Why Do So Many Corsetieres Go Out of Business?


Almost every month I go through my corsetiere map and make notes on which corset makers are inactive, which have closed down their businesses and websites, and I add new makers that are popping up all the time on Etsy. Like with many craft / creative home businesses, it’s difficult to make corsetry a lucrative career.

Even I took custom commissions for a few years, and while I had no shortage of clients wishing for a corset (I was one of the lucky ones), I had my own reasons for going on an indefinite hiatus.

Because of my corsetiere map, corsetieres contact me when they want to be added or when they would like to be removed. In the latter situation, while I never pry as to their reasons, they often tell me anyway, and many of their grievances boil down to the same main points over and over again.

Although I cannot (and will not) go into the specific set of reasons as to why any one specific corset maker has decided to shut down their business (as that would be betraying their confidence), I can speak generally about it – perhaps discussing this would be helpful in having customers understand that corsetieres are human too, and for other corset makers out there, it can help them avoid the same mistakes.

 

Corset Supplies are Scarce and Expensive

Making a corset is relatively complicated, as far as garments go. There are a lot of specialty components that go into it (like a busk and steel bones) and depending on where you live, sometimes even good quality 2-part grommets are difficult to source. Most people can’t find these at their local fabric shop, and most corsetieres order online. The materials themselves can often add up to at least $50, before you even put your time into making the corset! This is one reason why corsets themselves are more pricey than other, more common articles of clothing.

Many corset makers end up supplementing their income by creating accessories – corset liners are simple and fast to make, as well as storage bags, or boleros, or dresses or other outfits that go well with their corsets. These are not only made from materials that may be less expensive / easier to source, but they typically take less time to make, so the designer can bring in enough to support themselves.


Corsets Take a Long Time to Make (and have a steep learning curve!)

Someone can buy 2 yards of fabric for $20, make a dress out of it in 2 hours and sell it for $50, so she ends up paying herself $15 per hour. Many people wouldn’t even bat an eye at spending $50 for a simple handmade dress. But let’s say you buy corset materials for $50, and spend 20 hours making a corset. If you paid yourself the same hourly rate ($15 per hour), then that corset will cost a minimum of $350, and (while this is actually a very reasonable price for a custom corset these days) so many people are not willing to pay that much.

Too often, fledgling makers enter the scene with competitive introductory pricing, such that some of them are not even paying themselves minimum wage, and this influences the market and drives down prices for everyone. (And we haven’t even gotten into the hidden costs of running a business… see the “Unexpected Expenses” section.)

There are only 24 hours in everyone’s day, so how do some corset makers make more money with the time that they have? A lot of them get help or take on side jobs:

  • More and more corset makers are now holding sewing classes classes, where people come in for a weekend and pay a fee to be taught how to make their own corsets. These classes are seemingly pricey (many start at $300 for a group class, up to and above $1000 for private instruction), but it’s a way for makers to supplement their income. As a student, if you think about the fact that you can buy a corset for $300 or learn to make as many corsets as you like for $300, the price of a class becomes justified (if you enjoy sewing, that is). And for the corsetiere, it’s an opportunity to take a break from the laborious work of crouching over a sewing machine all day.
  • Some makers take on interns to help (maybe once a week), so the interns learn how to make corsets for free without having to pay for a one-on-one class, and in return the maker gets… essentially unpaid labor. (From what I understand, depending on where you live and the type of industry you work in, this is an ethically grey area.)
  • Some fashion schools allow (or even require) at least one semester of free study, co-op experience, or internship. These “private study” semesters can dramatically help local designers, as flocks of students look for corset-making instruction and need to get their minimum hours filled.
  • SO many corset makers ask their husbands or siblings for help, even if it’s just tipping bones or setting the grommets.
  • Some makers even hire a virtual assistant to take care of customer service and admin (because dealing with people is not everyone’s strong suit – more on that later in the “Artists Sometimes Suck at Business” section).
  • Many corset makers go the way of ready-to-wear corsets. After a few years, corsetieres will likely notice that there is a certain “average” of measurements or proportions from their clients, and they can make one or several standard corset pattern(s) that will maybe 60-75% of bodies. Then they can batch out their corsets in bulk, which is much more efficient on time compared to custom corsets – it means you can stack your fabric layers and cut out several corsets at once, you can stock up on the same length bones and busks all the time (instead of cutting them to length or special-ordering them for each corset), and you don’t have to waste as much time switching tasks. However, after awhile, standard sized / stock corsets can be depressing (see the section “Beggers Can’t Be Choosers“).
  • Some corset makers make enough to be able to hire a team to make corsets in a small assembly line – so even when paying their team an hourly rate, since they have specialized machinery and people with specific skills, everything goes much smoother and faster. But of course, that special machinery comes at a hefty price – and training those workers takes time and money too.

