington Side Lacer were designed to flattened women’s breasts. In contrast, Ida’s designs accentuated women’s feminity. To underscore their product’s differentiation, Ida and Enid branded their bras “Maidenform.”

Once the Flapper style began to fade in the late 1920’s, many women embraced a more feminine style that accentuated their bodies, rather than obscuring it. Ida was well positioned to expand her market from upscale clients purchasing custom dresses to mass market consumers.

  1. Fast Followers Usually Beat First Movers

Ida was hardly the first person to produce a brassier. Women had been using various types of fabric to bind, support and accentuate their breasts for thousands of years, as evidence in ancient Grecian and Roman art.

Ida wasn’t even the first modern-day entrepreneur to offer women brassieres. In 1917, Mary Phelps Jacobs was granted patent 1,115,674, which states, “This invention relates to improvements in brassieres.” (sic)

Unlike Ida and Enid, Mary Jacobs was a wealthy socialite who did nothing to market or sell her bra design. As such, it had no impact on the fashion market.

  1. Celebrity Sells

Through Enid’s connections within New York’s Broadway acting community, she encouraged actresses to include Maidenform bras in their wardrobes. This public exposure drove wealthy customers to Enid Frocks. the target market which frequented Enid and Ida’s dress boutique.

As the Flapper fashion trend fell out of favor, the company courted Hollywood actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, to wear their bras in films, thus introducing brassieres to a national market.

  1. Sex Sells Even Better Than Celebrities

In 1949, the company launched its iconic, “I dreamed ________ (fill in the blank with a mundane task)… in a Maidenform Bra” campaign. The ads were scandalous, as they were the first to feature intimate apparel – and in very public places, such as buses, billboards and television.

Americans had not previously been exposed to scantily clad models. The ads showed women in ordinary situations (commuting in a bus, shopping, working in an office, etc.), clothed normally from the waist down, but otherwise only wearing a Maidenform bra. The campaign was so successful that it ran through the 1960’s and allowed Maidenform to sell their products at premium prices, well above those of their competition.

  1. Innovate Beyond Product Features

The company’s “I dreamed…” campaign caused demand to outstrip production. In response to the national adoption of their fashion innovation, Ida’s husband William (with the help of his sister Masha Hammer) boosted output by establishing the first mass production line in the women’s apparel industry. By breaking the manufacture of bras into simple, distinct steps, the company produced millions of bras a year.

  1. Control Your Destiny, Despite Adverse Exogenous Factors

The US’s entrance into World War II proved challenging for many businesses, including Maidenform, as the fabrics the company relied on were in short supply. Rather than allow material shortages to impact their business, Ida and William utilized their factories to manufacture parachutes. They also designed a Pigeon Bra, worn by US paratroopers.

Their military “bra” was in actuality a vest that fit over the men’s chest and carried a messenger pigeon. When the solider landed, they attached a note to the pigeon, specifying their landing location and other relevant logistical information.

  1. Keep It In The Family

After William died in 1958, Ida remained in sole control of Maidenform until health issues forced her to retire in 1963. Her son-in-law, Dr. Joseph Coleman subsequently ran the business until his death in 1968, at which time Ida’s daughter Beatrice became CEO and operated the business until her death in 1990.

Beatrice had joined the company in 1938, taking a hands-on approach to learning every aspect of operations, including sewing bras on the assembly line. In a 1987 interview, Beatrice noted, “I was studying to be a teacher at the time, but deep down I knew I really didn’t want to teach. So when my mother asked me to come into the business, I was overjoyed. I’d always admired my mother. She was an entrepreneur at a time when entrepreneurial women were few and far between.”

Maidenform remained family owned and operated until 1997, when it filed for bankruptcy protection. After two years of restructuring, the business re-emerged under new ownership.

Despite the ever-changing tastes of fashion, the Maidenform brand remains popular in 2019, as part of the $6.5 billion Hanes family of apparel brands.

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Image credit: StockSnap via Pixabay

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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