How one of Canada’s fastest-growing DTC brands is entering retail

As a body-positive women's intimates brand, Knix looks to "redefine the change room experience" in one of its first two physical stores.

Knix

In August, Knix launched The Life After Birth Project, a photo exhibit showcasing real postpartum photography and featuring submissions from more than 250 women, including celebrities such as Amy Schumer and Jillian Harris. The exhibit first opened in New York and eventually made its way to Toronto, and soon, to other cities including Vancouver, Los Angeles and Dallas, Texas.

The project is indicative of what Toronto-based Knix, first launched in 2013 as a women’s intimates brand offering leak-proof underwear, has become: part undergarments company, part community of like-minded women interested in shaping the discourse on a range of taboo subjects.

Over time, Knix has expanded its product line  including, most recently, an innovative sports bra that supports sizes 32A to 42G  and it has experienced impressive growth, having placed number six on Report on Business’ ranking of Canada’s Top Growing Companies for its three-year revenue growth of 3,874%. By placing its relationship with the consumer at the centre of its corporate strategy, product development and marketing, Knix has grown from a single product company into a category player selling underwear, bras (casual and sports), swimwear and lounge wear, says founder and CEO Joanna Griffiths.

“Whereas it started with body positivity, now it’s heading into mental health and identity and things like post-partum and fertility,” she says. “That has been driven by the fact that we use customers and everyday people in our storytelling and it’s up to them, the kind of story that they want to tell.”

Now the brand is making a move into physical retail through the opening of its first two permanent retail locations and through a partnership with Nordstrom. It’s an important next step in the company’s evolution as a DTC brand, given that Griffith has started to realize “not everyone wants to buy a bra online.”

The Vancouver store, located on West 4th Street in Kitsilano, launched on Oct. 11, while the brand’s flagship Toronto location opens Oct. 29. Each store features murals by Toronto-based artist Leia Bryans, and the Toronto shop  whose change room is about the size of the entire Vancouver store  will focus on “redefining the change room experience for intimate apparel.”

The idea is to make the change room experience akin to a bridal salon by sectioning it off from the rest of the store and making the seating area more welcoming, according to the founder. Whereas the intimates change room experience can be “awkward and uncomfortable,” she says, the goal here is to encourage women to step out from behind the curtain and embrace how they look and feel  in the company of family and friends.

Knix change rooms“It’s not about the style of the seamless bra that you’re trying on. It’s more about feeling super comfortable in your own skin, you feel like you’re coming out for the kind of acceptance moment,” she says. “We’ll see if it works. Some people I’m certain won’t want to come out, and that’s totally [fine]. It’s designed so that you don’t have to. But I do love the concept of a group of friends going down to the store together to do fittings, enjoying a glass of mimosa or a kombucha and celebrating this moment of stepping out of the change room.”

Sure, Griffiths says, having physical stores will help sell product, hit revenue targets and further raise brand awareness. But, more importantly, they will serve as a “platform” for community events and gatherings of like-minded people  something it has not yet done outside of Toronto (in 2017, the brand partnered with BodyLove to offer workout classes where people could browse Knix intimates). Now, at the store opening in Vancouver, Knix is hosting a virtual tour of its Life After Birth gallery as well as a panel session with brand ambassadors. “By having a store, we feel we have the opportunity to introduce more programming.”

The store openings come as Knix enters a national retail partnership with Nordstrom that will see its full assortment sold at all seven of the fashion retailer’s Canadian stores. The launch is being supported with a branded pop-up within the Nordstrom’s Toronto Eaton Centre location. When Griffiths first visited Nordstrom’s head office in Seattle about a year-and-a-half ago, she discovered that the retailer has similarly committed itself to size inclusivity. (She was told that Nordstrom would not add brands to its roster unless they offer up to a size 20). “They’re actually at the forefront of getting a lot of designer brands to rethink their sizing and to be more inclusive,” Giffiths says. “So from a values standpoint, we’re both very much aligned on that.”

Nordstrom also has experience integrating in-store pop-ups for digital-first brands like Reformation, Allbirds, Casper and Goop. The retailer asked to start by bringing Knix into its stores south of the border; the brand counter-proposed launching in Canada first, with the goal of giving Canadian shoppers as many chances as possible to interact with the brand. (Approximately 60% of Knix’s sales still come from the U.S.)

Knix has been promoting the roll-out through “Redefining Intimates,” an OOH push featuring real customers in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa, where there are Nordstrom stores. In a company first, it has also been running TV ads in the U.S., where it can avail itself of measurement tools not yet available to brands in this market. If all goes well, Griffiths says it may bring the TV campaign to Canada.

In January, the company concluded its very first round of financing. (Griffith, as the founder, remains a majority shareholder). The investment has helped propel the brand into its next phase of growth. The marketing team has grown to around 35  about the size of the entire company this time last year  bringing the corporate headcount to around 60 (plus an additional 20 staff in stores).

But the transition has not been entirely seamless. A few months before in late 2018, Knix hired Danielle Brown as its first CMO to lead growth and development across brand, e-commerce, creative, analytics, acquisitions and retention. Brown has since left the company, and Knix doesn’t plan on finding her replacement. Instead, it will look to hire a head of digital to oversee ecommerce and paid marketing, while Griffiths returns to lead the brand and her husband serving as creative director.

“It’s really hard to find someone who can oversee all parts of marketing for a direct-to-consumer brand in Canada right now,” the founder says. “The truth is that there aren’t that many ecommerce, direct-to-consumer brands in the country that are the size that we are now or scaling at the rate that we’re scaling. It’s just a really kind of challenging role in that regard.”

A number of fast-growing Canadian DTC brands have emerged, such as Article, Endy and Mejuri, but Griffiths believes they remain relatively young and small compared to others in the U.S. “It’s not to say that we’re not ready [for another CMO], I just don’t think the [right] person exists.”

Knix-Store

Brown’s departure in September came around the same time as what might be considered Knix’s first misstep as a brand.

Around that time, a Facebook ad was published showing what appeared to be a discarded pair of underwear and heels in a gutter alongside the caption, “What happens in Knix Leakproof stays in Knix Leakproof.” The ad, proposed during an internal brainstorming session, was never meant to go public, Griffiths later explained. But criticism from social media users captured the attention of the international media. Griffiths issued a blog post apology acknowledging that it had “made a mistake that triggered a very intense and difficult topic for some people,” adding that the company was “extremely sorry.”

Overall, she says the backlash wasn’t as strong the media coverage might suggest – largely because of Knix’s track-record on various issues of interest to women. “Had we not necessarily had that legacy piece, it could have gone in a very different direction,” she says. “For me, it’s really hammering home how authenticity and consumer trust is the most precious thing you can have. You can nurture that, and if you do make a mistake, to be really open and transparent about it.”

A week later, Knix brought in experts to lead sensitivity and inclusion training, with the goal of implementing it across the organization. “What I realized is that we are such a different company and brand,” Giffiths says. “Things that people to us about they don’t talk to other companies about. The things they share with us can be really heavy and can be really intimate.”