Jamaica Observer / Moved by love, spurred on by passion, and surviving a fire, Donalda Reid is determined to make women feel beautiful, confident and comfortable in their most intimate apparel – La Belle Femme, the business of intimate beauty. After years of being in senior management in sales and marketing, Donalda, who had moved to Jamaica only a few years earlier to marry the love of her life, needed a new challenge.
She also needed a new bra, but couldn’t find one with the right fit – not locally. “When I looked for a place where I could buy a good quality bra, one that actually fit, there was nothing available in the marketplace…It was an unfulfilled niche market.”
So the idea for La Belle Femme was born.
What started as a one-woman show has grown into a flourishing lingerie, bra and bra-fitting service business, employing both permanent and temporary staff. “We have concentrated on providing outstanding customer service in a warm and inviting environment with a very deep and broad selection of bras, panties, bra-sized swimwear, shapewear and lingerie, accessories and some loungewear.”
They also cater to cancer survivors by offering bras and breast forms for post-mastectomy patients. “One of the most rewarding things we do is help breast cancer survivors feel a little more like themselves again.”
“La Belle Femme is French for The Beautiful Woman. Since the word lingerie comes from the French for linen, which is what undergarments were made of hundreds of years ago, a French name seemed appropriate.” Plus, she explained that she wanted women to recognise their own beauty.
Currently located in the Pinnacle Pointe office complex at 53 Lady Musgrave Rd in Kingston, the boutique caters to women of all ages and sizes. “We will typically have something for everyone, regardless of size or need,” she explained.
The company moved from Montego Bay to Kingston in 2014. “It started in Montego Bay in a little cottage off ‘Bottom’ Road in MoBay in 2011, but really did not take off until we moved into Kingston in December 2014.”
Though she won’t discuss the actual numbers, Donna will say that since moving to Kingston, business has improved. “Since we opened our doors in Kingston, the business has been growing year over year, and our sales have increased each year by more than 25 per cent. We are pleased with the fact that every week dozens of new customers come in who have heard about us and we are able to take care of them.”
The company carries dozens of styles and more than 120 different sizes, including strapless and sports bras. Bra prices range from $6,000 to $14,000, depending on style and type. Office Manager Jalna Broderick advises against wearing the same bra for two days straight, and so recommends five everyday bras, and suggests that “some women also add a strapless or sports bra if they regularly go to the gym”.
ITS ALL IN THE FIT
In an area that deals with women in such an intimate way, it is no surprise that La Belle Femme’s success lies in its customer service. Donalda and her staff pride themselves on not just selling bras but selling an experience of a great fitting session – to get the right bra at the right fit for the right price.
“We are passionate about fit, and we are aware that every bra fits a little differently. It is not unusual for a customer to leave with bras in more than one size, depending on the fit of the individual styles. We would rather lose a sale than put a woman in the wrong fit,” shared Donalda.
Donalda has numerous stories of how, thanks to her business, the perfect bra has not only changed a woman’s appearance but also her confidence. “We literally change women’s lives and self-esteem daily.” One such story is of an 85-year-old lady who came in with her niece who said her aunt wasn’t feeling well and wanted to feel more comfortable.
“We got her fitted, and when she walked out of that fitting room I swear she was like 40 years younger! She actually sashayed out of the fitting room with her purse hanging over her arm, head held high and with a swing to her hips. When I told her that my husband would tell her she was a hot number she said, ‘Where is he? I could use a compliment’!”
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY
Donalda claims that social media has helped to give the company a boost of visibility. “Our social media presence is also very strong, and that has contributed greatly to getting the word out and making women aware of our services… And we get a great many referrals and testimonials from our existing customer base.”
However, Donalda’s story has not been the perfect fairy tale.
Starting a business in a foreign country had its challenges, especially as she had never been self-employed before. Nevertheless, Donalda admits that she received much support, especially from her husband Douglas Reid, and is quite grateful.
“There were a great number of challenges getting started, but I have been assisted in that regard by a number of very capable people who helped enormously.”
Setbacks varied from “credit card charges that escalated, to sitting alone in the cottage for days, without even having one customer visit”, and having to worry about how she would make ends meet. She even experienced every business person’s worst nightmare – a fire – in which she lost more than $1-million worth of products.
“We got a call one night from a taxi driver who said that he had seen smoke coming out of the cottage (this was at 11 pm), saw my cell phone number on the sign on the gate, and called. By the time we got there, the area of the cottage that we occupied had been pretty much gutted, and all the inventory that had been on display, plus all the infrastructure had gone up in smoke,” she explained. She managed to save the inventory that was left.
“Those were rough times. Like many small businesses we had no insurance, so it was an out-and-out loss,” she continued.
Her current struggle is maintaining her inventory to meet the needs of customers. “ That has occasionally meant a disappointed customer – something we hate but are getting better at managing. An inventory control system is something in the works for 2018 to aid in reordering the right products at the right time.”
For La Belle Femme, Donalda hopes to continue to grow the business, but through strategic and intentional steps. For instance, the company now offers fitting services and pop-up stores in Montego Bay every two months. Donalda shared that requests come in from other cities daily. “We have to consider these requests in light of the logistics involved, and at the moment will just concentrate on Montego Bay and possibly Ocho Rios.”
They also offer visits to businesses where they educate staff on proper bra selection and fitting. “So far we have visited organisations like GraceKennedy, The National Works Agency, and The Girl Guides Association of Jamaica.
La Belle Femme’s future plans do not include international domination, but are focused on developing their current location.
“In our future we see a few more branches of La Belle Femme, but at the moment we are concentrating on making the Kingston branch the best it can be.”