Quick Question

Womanhood's Tanya Robertson On Reshaping The Lingerie Industry

"The goal is to create something that doesn't make people feel like they have to look or be a certain way to belong."

In Bustle's Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance they've ever gotten, to what they're still figuring out. Here, Womanhood's Tanya Robertson tells Bustle about finding the courage to switch careers, the importance of community, and empowering women though body confidence.

What immediately stands out to me about Womanhood founder Tanya Robertson is her conviction. She has an unwavering belief in what she wants to change (our relationship with our bodies) and her role within that. It is as refreshing and comforting as her brand's Instagram feed, which carves our a safe space for womxn in what can be a toxic environment.

"The goal is to create something that doesn't make people feel like they have to look or be a certain way to belong," she says simply.

Since launching in 2019, Robertson has assembled a group of emerging lingerie brands – soon to be 11 labels from around the world – all designed by and for women, to change the narrative around these intimate pieces of clothing. And though business has boomed in lockdown (more on that later) the concept of Womanhood has been in the works for years. "I was consumed by the idea from an early age," she says, recalling (and recoiling) at the memory of her own first bra fitting. "I just couldn't let go of how this item of clothing that women have to put on every day had so much potential to make us feel so rubbish." Another deeply relatable feeling. "Women deserve better," she says, "better representation, better products, more choice, more sustainable options."

If trying to reshape the an industry that typically relies on exposure or extravagance – or both – to make its most salient points about sexuality and femininity wasn't enough, Robertson has also been doing so amid a pandemic.

"I'd only been operating for six months at that point," she recalls of first lockdown. "I feel really grateful because I definitely was at a point where I thought, 'this is it. It's coming to an end. What am I going to do? I'll have to pack it all in.' And then the complete opposite happened."

Business boomed the for the lingerie e-tailer, to the tune of a 267% increase in revenue and 178% uplift in sales. "You could really tell from the orders that people realised that buying underwear made them feel good," she says, commenting the colourful curations she saw coming through. "Comfort was clearly important, too. And that's the thing about underwear designed by women: they are all designing from their own experiences or annoyances, so everything is insanely comfortable."

As lockdown 2.0 (hopefully) comes to an end, Robertson reflects on making the leap, the importance of building a community, and being your own cheerleader.

You were in full time employment – working in marketing – when you decided to make the leap and launch your own brand. How did you make that decision?

TR: Honestly, it took me like five or six years to find the bravery. In my mind, launching Womanhood was always something I was going do when I was older, or cooler, or more experienced. Basically, none of those things happened, other than getting older. I just figured that I needed to give it a go. I was offered a career coach in my last job which turned out to be the biggest blessing of all. She helped me build confidence which ultimately allowed me to leave the company.

Building confidence is at the heart of Womanhood, too. How do you approach that and what role does the community play?

TR: Honestly, it is the most important thing for me: that what we're doing is creating something that feels real and does away with that idea that you have to look a certain way to belong. Everyone that we shoot is from our community. They've replied to casting calls, and are photographed by a female photographer, with natural light and we don’t retouch our images.

I get messages all the time saying "thank you for posting this. I feel like this has allowed me to see myself because I can see someone who represents what I look like." Hearing and sharing people's stories, seeing them acknowledge their own beauty and worth – which in turn allows others to do the same – is the most humbling.

As brilliant as social media is for creating community, there is also a dark side. Selling underwear, how often do you come up against shadowbanning and what kind of impact does it have on your business?

TR: It forces us to be more creative, because we can't rely on Instagram and Facebook as a pillar of consistent advertising. I get so frustrated with it because it puts such a block on us, but I think the thing I find most frustrating about it is the inconsistency. We can post something and then it gets taken down, and then we post it again, and it's fine. Or it could be just a picture of a product – not on a person, not in any way that could be deemed as sexually provocative – and still it is challenged by the algorithm. Is it because it's the closest item of clothing to your skin? Or is it the connotations of lingerie being a sexual thing? I don't know. But it's certainly made me more aware of where we spend our money and how we reach our customers.

What's the best piece of advice you'd give to someone embarking on a new project now?

TR: Believe in yourself. I've personally found that a real challenge, because being my own cheerleader is not something that comes naturally to me, but I do think that confidence creates competence. Believing in your own potential is so important.

I think reaching out for help from someone in your industry should always be a norm, and people should get into the good practice of doing that

What about the worst career advice you've received?

TR: It's strange, but for some reason when you have a business, people give you advice whether you've asked for it or not. It used to really annoy me and I would call my mum and rant about how no one would dare tell my father how to be a teacher, but suddenly everyone's telling me how to run a business! It isn't about turning a blind eye, but about honing in on what serves you.

What is the one thing you wish you had known when you launched Womanhood?

TR: I didn't know anyone else who was doing what I was doing when I was starting out. And looking back, that was really lonely and isolating. About four months in, I met two other women with startups of their own and they are phenomenal. We have regular FaceTimes and talk about our little business bubbles, and it has really helped us. I would encourage anyone to seek that out: connecting with others who can share in your experience. I think reaching out for help from someone in your industry should always be a norm, and people should get into the good practice of doing that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.