The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Emma Butler, founder and CEO of Intimately, an online retail store and platform that provides adaptive lingerie for women with disabilities.
Question: When did you create the company and what inspired you to launch it?
Answer: I had always been interested in fashion, ever since I was a little girl, but when my mom was diagnosed with a few autoimmune diseases when I was around 12, I was introduced to “adaptive fashion.” With her new chronic illnesses, it became difficult to get on clothing in traditional ways.
When I started at Brown University a few years later, I intended to study fine arts, focusing on fashion design with courses from the Rhode Island School of Design. At Brown, I met new friends with the same disability as my mom and other disabilities. I became really interested in the idea of adaptive fashion because it combined my love for my mom and my new friends and my love of fashion and clothes.
At this point in time, the fall of 2017, Tommy Hilfiger and Target launched adaptive apparel lines, but they had nothing to do with undergarments. It seemed counter-intuitive to me: How can a woman get dressed in an adaptive shirt or pants if she doesn’t have a bra or underwear she can put on? The first step to getting ready is putting on underwear and a bra. So I started a small blog and curated my favorite small mom-and-pop clothing stores that made undergarments for women with disabilities.
Q: What are the Rhode Island roots of this company?
A: I started Intimately while I was a junior at Brown University and developed the idea with the help of Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. I’m also from Rhode Island. So now, after graduating, I have returned to my parents’ house in Portsmouth and taken over a spare room for all the inventory. Everything is shipped from my parents’ house.
Q: How many people in the country have disabilities and how difficult is it for them to find lingerie and undergarments that adapt to their disabilities?
A: There are about 600 million women worldwide and 25 million women in the United States who have a disability that affects the way they dress — whether a chronic illness or a physical disability. Traditional bras and underwear are a nightmare to put on for many of these women. Imagine trying to put on underwear when you can’t bend over or have no movement in your legs.
There are only a handful of folks out there designing for these specific needs to make underwear that women can actually get on. So while some of the adaptive undergarments on the market are functional and easy to put on, many are medical-looking, target the elderly, and are generally ugly.
We only sell undergarments that are redesigned for easy dressing and are both functional and fashionable. We aggregate all of these pieces from small mom-and-pop shops and put them into one beautiful, branded one-stop shop.
Q: In addition to serving as an e-commerce site, what role does Intimately play in telling the stories of women with disabilities?
A: Intimately has a blog section where we highlight voices of disabled women in our community. We ask them to chat about love, dating, fashion, beauty, travel, and self-confidence. While millions of women read Cosmo or Teen Vogue for stories of women like them navigating womanhood, there is no real representation in those magazines for women with disabilities. So we are creating a small corner of the internet that amplifies their voices.
We also recently launched a community forum on our site so disabled women can chat, ask questions, and meet new friends. Our community section is an empowerment group.
Q: What are some of the prizes and sources of funding that Intimately has secured recently?
A: We launched a successful Kickstarter in January 2020, raising $19,000 with 450 individual backers ($42 per average pledge). We also won second place at the Brown Venture Prize competition and were awarded $15,000. On Aug. 7, we placed first in the only business plan/pitch competition for female undergrads, Smith College’s Draper award of $25,000.
Q: Where do you find the suppliers for the site and are you working on any of your own apparel?
A: I found the brands we currently host on our site through some deep digging and referrals from friends. We are soon launching our own bra line, La Rosier. The bras are front opening with magnets. They’re not only very easy to put on, but also very sexy. We have two other lines in the works.
Q: What’s next for your company?
A: Intimately does not aim to be a boutique or small business. Our goal is to revolutionize the fashion industry and bring adaptive fashion to every corner of the globe, the way Liz Lange (Ed. note: another Brown grad) did with the maternity market and Lane Bryant with the plus-size market. After launching our own bra and underwear lines, we plan to move into sleepwear and then all other types of clothing.