Designs for 'real women'

Date: Dec 31, 2004

She knows what 'real woman' want!

Publication: Lexington Minute Man

Julianna Rae lingerie is pratical yet fun

By Brooke Leister

Juli Lee has a mission. She wants women to feel not only comfortable, but pampered, when they slip into her line of lingerie and pajamas.

Not everyone looks like supermodels Gisele Bundchen and Tyra Banks. She knows this. Most women out there know this too.

When she founded her business Julianna Rae, she sought to fill a void in the women's apparel market she believed was under serving a huge population of women. These are women who are suburban, active, independent, most likely college-educated and upper income, as well as self-rewarding and self-confident. The bulk of women she designs for are ages 30 to 60, although younger and older customers purchase her items.

"She's independent. She isn't waiting for life to happen - she's in there. She says, 'OK, life is here, let's embrace it,'" Lee, 36, said of her client profile.

These are the type of women who walk into Victoria's Secret, survey the thongs and impractical panty and bra sets, and leave discouraged because nothing suits their own lifestyle. These are the same type of women who may walk into department stores, take one look at the undergarments and think of their grandmothers.

When Lee, a 1985 Lexington High School graduate, started the Burlington-based Julianna Rae, she wanted to provide these women an alternative with beautifully made garments. She also wanted to ease the shopping process.

Lee, along with partners Bill Keefe and Olivier Garrett, founded the company in January and incorporated it in February. The Web site launched in late September. Next year, they plan to add a catalog and active wear line.

"I've always loved intimates. My friends would say to me, 'Why isn't there anything out there for people our age?' So, it just started bubbling in my head. There was just nothing out there," said Lee, who holds a computer science degree, as well as a master's of business administration degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lee began her fashion designing career soon after earning her undergraduate degree from MIT. At age 22, she moved to New York City to pursue her interest in fashion.

She began working in account management for a private label company, whose sole client was Victoria's Secret.

"They put me on the high fashion account. After a few weeks, the designer quit. They said, 'Oh, what can you do?' ... I was OK with it because I really had no choice. I really liked designing so that to me was fascinating," she said.

At the time Victoria's Secret did not have their own design staff, rather they outsourced to different design companies. There were technical designers on staff at the company where Lee worked who turned her designs into reality.

From a really awful purple teddy, her description of one of her early designs, to an extensive line of silks, Lee learned the ins and outs of the design business.

"You learn by experience. You learn what sells well, what doesn't sell well," she said. "You learn a lot by walking through the stores."

After several years in the business, Lee decided to enroll in the MBA program at MIT. She earned her graduate degree in 1995, and hoped to return to the clothing business - only this time on the business end.

Because most companies wanted to hire her as a designer, she decided to put her business degree to use by joining the Boston Consulting Group, where she focused on retail, consumer goods, the Internet and some technology.

"It was a great place to learn the Internet," she said, adding that in 1995-'96 few companies took full advantage of the Internet's potential.

After working at the consulting group, Lee worked for Microsoft on a Web site development project, for a small clothing company in Dedham, where she designed women's apparel, and eventually in the media division at EMC in Hopkinton.

While at the Dedham clothing company, which is now based in Brockton, Lee designed clothing for women ages 30 through 55.

"A really good way to get to know your customer is to step outside your likes and dislikes," she said. "... It was a good way to learn about that clientele. I'm getting older, my friends are getting older. It was easier to know that customer."

When the media division was disbanded at EMC, Lee decided to take the knowledge she learned about start-ups while working for the Hopkinton company, and start Julianna Rae. It was the perfect opportunity to combine the skills from her varied professional background.

She's back to designing and is buoyed by the company's possibilities.

Visitors to the Web site will find easily navigable pages. For those uncertain of what will look best on them, the "Find the Right Fit" section is designed to help. The section breaks women's body types into flower shapes, and accompanying pages display what will look best on each shape. For example, roses are more full-figured women, while irises are for those who are hourglass-shaped.

"Women really like the flower shape. They find it really easy to use and really helpful," she said. "... It sort of dissuades them from picking the wrong thing."

Lee is also selective about her materials. Many of the bras, panties, camisoles, robes and pajamas are made of silk, Egyptian cotton, cotton sateen and micro modal, described as soft, silky and machine washable.

"One of the things women like about our company is we are bringing the dressing room to their house," she said. "There haven't been a lot of requests for a store. Women love shopping this way."

While Lee is content at Julianna Rae, she's not sure what the future will hold for her. Someday, she would like to help with women's rights issues overseas.

Until then, though, she's happy to continue designing and help her company grow.

Visit Julianna Rae at www.juliannarae.com.