Eleanor Howie took secured finance of £6,500 through Start Up Loans delivery partner Virgin Start Ups in Spring 2020. Her business Valiant Lingerie provides empowering lingerie for women who have been impacted by breast cancer or risk-reducing mastectomies.
Her mother had breast cancer when Eleanor was very small and following surgery struggled to find lingerie that wasn’t frumpy, beige, and clinical. After discovering she has a genetic mutation that significantly increases her risk of a diagnosis of breast cancer, Eleanor had a risk-reducing mastectomy when she was just 24 years old and found that nothing had improved over time in terms of the availability of contemporary post-surgery underwear. This had a real impact on her self-esteem, so a few years later she decided to do something herself.
“I realised that I wasn’t the only person experiencing this,” she says. “I had conversations with other people; friends who’d had surgery, then their friends and it kept rippling out. I realised that there was a group of people who felt like me – that we weren’t represented and were being excluded by the mainstream industry.”
But there’s a big difference between having an idea and starting your own business.
“The thing that finally pushed me over the edge was when I got married in 2019. I was getting ready, trying to find something to wear under my wedding dress. I couldn’t find any underwear that didn’t look like a medical truss. That was the final straw. I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do something about this.’”
Eleanor has a large skillset gained from starting her career in law – and it’s one that’s been surprisingly transferrable in helping her become an underwear entrepreneur.
“From a legal background, I enjoy research,” she explains. “I enjoy getting into things and trying to understand them as deeply as I can. This can be a double-edged sword.
I did a lot of research about how the lingerie industry works and how garments are made and fed it all into my business plan, where I was able to draw upon previous skills for drafting complex documents. But the double-edged sword part of it is that it can be tempting to hide behind that research and think you need to keep going and find more information.
“When I was a litigation lawyer, I ran court cases, and essentially what you’re doing there is project management. You’re managing something through a sequence of steps in order to get to a certain outcome. Skills like this, where you’re spinning several plates at once, are always beneficial when you’re starting up a business.”
Eleanor didn’t hesitate to reach out for advice from a number of sources: “I was really lucky. Quite early on, I found the person that ultimately I ended up working with because she owns a company that does pattern development, and she has been in the lingerie industry for over ten years.
“With Start Up Loans, as part of their offering, they hold training events with experts for all the different subjects, from branding to legal basics, and everything in between. I attended a lot of those, so I was quite structured in my approach to accessing chances to learn more, because I was quite conscious that there’s always going to be gaps. You can’t possibly know everything. So I’m always trying to seek out ways to get more information.”
Eleanor is very conscious of the fashion industry being problematic in contributing to the climate crisis and does not want to be a part of the problem. Valiant Lingerie’s collection is made using yarn from recycled fishing nets. The fabric is soft and functional, but also sustainable and recyclable. All products in the line are produced by a small UK-based partner, cutting down on their carbon footprint.
What’s next for Valiant Lingerie?
“I’m currently designing a new range of swimwear,” says Eleanor. “I do a lot of ongoing market research, and one of the areas that kept coming up was that women were also experiencing a problem with finding age-appropriate, empowering, post-surgery swimwear. That range will hopefully be launching in the spring, ready for the summer holidays.”
But it won’t stop there, she says: “I’ve also had interest from other areas and different markets, like the US and Australia. The five-year plan definitely involves a degree of international expansion.”
What advice can she offer those at the beginning of their business journeys? Eleanor says: “I think it is really important that you do your research, and start making your business plan. You’ll probably find that it ends up being a working document and that it’s not going to be perfect. That’s fine. Ultimately, I think my advice is to go and put yourself out there and start. Trust yourself. Give yourself the chance to succeed.”