Bridget Foley’s Diary: Kerry O’Brien in Command

Bridget Foley’s Diary: Kerry O’Brien in Command

December 3, 2020

Commando isn’t a shy word. Kerry O’Brien isn’t a shy person. She speaks her mind, and describes business moves using the terminology of battle — acting with “bravery”; going “on the offensive.” So co-opting the cheeky double entendre as the name of the company with which she set out to revolutionize the innerwear industry seems audaciously on-target. Ditto the brand’s tag line that bests Mother Nature: “Commando. Better than nothing.”

Yet even the feistiest moniker has only limited traction on its own. “It’s a fun name. It’s a memorable name, but it can only get you so far,” says O’Brien, on-screen from her home in Burlington, Vt. “It’s about the product.”

These days, that product is booming, almost preternaturally well-suited to the sartorial requirements of Zoom culture. On Monday, the 15-year-old company closed out the best single sales month in its history, and it heads into December with the possibility of 2020 beating 2019 for best revenue year ever, a performance most brands would deem impossible in what is popularly viewed as the worst year. (Another positive punctuation for Commando on 2020: “It” girl Zendaya, all glammed up and gorgeous, wears the brand on the November/December cover of Essence, its 50th anniversary issue.)

Unlike so many that have had to shift, swerve and pivot aesthetically to deliver clothes appropriate for COVID-19-era life at home, Commando required no such ideological adjustment, founded as it was on a philosophy O’Brien can distill into a single essential word: comfort. It has been the driving force behind Commando from Day One, and the chief requirement of every item that makes the line, from the first seamless, raw-cut prototypes through to each sequined legging and faux-patent skirt.

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All new products must pass “the Kerry test” for comfort and function; she tries every potential addition herself. “Comfort is where it starts. People think it’s a trend, it’s not a trend. It’s the beginning,” O’Brien states. Commando’s customer wants to look “put together and super fashionable,” but she won’t surrender comfort in that pursuit. “Women want to feel and look beautiful in their clothing, and if you’re uncomfortable, that’s impossible. That’s the biggest beauty secret ever.”

O’Brien, who serves dual roles as designer and chief executive officer, has stayed fanatically true to that belief as the company’s offerings have expanded vastly from its launch lineup of two microfiber styles, the Thong and Girlshort. To that point, call the brand badass —O’Brien’s favorite descriptive. Call it comfort-obsessed — her foremost criteria. Call it iconoclastic — it is Burlington based. But don’t call it an innerwear brand. The company may have started that way, born of O’Brien’s insistence that dressing well starts from the inside out. But, she boasts, Commando has since grown into a full-on ready-to-wear brand filled with clothes in which women feel and look great.

Granted, Commando’s is a very specific take on rtw. Those first seamless, trim-less undies begot such basics as leggings, T-shirts, hosiery and bodysuits, which begot loungewear, skirts and jumpsuits, in fabrics with some names that imply their comfort factor (Butter, Classic Microfiber, Luxury Rib, Cotton) — and some that don’t (Faux Leather). O’Brien takes a tiered approach to design, one she supposes is antithetical to that of most designers, at least those with formal training. She doesn’t start with how a piece will look. Her criteria, in order: How does it feel? How does it fit? How does it look? “Having confidence,” she says, “is beautiful. But if something is digging into you, it feels impossible to feel confident.”

Confidence is something O’Brien exudes. She didn’t originally aspire to a career in fashion. Rather, she started in financial p.r., rising to senior vice president at a top New York City firm while still in her 20s. She quit that post on Sept. 12, 2001, a move she acknowledges was due less to a crisis of purpose than a yearning to do something else. Exactly what, she had no clue. She only knew that it was time to take a break.

“I believe in chapters in lives, and I knew it was time to start a new chapter,” she says. “I just wasn’t loving my job anymore. When you’re good at your job, you feel like this is what you should be doing. But I’m a believer that if you’re good at one thing, it doesn’t mean that you can only be good at one thing.”

