Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Evan Anderson
When she took the leap and transformed her lingerie-design hobby into a full-time career, Elise Olson discovered a deep, satisfying passion.
Elise Olson built her business around the idea of comfort. She designs and produces custom lingerie crafted out of soft, sustainable materials like bamboo and organic cotton. She wants her clients to experience unparalleled comfort while wearing sexy, lacy underthings that make them feel really good about themselves.
As her business, On The Inside, has grown over the years, her external surroundings have morphed into a more comfortable working environment. In her latest move, completed in October 2017, she opened the doors of an expansive retail shop/production area at 842 Haywood Road in West Asheville. Previously, she created her garments in the River Arts District (RAD), starting out at the Phil Mechanic building then, after a few years, transitioning to The Hatchery.
While she loved the camaraderie of working in close access to other creative minds, moving to her own space has delighted her soul in new ways. She has room to display finished garments, including offerings from other brands, and space for fitting rooms. And then there’s the light—it spills into her production area through big windows. She says some of the studios she worked in at the RAD had tiny windows located very high. Now she can sit at her sewing machine and glance outside and continue a connection of sorts with the natural world.
Along with an eye for design, Elise is one of those people who has a green thumb. She loves working with plants and focused on plant chemistry and botany in college. The Maryland native first moved to North Carolina to attend UNC-Asheville and then she moved to Washington to finish her degree at Evergreen State.
“Right after college I was doing landscape design. I’ve always liked design and color. I’ve never had any formal training in any of this,” Elise says, spreading her hands out to the lingerie in progress at her sewing table, “but I have been sewing since high school.”
She moved back to Asheville and began plotting with another local designer, Maya Hubbell, to create sexy and comfy bra and panty sets. They worked together for about a year and sold to small shops. Maya ultimately decided to focus on her own clothing line, and Elise moved the lingerie business to the next level.
Leap and the Net Will Appear
As Elise pursued her stake in the lingerie industry, Etsy.com was just coming on the scene. Etsy, of course, is an online marketplace that sells a variety of handmade items as well as vintage objects. Sellers set up an online store and post photos and descriptions of their items and then mail direct to the buyers. It’s a system similar to Ebay.
“At the point that I started, Etsy was still a little baby,” says Elise. “I hired a photographer and got some pictures taken and I started selling on Etsy. It changed everything. All of sudden I had this big market.”
Elise designed and crafted lingerie while maintaining two side jobs and caring for her two young daughters. (She was pregnant with her second child when she and Maya had begun On The Inside.) For her two part-time jobs, she worked at the School of Holistic Herbalism and she also catered weddings. “I’m extremely versatile,” she says, with a smile.
Then a pivotal moment came a couple of years later. She realized she could either go all-in on the lingerie business, which continued to climb the growth chart in terms of sales, or she could continue to treat it as a side hobby.
She quit both part-time jobs on the same day and made the leap into running On The Inside as a full-time career.
“It was terrifying,” admits Elise. “I knew I had to either commit and go for it and give it everything I had, or it would just stay something I did for fun. I jumped and it was terrifying, but it has fully supported me ever since. And it gave me flexibility, being a mom, to be able to do what I needed to do.”
“I got a studio in the River Arts District,” she continues. “At that time, the Phil Mechanic building was vibrant with creative energy. Everyone was supportive and creative. I would wheel my mannequins into other people’s studios and say, ‘Look what I’m working on,’ and they would do the same. It was this awesome community. I was there for five and a half years and really perfected my designs and tried a lot of stuff. I got really good at what I was doing.”
Her online sales soared, and she found herself working 50-to-60-hour weeks to keep up with orders. “I would work all day and then go home and work at night, but it was amazing,” she says.
The working environment, however, became a growing concern. After spending a few cold, drafty winters in the Phil Mechanic building, she decided to make a move. “It’s really big and I would have heaters flanking me and I would have on gloves while I was sewing. In the summer, I would be sweating,”
She moved to The Hatchery and was there for three years before she yearned for a different experience: “I was kind of getting a little bored sitting in a studio by myself and selling online. I’d been doing it for about 10 years, so it was time for a change. I started looking at retail spaces.”
The West Asheville building her store is located in was actually the first place she looked at. “The guy who owned it was just renting this floor. When we showed up we found that he was a really old friend of my husband’s from about 20 years ago. Jokingly, he said, ‘You guys just want to buy the building?’ We were like, ‘That’s hilarious, hahaha,’ and then we went home. That afternoon we wrote him and said, ‘Yeah, we do,’ so we actually bought the building. It’s a 104-year-old building, and we’ve worked on it a lot.”
“I don’t know the early history,” she continues, “but what everyone remembers about this building is that it used to be the Christian Book Shop for 30 years. It was crumbling and almost got condemned. Then this man bought it. He fixed the foundation. He fixed all the major stuff and then he sold it to us. My husband re-shingled it and painted it. The upstairs is an apartment and we rent it out. That helps pay the mortgage.”
She says this area of Haywood Road doesn’t see the foot traffic that stores a little further down the road do, but she’s enjoying a healthy share of visitors. Some will spot it while passing by and stop to check it out, but most of the time customers find her online and then seek out the shop.
Before opening the store, she really didn’t have to think too much about advertising or sales strategies. “I never had to market when I was on Etsy because it was such a machine,” says Elise. “I have been doing some local advertising and I started doing Instagram when I opened this shop. It’s really effective. People will walk in and say, ‘Where’s that thing you put on Instagram?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Ohmigosh’, really? I also do events every few months and those are really good for marketing. The last one I did was a [one-year] anniversary party in November. A local distillery—Oak and Grist—made cocktails for the event. I had a big sale and we had cocktails.”
