Illness Changes Everything

Phylise Sands hadn’t held a paying job in 20 years. But witnessing her sister’s battle with cancer inspired her to start her own activewear company

by Amanda Robb
phylise sands image
“When everything in your life is fine, it is pretty easy to be a good person,” says Sands, shown here at The Lara Touch exercise studio. “It’s when things are bad that it’s hard.”
Photograph: Adam Golfer

But the search wasn’t easy, and sometimes Sands felt hopeless. When that happened, she dealt with it by exercising. One day in May 2008, after a run, with her breasts stuffed into an itchy, bulky jog top, Sands had an idea. She’d always been irked by the poor fit of sports bras, so she decided she would design and manufacture beautiful--looking, lovely-feeling, proper-fitting athletic bras and donate part of the profits to breast-cancer research. She would call her company Red Daisy—in honor of the two sisters’ red hair and the lace flowers they used to collect from their grandfather’s embroidery factory.

That evening, she told her husband. His reaction: The idea was sweet but a little nuts. He knew his wife was supersmart and well organized, but she hadn’t held a paying job in 20 years. And except for selling Joan & David shoes during the Clinton administration, she’d never worked in fashion.

“I’m just going to start researching it,” Sands told him. While he was at work and her children at school, she went from store to store, trying on different bras and jog tops to see what was available. She discovered that bras are among the most difficult garments to make. She learned that there are virtually no lingerie or athletic-wear factories in the United States and that overseas facilities do not fill phone or Internet orders. She would need to find an industry insider, so she reached out to everyone in her social circle and finally discovered that her dad’s wife’s best friend knew someone who knew the iconic designer Roslyn Harte.

The owner of an intimate-apparel studio since 1954, Harte had spent a half century designing for major lingerie manufacturers, including Vanity Fair and Victoria’s Secret. But when Sands eagerly telephoned, Harte told her to go away. Twenty times. “All start-up companies are really a pain,” says Harte. “And Phylise didn’t know anything about the industry.”

Sands did sense a weakness in Harte’s armor: The designer is very philanthropic. So Sands honed her Red Daisy pitch to highlight her company’s commitment to breast-cancer research. “Yeah,” Harte sighs, “she finally got me. I thought, Oh, all right, I’ll put up with her.”

Harte agreed to design a bra, but one quickly turned into three—a soft cup, an underwire and a pullover. Sands made an initial investment of $7,500 in the project, which covered the prototypes, patterns and mockups, but she didn’t realize she’d have to pay extra for the “fit models,” women who, for $200 to $250 an hour, try on prototypes so adjustments can be made. “They are very harsh bra critics,” says Sands. “ ‘The strap is too tight! The cup binds!’ You go through about 30 fittings for every bra.”

During this process, Harte told Sands, “You know, three bras does not a company-with-market-presence make.” That requires a family of related pieces that mix and match, a line. Sands’s own buying habits told her this was true, so she expanded her vision to include tank tops, leggings, briefs and shorts—and her costs started escalating. In January 2010, when Sands had already spent about $20,000 of her family’s savings, she and her husband drew up a formal business plan. Over the next two years they’d risk a total of $200,000, or an average of $8,333 a month, coming from their investments and income.

“When I hired Roslyn to make that first bra, I thought I’d be out selling them in six months,” says Sands. “It sounds naive, because it was naive.” In reality, it was three years before she was ready to sell a single item.

Harte suggested using vintage corset and girdle patterns as inspiration for the entire Red Daisy line. Sands thought the idea was brilliant; those designs were all about beauty and support. Next, she and Harte began a quest for the right fabric. They found it in an Italian cloth made from spandex wrapped in microfiber. It was soft and strong. Harte had a relationship with factory owners in Hong Kong, and they agreed to make what was for them an unusually small order—7,500 pieces.

First published in the April 2013 issue

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