Lingerie that hasn’t stayed hidden
by Will Lindner
Kerry O’Brien and her husband, Ed Biggins, pioneered the development of “raw cut” undergarments — the underpinnings of commando, the South Burlington manufacturing company they founded in 2003.
There is a segment of society that has never heard of VPLs. Kerry O’Brien and Ed Biggins market to the segment that has — the millions who, whether they know the acronym or not, are intimately acquainted with the syndrome.
“VPLs are visible panty lines,” O’Brien explains. “The term is well-known in the fashion world. We banish VPLs.”
Although commando, the Shelburne couple’s internationally known product line, does more than banish VPLs, the encompassing purpose of its creations is to achieve that “sheer look,” as O’Brien describes it. And these products — an extensive catalog of women’s undergarments, accessories, and swimwear — are, in the fullest sense, the company’s creations.
For other companies, “creations” would mean new styles, colors, and perhaps fabrics. For commando (which opts for lower case in all its titles), it means those things, too; its seasonal style guide depicts a wild array of patterns, from polka dots to tiger stripes to butterflies and skulls!
But in commando’s case, “creations” also means something akin to engineering. Starting with its thongs in 2005, commando pioneered what O’Brien calls the “raw cut”: undergarments with no seams, elastic, or trim on the edges. Taking the product out of its box, a woman might think, “Will these stay up?” The answer is that they do. And they don’t indent her skin, nor show their outline through her clothing.
“Women care a lot about these things,” says O’Brien.
Importantly, so do those who dress them — fashion designers in New York, Paris, and elsewhere, where commando’s products have been embraced. When a model is on the runway, the designers want buyers’ attention focused upon the clothing, not distracted by telltale ridges of underwear. It’s why commando calls its thongs, briefs, shapewear, slips, and other hidden garments “invisible underwear.”
There are many playful allusions to nudity in the company’s tag lines and slogans: the thongs, mere wisps of things, come in a small, delicate box with the words “better than nothing”; the name “commando” itself comes from the phrase “going commando,” defined on Wikipedia as “the practice of not wearing underwear.” While there’s a flirtatious sexiness in these names and slogans, they also imply a certain long-sought freedom for women, from the discomfort they have associated with their undergarments at least since the days of whalebone corsets.
“Kerry is probably the most creative entrepreneurial person I know,” says Michelle Cote, a friend from their New York City days, where the two Vermonters met in the 1990s. Cote specializes in marketing research and is now employed by MyWebGrocer in Winooski. “What makes Kerry so talented is her experience in PR; she approaches her product development with skill and great taste, being on top of trends and then bringing it together with a little twist and marketing hook. That’s how she’s been so clever naming her products.”
And packaging them. Cote cites “takeouts” as an example — removable oval-shaped gels to enhance cleavage (tag line: “the better boob job”). They’re packaged in faux Chinese-food containers.
Such playful trickery is very intentional.
“What I wanted to do was to energize the lingerie and accessory business,” O’Brien says, sitting at a table with Biggins, her husband and partner, in a loft in their airy 16,000-square-foot business center and warehouse in South Burlington, where they employ 40-some people. “I wanted to take a product that people kept hidden in a drawer somewhere and would only whisper about, and change it to something fun and considered a fashion accessory. And sell these to boutiques and major department stores.”
There may have been an inkling of this kind of product orientation in O’Brien’s selection of Jogbra — a local company, revolutionary in its time — for an internship, as a South Burlington High School student in the 1980s. O’Brien, from a multi-generational Irish-and-Lebanese, Vermont family, then attended Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., attracted by its business focus.
“What was most interesting for me, though, in my college years, was that I did a lot of summer internships,” she says. She worked for then U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, and for the Democratic National Committee. “My family was active in the state Democratic party in Vermont. We always talked about politics when I was growing up.”
She also pursued media internships, working at CNN in New York City and for ABC’s Nightline program with Ted Koppel.
Her business degree, combined with her media experience, led her into financial public relations. Moving to New York after graduating in 1993, she landed a job with Edelman Public Relations, where she helped spirit companies such as Medtronic, Kodak, and US West as they worked their way through initial public offerings, mergers, acquisitions, and other transitions.
