His parents are Vietnamese, he was born in France, but at the age of 15 moved to Texas in the USA. Most of his adult life he spent in US, but moved to Germany in 2013 for work and ended up staying. Laurent re-invented the undershirt with a unique open-front design. How is it possible that an IT business consultant knew how fashion brands are born opened his own brand of a unique, male underwear? I decided to find out.
Working in consulting
“Some people say there are no good parents out there in consulting because you work so much – you work weekends and evenings – and you don’t see your family or your friends. It’s like being an investment banker. You basically become your work and you don’t have any free time. But everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or have something on the side or try to start something. And I was no exception, but at the same time, you don’t want to give up the security of a paycheck.” – Laurent says.
At some point, he got lucky: he sold a consulting project, where he could have his evenings and weekends free. That was a good moment to start working on a software idea he’s had for years. But at the beginning, he just decided to have a good time and for 2 years enjoyed the good life as an expat in Germany. And the ideas of doing a startup? “I could never get myself to sit down and get serious with coding or take the time to do something. I was always distracted with going for dinner and meet friends, going on a date, all the fun stuff.” Laurent admits.
How did it all start?
Three and a half years ago, his eureka moment accidentally came up. He was in Houston during the summer and it was very hot. You always wear undershirts there, otherwise, you get armpit sweat stains, but wearing the undershirt makes you even more hot because you’re wearing 2 layers. So one evening, out of the blue, he decided to cut out the front of his undershirt and see what it felt like. He went to a happy hour and he had the ‘wow’ effect. “This was so much nicer and so much more comfortable! I wasn’t as hot as when I was wearing the undershirt and I still had the sweat protection!” – he recalls. Then he started doing some research. He spent hours on Google and Amazon, looking through all the undershirts there and he didn’t find anything like it. That’s how he got the idea for his undershirt.
This is how Lespirant brand was born with its unique L-cut undershirt. Why these names? “I wanted a name that means something and the main thing about my undershirt is that it’s breathable” – Laurent says. He wanted something that captures it in the name. ‘Spirant’ means to breathe in Latin and then he added ‘le’ to make it sound French. And that’s how the name of the brand was created.
What about the names?
And the L-cut? Certain types of clothes have a name. For example, an armless undershirt in France is called ‘le marcel’ and Marcel is actually the name of someone. In Italian, it’s called la canota. Laurent knew he created a new kind of undershirt, so he needed some special name for it. “It’s a bit embarrassing” – he laughs when he admits that at first, he thought to call it Laurent. Sounds egocentric? “Initially, I wanted to have fun with this project” – Laurent explains – “I really thought calling it the Laurent would be really fun marketing wise”. But then he talked to his friends and they thought it was a bit too much. Eventually, he decided to call it the L-cut. His friends know that the L stands for Laurent, but all the rest thinks it stands for Lespirant.
How to bring ideas into life?
However, it turned out it’s not so easy to bring a great idea into life. “I should have been able to get it up and running in six months, but it took me almost two years to get on the market”- says Laurent. Why so long? It takes time to find the right fabric and factory, get the e-commerce site, deal with packaging and get the protection rights etc. Especially when it’s a one-man show at first.
There is something you should know about Laurent: he’s really passionate about Argentine tango. Did his idea have something to do with this passion or did it come from everyday experience? “It was actually before tango” – Laurent says. He took his first tango class in 2011, but for around four years he was only taking courses. And to get good at tango you have to go dance socially, which he didn’t do at the beginning. “When I would go dancing, I would also wear an undershirt and I was always annoyed about the collar showing”. Even if his idea was born when he was going for a party in Houston, he later realized it worked really well for tango as well. Now he could open three buttons of his shirt and no collar was visible!
How fashion brands are born?
I was curious to know, how he knew to open a brand. Was it a try and fail approach? How did he know which steps to take? “I didn’t” – Laurent laughs. Well, graduating from a business school probably helped him. “If you think about it, it’s not complicated” – he says. “You apply for the trademark to make sure you get the name, you get the website, you create a legal entity, logo, etc. All that stuff is not complicated to put together.” What is harder? It’s creating a consistent brand image that stands for something. Laurent has doubts if his message is focused enough, as he was doing everything on his own and his efforts didn’t lead to satisfactory results. That is why he finally decided to hire a marketing agency and is building a team to scale up his business. 2019 should be quite exciting for him.
So, except the marketing part, was the process easy? The legal part – yes, the manufacturing one – not really. As a space engineer working in IT Consulting, Laurent didn’t have any background in fashion. “That was the fun part, actually, to try to do something that I had no clue about.” – he admits. In the end, he’s creating a T-shirt, not a rocket to go to Mars.
“At first, I tried to work with a fashion consultant, who was going to help me through the process” – Laurent recalls. She was supposed to help him do the pattern and to find a factory, fabric and manage the production. But after three months she got a big order for her own brand and she didn’t have time anymore for the consulting services. Laurent was left on his own. He decided to go to Premier Vision (a global event for fashion professionals), with business cards and prototype of his undershirt in hand. “I knew I needed to find a fabric but I didn’t know what kind of fabric I wanted. I went there and I thought it was scary” – he admits.
There were all kinds of manufacturers, fabrics, vendors – around 2,000 exhibitors. “They had a lot of demand. They don’t want to talk to somebody who just has an idea, who didn’t even have a fashion line yet. So it was very difficult actually. They didn’t want to spend any time with me” – Laurent recalls. Not knowing the technical jargon, he had no idea what they were talking about when explaining the properties of the fabric they were mentioning double dart, single dart, etc. It was a disaster. Laurent couldn’t get anybody to send him samples. The second day, however, it went better: he found nearly 10 vendors who were ready to send him some fabric samples.
