When directed by clothing manufacturers to "dry clean only," The Laundress founders Lindsey Boyd and Gwen Whiting were obedient until they weren't. In their mid-to-late twenties, with wardrobes both subsidized and required by their jobs at two of fashion's top brands, some months they spent half their monthly rent to have clothes professionally cleaned.
Determined to challenge the dissonance of that status quo, the close friends and graduates of Cornell University's Fiber Science and Apparel Design program applied practical intelligence, common sense and entrepreneurial drive to solving the problem.
After graduating from college in 1998, both Boyd and Whiting lived in New York City apartments without washing machines. On frequent business trips to Europe, Boyd hand-washed in sinks with baby shampoo. Whiting, meanwhile, schlepped laundry from her sixth-floor downtown Manhattan walk-up to her neighborhood fluff-n-fold and to her mom's house in New Jersey. While on the road for work, Boyd heard clients say they wouldn't invest in an expensive jacket or dress because the dry cleaner would inevitably ruin it.
Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, co-founders of The Laundress.
Their unsustainable dilemma—in terms of hassle, financial expense, and the environment, given toxins often used in dry cleaning—led them to launch The Laundress in 2004. The New York-based company sells eco-friendly laundry detergents and other fabric-care and home cleaning products. Funded with credit cards and an SBA loan, the business has taken on no additional investors and now has about 25 employees.
"I make the goods," says Whiting, breaking down the duo's division of labor, "and she sells the goods. I focus on product development and manufacturing, and Lindsey focuses on sales, marketing and social media. We're a pure partnership and review and approve everything together. We are the company, and that remains in our DNA. There's no one in the office with a job we haven't done ourselves."
The company's product line consists of about 65 environmentally-friendly products.
Through video tutorials featuring the two founders and an "Ask the Laundress" series addressing crowd-sourced concerns like "How can I care for my fine lingerie?" and "What product do I use to aid in removal of dog hair in the laundry process?", they educate consumers on how to care for and preserve linens and clothing at home.
In November 2015, Boyd and Whiting opened their first U.S. brick-and-mortar shop in SoHo. They took on the risk of running a New York City storefront operation only after more than a decade of establishing sales channels through Amazon, The Container Store, specialty boutiques and other domestic wholesale clients, as well as international distribution and direct-to-consumer sales on their own website.
[pullquote showtweet="false" alignment="center"]We're a pure partnership and review and approve everything together. We are the company, and that remains in our DNA. There's no one in the office with a job we haven't done ourselves.
—Gwen Whiting, co-founder, The Laundress[/pullquote]
With two factories in the tri-state area, Boyd and Whiting manufacture 95 percent of their collection in the U.S. It contains about 65 core products, many available in varying sizes. Their product formulations came to life largely thanks to expertise and guidance from a pivotal figure at their alma mater—Kay Obendorf, their former dean at Cornell, a pioneer of detergency studies and efficacy.
"When we conceived of The Laundress, the natural thing was to reach out to our Cornell network," says Whiting. "We knew this was her specialty, so we asked her to meet with us. She taught us the science of detergency in a crash-course weekend and has been our mentor throughout the journey. As an educator, she never told us what to do."
Whiting and Boyd with Brianna DeRosa, store manager of The Laundress' flagship retail location.
"We showed up with our product research, which included about 20 bottles of detergent and a bunch of questions," Boyd continues. "With a stack of books with tabbed pages waiting for us, she said, 'Ladies, where do you want to begin?'"
With their professor's input, in the days before sustainability was a high-level marketing concept, Boyd and Whiting created an eco-friendly product without exactly meaning to. "Behind the prettiness of our product is function," says Whiting. "Behind function, we learned the most effective ingredients are also the most natural. No one had been using them because they're expensive."
Located on Prince Street in Manhattan, the flagship store was opened in 2015.
While the price per ounce of The Laundress detergent is higher than that of popular brands available at grocery stores, Boyd and Whiting don't view their products as operating within a luxury niche. Their highly concentrated gentle formulations help to preserve textiles, which is economical in the long term, they point out.
"The European market was the first to embrace us without our having to explain [our price point] until we were blue in the face," says Boyd. Scent-driven Italians and eco-conscious, forward-thinking Germans generally proficient in English still form the bulk of their European customer base. At Maison&Objet in Paris, a European home trade show attracting top European and Asian buyers, the two founders have learned to translate "stain" into dozens of languages.
The company now has about 25 employees.
Walking into their Prince Street flagship, guests encounter a subtle olfactory explosion of scents like Lady, used in The Laundress's signature Delicate Wash and described in their marketing materials as an "herbal, citrusy bouquet with notes of amber, lavender and bergamot." With bright white furnishings and sophisticated accents, the store's interior evokes the brand's demure yet high-end packaging and design.
Following the financial crisis of 2008, Boyd and Whiting highlighted their products' cost-savings benefit to counteract sticker shock. For the price of dry cleaning two sweaters, they emphasized, customers could purchase a bottle of their Wool & Cashmere Shampoo and clean up to 16 machine loads.
The Laundress sells its products through Amazon, retail boutiques, wholesale clients and its own website.
"Between 2004 and 2009, we experienced steady growth," says Boyd. "Then sales spiked, and after the first five years, our revenue has doubled [annually]. We're like an octopus, and that helped us during the recession. We're a manufacturer and retailer with wholesale distribution. When about 200 of the small [U.S.] boutiques where we were sold closed, we focused on our international business."
Two years before its domestic retail location opened, The Laundress had a storefront in Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. As the company grows, Boyd and Whiting hope to find a strategic acquisition partner who can help to amplify their vision and distribution.
Like all successful entrepreneurs, The Laundress founders never asked for permission to hack a solution to their problem. Their self-assurance with caring for delicate garments transferred to early confidence in writing a still-relevant business plan. With a unique blend of humility and glamour, the two women have worked hard to make many lives easier—and more pleasurable—on a daily basis.
Photos: Christopher Lane