In that spirit, during her respite from full-time employment, she wrote “Hit the Road, Jack,” a book on relationship advice, despite having no credentials to justify her foray into the space. A literary agent who loved the book’s tone pointed out that roadblock and suggested that O’Brien follow the ancient adage to write what you know. She had always loved fashion, and often offered styling advice to friends, whose outfits sometimes “looked awful” because of the wrong underpinnings. Around the same time, O’Brien realized, “I hated my top drawer,” a woeful enclave that offered three underwear options: a male view of sexy; comfortable but ugly, and control wear that sent a message she rejected: “Don’t tell me I have to change my body, OK?” So she started advice book two, on wearing the right underwear. As she wrote, the idea crystallized: The heck with the book. “I closed my computer and said, ‘I’m not going to write about it. I’m going to go and change this industry.’”

When successful entrepreneurs tell their stories, the narratives often follow a thread: after identifying a need, intrepid creator sets forth blindly but fiercely and works through trial and error until hitting upon the invention that ultimately clicks with a grateful, previously underserved customer base. What such narratives tend to skip over: figuring out the product. Wanting seamless underwear with no elastic bands is one thing. Figuring out how to make it with no apparel or textile knowledge whatsoever — another story.

Without “going into great detail,” O’Brien offers that “it was a combination of, obviously, fabric, design and how you cut the fabric.” None of which she knew anything about going in, but she credits her p.r. years with developing a skill that has served her well: the art of asking. “I was unafraid to learn different industries [by asking] important questions, even obvious questions,” she says. “A lot of people feel that asking a question shows a sign of weakness. I think it shows a sign of strength.”

So one day she took a flight from her post-p.r. home in Vermont to New York, on the hunt for an underwear fabric that could be raw cut. While several suppliers told her what she wanted — a raw-cut thong — couldn’t be done, some apparently admired her tenacity, and at her request for suggestions, called a guy who called a guy. “I think that people in general like to help,” O’Brien says. By the end of that first day, she’d met someone who could supply what would become Commando’s signature microfiber fabric. Similarly, she found her first sewing factory, VT Bosna, in her home state of Vermont. They remain partners today.

Commando launched with a network of department and specialty stores, with O’Brien hand-delivering the goods to some. Among the brand’s current retailers: Matchesfashion, Selfridges, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Net-a-porter, Revolve, Shopbop and Intermix, as well as specialty stores such as Town Shop and Lit Boutique.

The brand initiated e-commerce fairly casually about 10 years ago, but it has grown exponentially. Direct-to-consumer now accounts for 30 percent of the business and is the brand’s fastest-growing point of sale.

While O’Brien pays attention to the traditional fashion seasons, she’s not a slave to them. And she works early. She showed half of fall 2021 early in November, and is designing holiday now. But she won’t let a potential hit languish between seasons.  “If I have an idea I want to try before [a season ships], it’s going straight to our web site. And if our wholesale accounts want to pick it up and we can do it, that’s fine.”

Often, ideas start with her own experiences. Case in point: the hosiery designed with a now-patented cut-and-sew fabric waist panel instead of a confining elastic band. Launched in 2009, Ultimate Opaque had its genesis at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship during O’Brien’s first major store appearance. With her crocheted dress and Commando slip, she wore an unnamed brand’s “beautiful” fishnets that were uncomfortable enough to distract her through the entire event — a situation antithetical to her sartorial beliefs and her company’s raison d’etre.

Twisting and tugging at pantyhose in public just wasn’t “the Kerry way,” she told herself. “I design underwear and underpinnings that are supposed to understand your body. How could this beautiful pair of hosiery be hurting me and distracting me so much? So I decided to Commando-tize that industry.”

The first manufacturers she approached with her idea of sewn-on fabric banding were flummoxed. Why would she want to make something that required more than one machine, thus adding to the price? “I was like, ‘I want you to knot [the hosiery] from here to here, and I want you to sew on my signature fabric. And yes there will be seams, and yes it’s adding cost, but our consumer will understand this.’” She did. The hose were an immediate hit, the result of “just a different approach to tackling things.”

While proud of such innerwear innovation, O’Brien circles the conversation back to Commando’s rtw component. “I hope now I’m having some sort of impact on rtw, and how you need to view rtw in a very different way,” she says.