On the last day of the exhibit, he found the area with a garment factory but there was hardly anyone attending their booth. so he took a few flyers, including one from a Portuguese factory.
What happened next?
After coming back home, he made around 20 prototypes of his undershirt, using different fabrics he received and then he tried all of them himself. “I went dancing with them to see which one felt light, which one had a nice feeling, which one didn’t smell bad; all that stuff.” – Laurent explains. The one he really liked was made of TENCEL – a wood fiber, softer than cotton, that absorbs water better and doesn’t smell. “I picked it because it’s softer than cotton and it’s more breathable. It is able to absorb heat from your body better than cotton so it feels cooler when you touch it.” After six months of work, he finally picked the fabric.
In the meantime, he wrote a 10-page proposal describing his design, the product labels, etc. and sent it to factories he found during Premiere Vision and a few others he found on Google. He needed to know, how much his T-shirt would cost to produce. Out of nearly 20 emails sent, he received 2 answers: one from a French company that was too expensive and one from the Portuguese company he took the flyer of. And this one became his choice.
This garment factory was willing to work with him even though his order was relatively small – 1,000 pieces are nothing for a factory making orders for Zara and other similar brands, but “this sales representative was nice and easy to work with. She was responsive and taking me seriously despite my obvious lack of fashion experience. ” – Laurent says. I didn’t try to shop around. I was worried about somebody else coming up with the idea and getting to market before me.” – he explains. And he was fed up with thinking too much and doing nothing, so he made the decision quickly. In the end, he thought, you can always switch.
Bringing his product into the world
Laurent was so excited, he couldn’t wait to let the world know about his product and a year before he got on the market, he made a professional photoshoot of his undershirt. “It was an expensive lesson… I did it too early” – he admits. Why? First of all, in the UK when you buy the rights to the model’s image, you buy them only for one year. So every time you want to use the pictures after that, you have to pay again to renew the rights. Secondly, he spent a lot of money on the professional studio, photographer, hairdresser, stylist, models etc, not knowing what kind of pictures he really wanted. They took some nice pictures, but now, being more experienced he knows what kind of images he needs for his website.
Since he goes to tango events at least twice a month, he first took his undershirt to market at the tango marathon Noches de Hungaria in Budapest in Oct 2017. since tango dancers understand the benefit of it right away. He doesn’t have to explain anything. Any type of dancer, whether salsa, swing, etc, who wears a dress shirt to go dancing, understands why you wear an undershirt: to avoid sweat stain. But at the same time, it makes them hotter. It’s always a compromise between being hot and dry and being a bit cooler, but having embarrassing sweat stains. With Lespirant you don’t have to compromise anything anymore. Laurent explains: “You can look hot and sexy by unbuttoning your shirt and still have no sweat stains because you have the L-cut undershirt for your armpits and back.”
However, it shouldn’t be surprising that his target market extends beyond the dance floor. Who he really wants to attract are people who wear dress shirts in the office with a v-neck or tank-top. , They all feel hot so they all have the same problem. They buy around 40 million undershirts a year. Comparing to that, the dance market is very small.
What are the uses of his innovative undershirt?
So, how can Lespirant undershirt be used? For sure, it’s great for private persons, but for whom else? Well, fashion stylists find it very useful. As stylists buy clothes for the photoshoots and usually try to leave the tags on so they can return the clothes later, it’s very useful to have an undershirt that prevents the clothes of getting dirty with sweat. One stylist told him: “You know what? I can use this for my photoshoot to increase the chance that I can return the clothes”. Actors and other people who perform stage definitely need to look sharp without sweat stains or visible undershirts. However, these are more niche markets, so maybe in the second phase of developing his brand, he’ll pay more attention to them.
Is it still just a fun project or would he ever want to turn it into a full-time job? “I want a flexible lifestyle without the constraints of an office job ” – Laurent admits. “I want to work when I want, where I want. While consulting is pretty flexible, and I honestly cannot complain, it has to make sense financially. The market potential is there, so let’s see how long it takes to execute, then I’ll re-assess.”
What are his other concerns? He wants everybody in the US and in Europe to know that there is a new kind of undershirt an alternative to the traditional v-neck or tank-top vest. But Lespirant gains recognition comes a danger: somebody is probably going to copy his product at some point. “What do I do when somebody in China produces it for 1 Euro, while I want to keep it in Europe, where my costs are much higher?” –Laurent worries. Why does he want to keep his production in Europe? “I want everybody along my supply chain to have the same benefits I have” – he explains. He wants all the people working for him to have rights to 4-weeks paid vacation, medical insurance and paid maternity leave for women. So he kept all his suppliers from the raw fiber to the packaging in the EU. Some people tell him it’s a mistake. His costs are now four times higher than what it would cost to produce his undershirts in China or Bangladesh, but there workers welfare is not a priority. “I’m not trying to compete against undershirts sold for 5 Euros a piece anyway” – he adds.
Plans for the future?
After all this work and having his product finally in shop, what are his big plans for the future? There are three big plans. First is to launch the marketing campaign in the EU and US. Secondly, “I’m working on a woman’s version now. I guess women have the same issue with sweat stains” – says Laurent. One of the comments he got from women was that the existing vest that you wear under a blouse doesn’t cover your armpits well. They are also usually too high and are visible when you want to show a little bit of cleavage. An open-front woman undershirt will be quite something to market… Laurent has other ideas, but for the moment he wants to stay with two products. And what is the third big plan? It’s a secret but the patent application was filed in December 2018…, and you can see Laurent is very excited just thinking about it.
If you want to know more, check out the official Lespirant website.