This location of the store is also perfect since Elise and her family live just a mile away. She shares her home with her husband, artist Jeremy Phillips, and their six children. They married four years ago and combined their families. She has two daughters ages 12 and 15 from a previous marriage and he has four kids ages 13 to 19 from his previous marriage.
Having a storefront locks her into a set schedule, but Elise says she doesn’t need as much flexibility now that her children are older. Her shop is open from 11AM to 6PM Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 5PM on Saturday.
Attention to Details
Elise’s business is pretty much a one-woman show, although she does have a woman who will help her with post-production finishing work, like attaching straps, or filling in when she’s on vacation. Elise currently designs, cuts, and sews every garment she sells, except for the few other brands she now offers to give her customers expanded choices. Her favorite items are ones that have more detail, showing off her expert sewing skills. She doesn’t put underwire in any of her bras, but she does carry some underwire bras from other makers to round out her offerings.
She carries the work of three local designers: Somos by Coconuco, and Poutfits, both based in Asheville; and Whiskey Dog Wares, from Marshall. All three produce ethically-made garments using sustainable materials.
Elise doesn’t foresee a time when she will turn over her production to someone else. “This is my baby,” she insists, but she also realizes she may have to hire some additional help to assist with sales and special events.
On average, she makes about 40 garments a week, but that number can fluctuate if she’s spending more time with customers. “On days when the shop is really busy, I don’t get any sewing done,” she says. “As it gets busier I’m going to have to shift something, and I’m not quite sure yet exactly what that’s going to look like.”
If demand begins to outweigh her supply, she might pull back on supplying other stores with her merchandise, but that’s not a clear decision that she’s made yet. Currently, On The Inside garments are sold locally at Hip Replacements on Lexington Avenue and blue29 in the South Slope District, as well as stores in Charleston, Ashland, Oregon, Beverly Hills, and upstate New York. She says Hip Replacements and the Charleston shop have proven to be the top locations for her sales.
Etsy also continues to be a big part of her business, but in the past couple of years she’s noticed sales have slowed. “When I started, custom lingerie was a really unique thing, but now there’s a lot of that. Etsy also started selling mass produced things about five years ago and I think they lost some of their die-hard fans who went on there for handmade things,” she says. “This shop is now on par with my online sales. My online sales have gone down, which is another reason I opened the shop. My theory is that we had our love affair with shopping online and now I think people are moving back into wanting to go into brick-and-mortar shops again.”
Her online inventory at her Etsy shop includes individual items, as well as a Panties of the Month Subscription and a Lingerie Set of the Month Subscription featuring a matching top and bottom. She has maintained 5-star status from more than 4,600 reviewers, with “the fit is very accurate” as one of the most frequent comments. Online customers can send in their measurements for a custom fit or they can order a standard size.
Local clients can come to her Haywood Road shop to have Elise take their measurements. While there they can also explore her inventory of fabrics. She uses the highest quality, ethically-made fabrics and sources most of them through conference shows in New York City. Customers also have a chance to explore her inventory of ready-made garments—this is new for Elise. “Before I moved here, I never had fitting rooms or garments to buy off the rack,” she says. At the moment, she does not carry plus sizes in the shop, but she is able to make custom garments for anyone using their measurements.
While comfort is her focus, Elise is equally tuned in to providing quality garments at an affordable price. Her panties range from $30 to $35 and bras from $50 to $60. Add another $10 for custom panty orders and an additional $12 for custom bras. “I want people to be able to afford it and buy it and wear it and love it.”
With Valentine’s Day coming up this month, Elise expects to see a lot of men coming in to make purchases for their sweethearts. Men also entered her shop in record numbers during the Christmas season.
“I love having men come in my shop,” says Elise. “They are my favorite customers. They come in and they are a little unsure, and they don’t really know where to go. I guide them through the process and it’s really fun to help them. Some men will call and say they don’t know what to do, and I’ll say, ‘Go through her underwear drawer and see what size panties and bras she wears. Get as much information as you can, and I’ll help you.’”
Others will come in without a specific size. Elise, who is slender, fit, and petite, knows how to make the process easy. “I have helped many men who have wandered in. I will say, ‘Compared to me, how tall is she?’” And then she continues to ask questions related to body size to narrow down the choices.
“I never imagined for a million years that I would be making lingerie for a living, but I really love it,” she says. “It totally delights me.”
Before opening the store, she felt a sense of disconnect with her online customers. She would ship the items out and miss out on the joy they experienced when they tried on the garments. Now, she can witness the transformation.
“I have women come in who might not feel good about themselves, and I give them suggestions,” she says. “It’s amazing to watch someone put something on and they feel so good. It’s really rewarding and a sweet aspect of what I do. It’s been a really awesome career for me.”
As she talks she slides over a lacy floral panty and bra set currently under construction.
“I just found this manufacturer that I’m thrilled about,” she says. “This fabric is ethically made in Italy and the materials are more than 50 percent recycled out of Italian lace.”
She runs her hand across the delicate cloth and her eyes widen as if she’s inspecting it for the very first time. “I’m like woooo,” she says, with a squeal. “Isn’t that gorgeous lace? It’s pretty dreamy and really colorful so that’s really fun.”
The work remains exciting and fresh for Elise and that’s something she is extremely thankful for. “I’m in a good place,” she concludes. “I’ve made it to the one place where I’ve always wanted to be.”
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