Features

Spotted at Brown: Panties make periods ‘sexy’

By
Contributing Writer

Dressed in a black and white cocktail dress and donning bright lipstick, Julie Sygiel ’09 lifted her glass of pink champagne in a toast. “Here’s to being sexy and successful. Period,” she told a downtown audience Saturday night at her company’s launch party. The formally clad crowd — which included students, professors, Sygiel’s friends and friends of friends — chimed in with a “Cheers!” and waited in anticipation for what was probably the first fashion show of its kind in history.

Sygiel is co-founder and CEO of Sexy Period, a company that designs underwear for menstruating women.

Saturday’s party celebrated the Brown-born company’s recent success — nearly all of the 500 pairs featured at its preview sale have sold — and national media recognition. But this success did not come easily. “I never understood the phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ until developing this company,” Sygiel said.

 

Ideas flowing

Sexy Period was conceived in the spring of 2008, when Sygiel and co-founder Eunice Png ’09 took ENGN 1930: “Entrepreneurship and New Ventures” with entrepreneur Danny Warshay ’87, adjunct lecturer in engineering. Warshay is familiar with start-ups — he created his first business as an undergraduate.

Sygiel, Png and two other classmates — one female and one male — had to propose a business plan providing a solution to a problem.

“Eunice had just taken a trip over winter break with a few of her closest girlfriends, and they all had their periods at the same time,” Sygiel said. “All of a sudden she realized that she’s not the only one who has period spills — just no one ever talks about it.”

The group decided to create a line of “period underwear” that was not only leak-resistant and stain-resistant but also cute, unlike the “granny panties” that women often wear while menstruating, Sygiel said. The underwear would be designed to be an added layer of protection rather than a replacement for a woman’s usual menstruation products.

Warshay was initially dismissive.

“I remember sitting with Eunice and Julie in the lobby of (Barus and Holley) and I said, ‘I’m looking for business plans in this class that would project over $100 million in sales. How big could this opportunity be?’” Warshay said.

Warshay encouraged the group to gather qualitative and quantitative data showing there was an actual need for their product and find examples of similar companies with over $100 million in sales.

 

Development cycles

Menstrual spills are not exactly “a topic that most people are that comfortable talking about, especially not a male professor,” Warshay said. “Nevertheless, they figured out some creative ways.”

A student entering a women’s bathroom on campus that spring might have seen a flyer and a pen taped to the wall. “Does your period suck? Take this survey. Help improve your period experience!” the flyers read, with spaces for anonymous answers. Questions on the flyer asked about the underwear the survey taker wore during her period and how often she experienced leaks.

The group also conducted interviews online and in person. Sixty percent of surveyed women experienced period spills at least once a month, and many expressed desire for the product.

Having won Warshay’s approval, the group continued developing its business plan throughout the semester.

But even after the class ended, Png and Sygiel kept working on the product. The duo entered the 2008 Rhode Island Elevator Pitch Competition and won $300 and the support of an investor.

Various fabric companies advised the group to use a plastic film for their underwear, like similar products on the market. Png and Sygiel were determined to use a non-plastic fabric that would set them apart from their competition. But by Commencement Day, they still had not found it.

In October 2009, while the duo worked five jobs between the two of them, they caught a break and found a leak- and stain-resistant fabric that contained no plastic.

Png and Sygiel sewed prototypes — Hanes underwear with the special fabric sewn into the bottom — and mailed them to hundreds of volunteers. They asked the researchers to test for a “worst-case scenario spill” — one hour of unprotected, heavy flow, Sygiel said. Participants washed the underwear, wrote down feedback and sent back the results.

“What we found was that it worked great for leak resistance, and sometimes it worked well for stain release, but sometimes not,” Sygiel said. “We decided to launch with a product with a black lining to hide stains.”

With their product technology in place and enough investors for Sygiel to work full-time for the company, Sexy Period was on a roll. Png chose to attend graduate school for vocal performance and is no longer actively involved, but her voice in Sexy Period can be still be heard in the promotional video’s vocal track.

There are three Sexy Period collections — Friday Night Fabulous, Blossoming Beauty and Simply Stunning — and three cuts — cheeky, hipster and bikini. Prices range from $32 to $44 depending on style and cut, and the products are currently only available through Sexy Period’s website. They are soft and similar to the texture of a bathing suit. Some are floral-patterned, while others include lace details.

 

A tide of interest

Sexy Period has received a good deal of media attention, from an appearance on National Public Radio to myriad blog reviews.

The blog coverage is a mix of praise and criticism. A sardonic article on Gawker, “‘Sexy period panties’ help you menstruate on yourself, sexily,” opens with the line, “Have you been longing for a diaper to sop up excess period blood? Not an ugly diaper, but a sleek, sexy one?”

Most of the critical reviews are driven by a dislike of the inclusion of the term “sexy” in the product’s name. But the name is here to stay, whether in the company name or under an umbrella brand name in the future, Sygiel said.

“Misinterpretations are that we’re advocating for women being sexy 24/7,” Sygiel said.

But Sexy Period disagrees. “It’s more that during that time of the month, every woman feels not at her best. We want to banish that moment,” said Caitlin Conn ’12, marketing coordinator and an initial prototype researcher. “We want these to be your favorite underwear that you can wear.”

The name “definitely catches attention, and it sticks in people’s minds,” Conn said.

Ultimately, Sygiel said, Sexy Period is not only about underwear.

“Compare today’s society with 40 years ago,” she said, gesturing to her display of three pairs of Sexy Period underwear sitting on a Blue Room table. “We probably wouldn’t have underwear on the table. I probably would not be presenting to male investors. It was so taboo back then.”

Sygiel intends to keep expanding. The company will restock in April after receiving feedback from the preview sale. For the future, Sygiel said she has considered developing men’s and children’s lines utilizing similar technology.

“There’s nothing out there on the market like this,” said Holly Bronhard, the pattern maker who brings Sexy Period’s sketches to life, at the launch party. “They’ve definitely hit a great target market.”

During her toast, Sygiel admitted the product can still be an awkward topic, even to those involved. Warshay, she said, “still blushes when he talks about us.”