Business partners and friends Kate Sisk and Flo McIlwaine launched Hidden Intimates in March

Flo Mcilwaine calls herself a professional Instagram stalker. She means this as a joke, but it’s at least partially true. Social media is how she found most of the the women who appear in the photos for her new business, she said, along with inviting folks she knew IRL. She even roped in her associate’s mom.

All the searching came to fruition in March, when McIlwaine and longtime friend Kate Sisk launched Hidden Intimates, a lingerie catalog that purposely features people of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages.

With a mission that focuses on telling stories instead of presenting a manufactured idea of beauty, Hidden Intimates channels the current thinking around undergarment fashion. Sales of push-up bras have plummeted in recent years, falling 50% in 2017 and continuing to flatline as wireless sports bras and bralettes have surged, according to market research firm Edited.

People are realizing “it’s ok just to have your boobs look like your boobs,” said Mcilwaine, who grew up helping her mother run a line of clothing boutiques in her native Nigeria.

A free event at Positano Coast on Sunday will let people see and feel Hidden Intimates’ pieces in person, as well as provide Kate and Flo, both 28, a chance to talk up their new company.

“The industry is changing,” said Sisk, who was raised in South Jersey and now lives in Philly’s Queen Village neighborhood. “Victoria’s Secret is closing stores. A lot of that is because of the marketing — those models are unrealistic. What we wanted to say to women and people wearing our items is that you’re beautiful the way you are.”

Tapping into the zeitgeist is a skill the partners honed during their time at Anthropologie, one of the chains owned by Philadelphia-based fashion giant URBN.

Mcilwaine fell for the brand when she got a job there during college in Madison, Wisc. In the fitting room, she got a thrill helping customers build out their look with advice about styles and accessories — just like she watched her mom do as a kid. On graduation, her manager suggested she apply to work at company HQ. When she arrived in Philly in 2013 after being hired as a buyer, she was sent to learn from a mentor. That mentor: Kate Sisk.

“She decided to take me under her wing, let me shadow her,” Mcilwaine said of Sisk. “After that we just got along, started hanging out.”

Turning the dream into reality

As fast friends, the duo had plenty of fun. Even after they both left Anthropologie for other jobs, Kate and Flo remained close. They laughed about Sisk’s turn on the reality show “Married at First Sight,” and took vacations together to places like Miami, Paris and Myrtle Beach.

Through it all, they also shared a secret passion: to one day own their own boutique.

Over the years, they would trade success stories and thoughts on best practices, and have long discussions about “a new era” of entrepreneurship. Then one night at dinner last year, they had a moment. Discussing a common acquaintance who had just launched her own business, they decided to take the plunge. Said Mcilwaine: “It was the time to make our dream a reality.”

They spent about nine months doing competitive market analysis and other research, Sisk said. After looking at options for funding, the partners decided to start with a simple line of credit, which they flexed to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars to get things off the ground.

Outside investments would have been great, and they’re still open to investors who want to help the business — “Put that in the article!” said Mcilwaine, laughing — but they also hope others will be inspired by the knowledge that the project was bootstrapped.

It wasn’t about being cheap, they stressed. All of the found “models” in the photos on the HI site and the photographers who snapped them were paid for their time. The same philosophy about fair compensation informs what brands Hidden Intimates sells.

Along with decisions about lingerie color, texture and cut, “We consider who is making them,” Sisk explained. One of their favorite manufacturers is run by a woman who expressly hires other women at higher wages than standard for the garment industry in Vietnam, for example. A second is run by another Anthropologie alum — with whom Kate and Flo eventually hope to partner to create a custom line.

For now, they’re just working to gain traction in a crowded market. If you’ve ever explored buying underwear online, you know how quickly your Instagram feed fills up with bra and panty purveyors.

But things are going well. Since launching three months ago, Hidden Intimates has sold about 50 pieces to people from all over North America, they said. One person ordered from Texas, and another from Canada. On trend, the most popular item is the “everyday lace bralette,” which has no wires and sells for $18. Each one gets shipped by hand from Mcilwaine’s house in Atlanta, where she still works a day job as a buyer for Home Depot.

A few years back, Flo’s mother left Nigeria and immigrated to the U.S., where she watches the developing startup with obvious pride.

“She was very involved, a support system,” Mcilwaine said. She recently overheard her mother talking on the phone. “I am not surprised,” said Flo’s mom about her daughter following in her fashion-oriented footsteps. “Not one bit.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...