Move over, fellas. The Kates are in town. Actually, their names are Julie, Sharon, Amanda, Lissy, Lauren and Zoe, but among the fashion crowd and people who like cool products they’re known as the Dear Kate team. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They make and sell lingerie with a patent-pending lining to protect women from life’s little surprises.
If you’re giggling right now or a deep shade of crimson, get over it. This all-women business, headquartered a hop from the East Side at Davol Square in Providence, is making a name for itself and not just here in Little Rhody. Style magazines across the country are keen on the product, and even the talking heads at Fox & Friends gave the intimates a shout-out on live television.
What appeals to me about the company is that it is run by smart, young, energetic women who are working hard to make the business a success. Plus, the boss, Julie Sygiel, is an East Side resident who graduated from Brown University with a degree in the very brainy field of chemical engineering. The second-in-command, Sharon Ruggieri, hails from nearby Cranston and has a master’s degree in business from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
Like all great inventions, the story of Dear Kate begins with an “aha’’ moment. Five years ago, Julie decided to take an entrepreneurship class at Brown, deviating from her usual engineering courses. Encouraged by feedback from her lady friends, she created something that is useful every single day somewhere in the world: leak-resistant undies.
Each pair is lined with three layers: two absorbent and wicking inner layers, and a bottom, liquid-resistant outer layer. The undies are machine washable and pretty darn attractive. Let’s put it this way: you are not wearing your grandmother’s panties.
Buoyed by the good response, Julie promptly launched a company called Sexy Period, a name that’s a wee bit hard to snuggle up to. Sharon came on board after meeting Julie at a networking event for startups in Providence in 2011. The two hit it off, and a rebranded version was born as Dear Kate.
Back in the Sexy Period days, the company focused on women during that time of month. The entrepreneurs soon discovered that pregnant women experiencing incontinence and women doing jumping jacks in the gym were looking for extra protection too. (Yet another “aha’’ moment for the team!)
Sales soared during the winter holiday season and now the team is psyched for what is expected to be another good year offering everything from high-rise briefs to hipster styles. Pairs range from $28 to $38.
Locally, the big news is that Mrs. Robinson, the iconic lingerie shop at Wayland Square, will carry the line starting in April. The company is also coming out with a spring collection of underwearwith lace waistbands. Finally, look for two new colors: black and pink.
Julie, a mere 25, is the first to admit that she never thought she’d be running an underwear company. But she says her generation was taught to embrace challenges. “I think our generation heard a lot of people tell us to follow our passion,’’ she says. “Sometimes what makes you happy is not going to work for a large company, so following your passion means doing your own thing.’’
Julie is from a small town in eastern Kentucky, where she excelled in school, learned how to sew in a 4-H program, and got some business experience under her, uh, sash. She sold 10,000 Girl Scout cookies as a young girl. Honest. Since graduating from Brown in 2009, she has happily “done underwear,’’ even sewing test panties in her Wayland Square apartment. Julie is also co-founder of the PVD Lady Project, a growing nonprofit group that connects and showcases female entrepreneurs and creative souls in Providence.
Sharon graduated in 2007 with a degree in mechanical engineering and Spanish from the University of Rhode Island. She received a Fulbright in Mexico to work in banking and eventually got her master’s in business from MIT. She was looking for new opportunities when she connected with Julie at the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a statewide hub to launch business ventures. It helped that Sharon was a devoted Girl Scout, too.
The company’s website is a delight. Clever with crisp writing, it’s that rare combination of professional and fun. Check out the video of marketing coordinator Amanda Eller, another East Sider, demonstrating, with a glass of water, the “wicking and leak resistant-properties” of the underwear. Now that’s bold!
I’m a big fan of the Dear Kate blog. One day, we get self-defense tips from kick-boxer Sharon; the next day we see Julie at her sewing machine experimenting with different styles. (I say go for the high-waisted retro undies!) Everyone in the office seems to be having a blast. “It’s been an incredible experience to lead a company of all women,” says Julie. “Women are making the decisions and calling the shots. It’s inspiring.”
As for the company’s name, well, it’s a perfect fit. Julie told me the name conjures the idea of an advice column from Kate, a name beloved by many. Think of all the fabulous Kates through history – Russian Empress Catherine the Great, the writer Kate Chopin and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Then there are the lesser-known Kates – the model Kate Moss, the designer Kate Spade and the make-believe character Kate Austen on Lost, a television series about oddballs and derring-do types stranded on a mysterious tropical island. I bet Ms. Austen could use a pair from Dear Kate.