Before more or less creating the modern shapewear industry, Spanx founder Sara Blakely was just a recent college graduate selling fax machines door-to-door. The job required her to dress professionally, and back in the 90’s that meant pantyhose – even in hot, humid Florida weather.
To say things got a little sticky for Blakley is an understatement. The Florida State University grad hated being encased from her waist to the tips of her toes in nylon, especially when she was wearing open-toed shoes. Blakely didn’t want to abandon her pantyhose completely, though. She found the smoothing effects of the control top flattering underneath her clothing. She tried cutting the toes off of her pantyhose, but they just rolled back up her legs awkwardly and looked even worse. So, she came up with a crafty fix. Her solution built an empire.
A couple of years later, Blakely had moved to Atlanta. She was still working for the office supply company, and was hard at work on a side project: the prototype for what would become Spanx. Blakely had no experience running a business, but she did have a vision, $5,000 in savings, and the tenacity not to give up.
Spanx has made myriad types of shapewear ubiquitous now, from slimming camisoles and panties to styles that can be worn as outerwear. But at the time, shapewear still solely consisted of girdles and control top pantyhose. Largely thanks to Blakely, the industry has grown to be a roughly $2 billion annual juggernaut. And it shows no signs of slowing down. Grandview Research estimates that the shapewear segment is expected to grow by 8% from 2021 to 2028. Even celebrities want in. In just the past few years Kim Kardashian launched her own shapewear brand Skims, and designer Stella McCartney debuted shapewear brand Stellawear.
There was a reason for why the category was so ripe for innovation by the time Blakely came along. Before her arrival in the industry, it was controlled mainly by men. But women account of almost all of shapewear sales — they made up 94% of the market in 2020.
Getting the brand off the ground
After spending a year coming up with an initial design, Blakely drove to North Carolina, where most of the U.S. hosiery makers are located, to pitch her idea and try to find a company to produce her prototype. Most of the manufacturers were run by men who were used to dealing with male sales representatives. They didn’t quite know how to deal with a young, bubbly, blonde like Blakely – and they didn’t understand her idea for footless hose. Every one of the hosiery manufacturers turned her down. She went back to Atlanta discouraged but still determined to find another way to get her product to market.
Two weeks later, though, she got a call from a manufacturer willing to help out. It turns out, the hosiery manufacturer had daughters and they immediately saw the value of Blakely’s product. Blakely and the manufacturer reached a deal to do a trial run of the new-fangled shapewear.
At the same time, Blakely was working to secure a patent. There she found another obstacle, not only would hiring an attorney bust her $5,000 budget, she also bristled at the notion of being forced to hire a male lawyer. She couldn't find a single woman patent attorney in the state of Georgia. So, Blakely, who had as a college student dreamed of becoming a lawyer until she flamed out on the LSATs, wrote the initial patent application herself and only hired an attorney to finalize it for the affordable sum of $750. Blakely spent another $150 to trademark the name Spanx. She was ready to take her shapewear to market.
Next she had to get Spanx into stores. With no experience or connections in the retail world, Blakely resorted to cold calling a buyer at Neiman Marcus until she agreed to meet with the insistent entrepreneur. But when the big meeting came, Blakely could tell she was losing the buyer’s interest. That’s when she invited the buyer into the ladies room so she could dash into a stall and change, showing firsthand what her pants looked like with and without Spanx underneath them. Seeing the product’s potential when she saw it on Blakely, the buyer immediately placed an order for Spanx for seven Neiman Marcus stores. The product was an instant hit. Soon Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdales all placed orders for Spanx.
Success, with a little help from Oprah
Positioning Spanx in an unexpected place in stores was critical to its success. While buyers wanted to place the shapewear in the hosiery area, Blakely insisted Spanx be located in the shoe department. This gave them a higher visibility.
In the early days, Blakley ran every single part of the business. She even sent a basket of products to Oprah Winfrey with a note explaining what Spanx were and what she was trying to do with the product. The gambit paid off. Spanx’s big break came in November 2000, when Winfrey named Spanx one of her “Favorite Things” that year.
Up until that point, Blakely had kept her day job at the office machine company, but the publicity allowed her to make Spanx her full-time occupation. The exposure Oprah brought to Spanx boosted sales from $4 million in the company’s first year to $10 million its second year. It also brought QVC to Blakley’s door, and she signed a contract with the home shopping network in 2001.
By 2012, Blakely was on the cover of Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire. Not long after, she joined The Giving Pledge, and promised to give away at least half her fortune to charitable causes before her death.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Spanx. In 2013, former Real Housewife Heather Thompson accused Spanx of copying the design of her company Yummie Tummie’s tank top. Spanx filed suit against Thompson’s company, saying it wasn’t infringing the company’s patents and that it has been making shaping camisoles before Yummie Tummie. The case reportedly settled for an undisclosed amount, and Yummie Tummie no longer exists.
Spanx also saw a dip in sales early in the pandemic, which dropped Blakely out of the billionaires' club temporarily. But in the fall of 2021 as the company began to bounce back, Blackstone Group acquired a majority stake in Spanx at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal, which made Blakely a billionaire once more, allowed her to keep a stake in the company and kept her as the company’s executive chairperson.
Though Spanx started out as a one woman shop, by the time of the acquisition it had grown into a large operation, and Blakely made sure to take care of her staff. To mark the occasion, Blakely gave all 750 of Spanx employees $10,000 in cash and two first class plane tickets to any place in the world they wanted to travel to.