As a teenager, when Andrea King asked her dad for spending money, rather than pass her the cash, he would suggest a unique business idea to her: start a local bike tour company, or create a new baby food made with fish. Her father, a college professor of entrepreneurship and the CEO of a Canadian biotech start-up incubator, wanted her to understand the value of investing in business. “That kind of creative entrepreneurial thinking seeped its way into my mind,” King says.
Fast forward two decades, and King has made her entrepreneurial father proud. She is now the successful owner of two lingerie and bra-fitting stores. She launched her first boutique, Aristelle, in Burlington, Vermont, last year when she was just 34. This past fall she expanded to Portland, where she opened a second location on Exchange Street. The shop offers specialized bra-fitting for women of all ages and sizes. This also includes fittings for nursing bras. King estimates they’ve had two thousand people come through the doors.
Before she found her calling in lingerie, the St. John’s, Newfoundland, native obtained an undergraduate degree in Russian studies and philosophy, and a master’s in international relations. As part of her job with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., she worked on bringing gender equality into new types of financing. “A lot of the banks would ask me, ‘Why should we even talk to you about that?’ ” she says. “But I knew that we needed to understand the needs of women in a different way.”
After her career took her abroad, King heeded her entrepreneurial streak and attended the executive MBA program at the London Business School. She also maintained a long-distance relationship with her then-future husband, Hugh Wilkinson, a Canadian man she had met in Ottawa. They married while she was in London. Degree in hand and seven months pregnant with her first daughter, King returned stateside to join Wilkinson and his two daughters in Burlington, Vermont.
Once in Burlington, the new mom noticed that her adopted hometown lacked a place to buy nursing bras. There was only one lingerie store, and it wasn’t catering to the needs of pregnant or nursing women. Around that same time, King’s mother was working at the lingerie boutique Le Boudoir in St. John’s, and would share heartwarming stories about her clients. In one case, she sold a well-fitting bra to a woman who wound up crying because she finally had relief from her shoulder pain. King says she learned an important business lesson early on. “This type of service was important. It went far beyond selling clothes,” she says.
Her business idea was born. In the beginning, there were a few doubters. “People would joke, ‘Do women in Vermont even wear bras?’ I had actually signed a commercial lease by that time, and I just thought to myself, ‘I hope so!’ ” It turns out that King had nothing to be concerned about. Not only were Vermont women buying bras, they were also looking for swimwear. “Come late winter, when everybody is planning a beach getaway, there’s nowhere to buy bathing suits,” she says. “I sold out of swimwear in the first month we were open.”
Aristelle was profitable within six months and quickly gained national acclaim. Last August the store was nominated as one of the top new stores in North America by Best of Intima magazine—appropriate for a store whose name is derived from the Greek root aristo, meaning “the best.”
Aristelle has also gained recognition for using what King calls “everyday women” in their advertisements. Her models have included a 65-year-old, a pregnant woman, and a woman with a 36G bra size. “I’m trying to promote a positive body image,” King says. “It’s important that women learn to embrace the body they have and to be comfortable with who they are.”
What does the future hold for King? “At the moment, I’m fully busy with two stores and two young children,” says King, who brings her 5-month-old baby to work with her most days of the week. That doesn’t mean she’s going to slow down for long. Her goal is to have ten stores by the time she is 40. “It will be great to offer our service to more women. There is so much good that can come from these stores.” For King, the business of bras goes far beyond the lacy borders of lingerie. It is a way to help women attain comfort and confidence.