Meanwhile, Biggins, a tall “Texan” was also arriving in New York. (Although Biggins graduated from the University of Texas, he grew up in Evanston, Ill., and also has roots in Michigan, and Connecticut.) He began working for the investment bank Kidder Peabody, and a mutual friend set the two up on a blind date in 1997. He went back to Texas for an MBA, then returned to work for Salomon Brothers on Wall Street.
Biggins and O’Brien were married in 1999. Their careers were going well, and they enjoyed New York. Until 9/11 happened.
O’Brien, having joined Weber Shandwick in 1998 as senior vice president, was mere blocks from the World Trade Center that morning. Compounding the trauma was that her work required her to watch news broadcasts constantly. It was too much; she shut the TV off on September 12 and resigned her position. However, as she reflects on it now, she says, “The truth is, I was burned out. I was ready to move on to something else.”
It took a couple of years for that “something else” to gel. And it was a gel: the silicon “enhancers” that became takeouts. When O’Brien was casting about for her next adventure after leaving public relations, they would have friends over for dinner. “I would cook for everyone and we would brainstorm about what women want, what they’re interested in, about product names and packaging.”
O’Brien introduced takeouts in 2003. Now, looking back, she and Biggins think of that product as their “Trojan horse.” It caught on quickly, landing them in some 600 stores, from California — where they drove the coastline from San Francisco to L.A., O’Brien pregnant with their first child, Jack, making her pitch door-to-door — to the major markets of the East Coast. Through takeouts they forged relationships with, now, over 1,200 retailers, which were even more enthusiastic when they launched their commando line in 2005. Takeouts now represent a very small part of their business.
The raw-cut concept, shunning seams and elastic, was commando’s ticket, although there were skeptics.
“People said it would fray,” O’Brien remembers. “I refused to accept that. I worked with fabric manufacturers and we just kind of figured it out along the way.” Now, having expanded the principle to hosiery and other products, O’Brien says, “We are constantly pushing the boundaries of fabric and technology.”
Almost to their own surprise, Biggins and O’Brien have found themselves doing this from a base in Vermont. They moved north in 2003, hoping for a temporary interlude from the city. Biggins anticipated returning to Wall Street. But they embraced their O’Brien family connections, waterskiing out of Grand Isle, downhill skiing at Bolton Valley and Stowe, raising their children (Jack was joined by twins Mary and Sarah in 2008) in the intimacy they find here.
As for business, “All the things we’ve needed, we’ve found here,” says Biggins. “Cutters who can work with our fabrics; graphic designers; public relations experts.”
While each wears many hats, as the shepherd commando, Biggins gravitates toward business relations, freeing O’Brien to tap into her creativity. From their spacious South Burlington warehouse, packages are dispersed to prestigious retailers such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and the Canadian chain Holt Renfrew. Celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, Brooke Shields, and Reese Witherspoon laud the “dig-free” commando look. People, Seventeen, O, and New York magazines constitute a small sampling of the media outlets that have featured commando and its products.
“A year ago I was inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America,” says O’Brien. “It was a big honor. I think I’m the only Vermonter, and one of a handful of underwear/lingerie designers, to be inducted.”
Katherine Tucker, manager of Expressions boutique in Burlington, is one of commando’s local customers. She’s also a former employee, having worked for commando after graduating from Champlain College in 2007. During her two and a half years there, she says, “they grew an insane amount.” By the time she left, Tucker says, the company had to hire three people to take over her work.
“Ed can be kind of intimidating because he’s very tall,” she says with a laugh. “But he’s a big softy. They’re very hard-working, and their business is their life. But they’re lovely and generous people.”
Mostly, she is struck by the company’s international visibility and its roots in Vermont.
“The quality of their products is very high,” she says, “and it’s all U.S. made, a lot of it Vermont made. They’re hanging out with companies out of Paris! It’s pretty amazing — a company you wouldn’t normally see in a small state like this.” •