To wit, while the pandemic has devastated so many brands across fashion, Commando is rolling. Pre-COVID-19, O’Brien anticipated a strong 2020. Then came the first murmurs that a highly contagious infectious disease percolating in Asia and Europe might turn into a global pandemic. Like so many others, she reexamined her projections for the year — including her fabric and manufacturing orders. Unlike many others, instead of cutting back, she ramped up, and went for more.

“I really went on the offensive when the pandemic happened,” O’Brien says. Anticipating diminished capacities across the supply chain, she adjusted orders early in the first quarter, buying nearly a year’s worth of key fabrications from Italy, Austria and China for delivery “as soon as possible.” She also kept in close contact with her partner factories across the U.S. — in Vermont, Massachusetts, the Carolinas, California, Maryland and Pennsylvania — that produce 90 percent of Commando’s products. As different states imposed regional COVID-19 restrictions, she was able to finesse her production schedule, throughout the year maintaining at least some manufacturing, which she directed the factories to ship as ready. We “leaned into it, we were unafraid to manufacture as much as we possibly could, and to have the raw goods here,” she says.

O’Brien considers that approach the boldest of her career. “I thought my bravest days were when I started my company 15 years ago. But these were my bravest. We had to face similar times in 2008 as well,” she says of a prior disastrous moment for fashion.

This time around, she drew on her own financial-crisis history, when she resisted the urge to cancel manufacturing commitments, projecting that mass cancellations could force those domestic factories to shutter permanently, and “they wouldn’t be there when I needed them again. We have a lot of evergreen products that are seasonless and replenishable. And I had them make it, make it and make it.” As a result, 2008 ended up being a pretty good year. “I learned that it’s easy to ramp down, but once the economy comes back up again, it’s really difficult to get back to the right inventory levels.”

Even with her intrepid approach during the pandemic, O’Brien “underestimated the resilience of our consumer,” who has been more than willing to buy, out of trust as much as need. “You can’t build trust during the pandemic. You have to have it beforehand.” Along with the right merch. “You’ve got to understand our leggings,” O’Brien says, touting their technical stretch, sometimes 360 degrees, always at least four-way, “so they kind of mold to your body.”

Customers have been buying them like crazy, and not just the black microfiber basics that one might assume would be the go-to version for the at-home life. Snazzier versions are selling as well, in velvet, sequins and faux-leather. The customer, she says, “still wants her peacock moments. How often do you see your friends now? You want to look damn good.” But not at the expense of ease. “Before, she would ask for it all, but now she’s going to demand it all. Now, she’s going to demand that it’s comfortable and stylish.” That, O’Brien maintains, bodes well for the brand’s future. “Commando has a huge advantage because comfort is so much at the forefront. We are all wearing our clothing every day and asking ourselves, ‘do you love to wear this?’”

The patterns for that clothing are done in-house, and fitted on “real women” models of different sizes. That said, most of Commando’s collections are limited in size from XS to XL size range, with some bestsellers extending to 3X. Increasing that range is a recent priority that got slowed by COVID-19, as fittings became more difficult to accomplish, but O’Brien is determined to refocus on extending Commando’s size range. The firm will roll out additional best-selling items on the web site, and add new styles incrementally. As that happens, the look of the web site will evolve as well, to feature more models who reflect the full range of sizes.

O’Brien believes that once a woman of any size discovers the brand, she’s a customer for life — celebrities included. Commando does not pay celebrities to wear its clothes and innerwear. Yet they do — in very high-profile places. Ashley Graham favors various takes on the Ballet Body. Bella Hadid was photographed in Paris wearing Commando Shapewear Shorts with a Claudia Li jacket. At the 2014 CFDA Awards, Rihanna went Commando beneath her nearly naked sparkles. And when the pregnant Serena Williams posed for the August 2017 cover of Vanity Fair, shot by Annie Leibovitz, she was naked, save for a tiny metal chain worn atop a second-skin thong. O’Brien didn’t know about any of these wearings in advance, and notes proudly that the thong was Serena’s own.

“Do you know how inspiring that is to me?” she muses. “I said [to my staff], this is why we work so hard, every single day.”

And not just for the Serena stamp of approval, although — even via Zoom — it’s clear that three-plus years later, the thrill lingers. That picture, O’Brien offers, “embodies everything that I am trying to do with this company. Commando is about being badass, and having women feel beautiful and empowered.”

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