Oftentimes when a corset maker burns out and stops making corsets, it’s because they were working alone for so many years without any help whatsoever – they were doing all the labor and admin themselves.


Making Corsets is a Full-Body Workout.

Cutting fabric on the floor; cutting and grinding bones; hammering or pressing grommets; spending hours upon hours in front of the sewing machine – these can be very labor-intensive and can cause injuries if you’re not prioritizing the ergonomics of your work area.

After my car accident in 2014, I wasn’t able to sew beyond very short periods of a few minutes (essentially short mending jobs) because I couldn’t crane my neck down for extended durations. Some people with muscle weakness need help cutting bones or setting grommets. Some people have arthritis in their hands and don’t have great dexterity in their fingers. And if you are sewing 12+ hours a day, almost every day, it can start to create a lot of wear and tear on the body.

Some corset makers do become more skilled and faster at making corsets, and some get better equipment so the process is more ergonomic (but that costs money too).


There Are Unexpected Expenses When Running a Business

Many corset makers only charge for the cost of materials + their labor in making the corset (and corsetieres have a habit of underestimating the number of hours required to finish a project!). But there are so many more expenses involved in keeping your business alive. Here are just a few “hidden costs” in any creative business:

  • Registering your business.
  • Filing for a trademark / copyright.
  • Admin work – bookkeeping, answering emails, etc.
  • Doing footwork / research / testing for the suitability of materials in your projects, or upgrading your skills.
  • Liability insurance for yourself, any employees you might have, insurance on your studio or dwelling, and insurance on your equipment and inventory.
  • Repairs and servicing for your machines / equipment.
  • Electricity that runs the equipment everyday (overhead).
  • Seller fees for Etsy, Ebay, and whatever you’re using to process payments.
  • Web hosting and maintenance.
  • Some countries require that businesses of any size, even the “hobbyists”, file your taxes every quarter. That’s every 3 months! That eats away at your time you’d rather spend Making Things, and some businesses are required to pay taxes every quarter.
  • Hiring a bookkeeper or accountant that knows all the legal stuff around running a business, and what’s claimable and not claimable around tax time (but this is a very wise investment and highly recommended – what I pay my accountant is much less than the amount I save by doing my taxes properly).

A corset maker can raise their prices to cover these fees, but that is a double-edged sword because it means fewer people are willing to buy from a brand that charges more.


Beggers Can’t Be Choosers

When I started making corsets, I considered it an amazing creative outlet. I could make any design, any color, any silhouette I wanted, with any combination of embellishments. I could let my imagination go wild! But when I started taking commissions, it became a case of “10 plain black waist training corsets in a row”, and while I take pride and put care in all of the corsets I make, it quickly became boring, soul-draining work.

Many corset makers now turn away prospective customers who want a plain underbust corset, because these makers only want to focus on luxury or couture work (and that is their right and their prerogative! If they’re able to maintain a successful business while turning away commissions, more power to them!). Other corset makers will take any commission they can get because it pays the bills – and what was once a lovely creative outlet for them has become a sad, drudging job.


Artists Sometimes Suck at Business…
…. Also, Difficult Customers Exist

Another potential issue with bespoke corsetry is that it’s so very personal: it’s designed to fit just one person exactly (even down to their anatomical asymmetries and idiosyncrasies) and the colors, fabrics, and embellishments are to that client’s specific taste. And oftentimes, if that commission is not 110% to the client’s standard, that is the difference between the maker getting paid and not getting paid. Of course, the maker should know this coming into the business – and know what’s fair and unfair in business dealings.

This is where contracts would be useful when taking commissions: be absolutely clear as to what’s included in the outfit / costume / corset commission, what communication and tasks are required of both the maker and the client (yes, some tasks are required of the client, like taking body measurements, being clear about what types of embellishments and how much, giving feedback during mockup fittings, etc), when payment(s) are due, etc. so there is less miscommunication and confusion.

Depending on a corsetiere’s PR skills, one really bad review can potentially ruin a maker’s reputation and put them out of business. (Some corset makers are really really good at making corsets, but their customer service leaves something to be desired.)

Several makers who have owned corset companies for 20+ years have all told me something similar (and somewhat controversial): for better or for worse, when it comes to the corset industry, it’s seldom that a laid back client comes along. While many don’t quite hit “bridezilla” status, occasionally a customer comes close, and the corsetiere has to learn how to be a good businessperson (not just a good artist) and know where to draw the line with “pickiness”: when to either put their foot down and when to cut their losses.

More unfortunately, there are many corset makers who hear nothing but crickets when their clients are happy with their commissions, and they only ever hear from their unhappy customers. This seems to be more universal: no matter what the industry or what the product / service is, unhappy customers are always louder than the happy ones. And this hurts businesses in real ways:

Let’s say a hypothetical corsetiere sells 50 corsets on Etsy. 48 of those customers are happy, and 2 of them are unhappy.

Let’s say only 3 of the happy customers leave 4 or 5 star reviews, but both of the unhappy customers leave 1-star reviews. That makes her Etsy rating look really spotty, close to a 60% satisfaction rate, even though in reality they have a 96% satisfaction rate.

I would not be willing to purchase from a corsetiere with a 60% satisfaction rate, would you? I might even think that they’re stealing photos from other makers and distributing knock-off designs, and the “three positive reviews” might be fabricated / shill reviews, or from customers uneducated about genuine corsets.

If many other prospective customers look at their poor ratings and think along the same lines, that corsetiere’s business suffers – she could be one of the most talented artists of our generation, but some people might never even give her a chance.

So if you purchased something off Etsy or even off a maker’s website and you were happy with your purchase, please consider leaving that corsetiere (or costumier, or artist) a positive review, or a testimonial that they’re able to share on their site – it only takes a minute, and it can really help with their reputation. If you have a bad experience with a corset maker then by all means speak your truth – but when you are happy with your product, also take the time to promote what you love, because some corsetieres’ livelihood depends on your feedback.

 

These are just a few reasons why so many makers decide to shut down their businesses. There are obviously many more reasons than these, some much more personal to the individual – this is why there is an entire industry (books, courses, mentorships, summits, etc) on how to properly run a business as a creative – no one is born knowing this, and most of us are flying by the seat of our pants, learning as we go. But if we’re to stay in business, we must be aware of these things and learn how to avoid them as best we can.

If there are any big reasons that I missed regarding why corsetieres or costumiers choose to leave their businesses, feel free to leave a comment down below and let me know. As always, be respectful in the comments.

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5 comments on “Why Do So Many Corsetieres Go Out of Business?

  1. This is such a good article, Lucy!

    I have only been buying corsets for just over a year and I spent a few months before that researching everything I could find out – your web site and YouTube Channel were incredibly helpful.

    When I did start to look for corsets to buy, I wanted to buy from independent makers but quickly realised that I could only afford “sale” items. When I saw what was on offer my first thought was that these beautiful, complex creations would be snapped up before I could blink an eye!

    As time went on and I saw that they were still available . . . and over a year later some of them are STILL available . . . I wondered how on earth any of these coretiers were making a living! Quite apart from the materials and time in design and construction, many independent makers have web sites displaying staggeringly high quality photography, locations and models. It just did not add up.

    My main interest is music. I have spent most of today debating with fellow Admins of a Facebook Group about a Chinese “factory company” that is unethically offering inducements to people to give 5 Star ratings on eBay and Amazon for the ridiculously low-priced products that it sells. All the time I was thinking that there are so many comparisons with the corset market. Whether high or low quality, custom or factory production line, the wages are pitiful when you consider “pay per hour”.

    I was also told that the unethical practice of offering inducements for “5 Star Reviews”, with instructions on what to say and what not to say in the Review, is common practice by many of the big, far eastern “factory shops” on eBay and Amazon. So I wondered if that was also something causing problems for small, ethical, independent makers? That is, if people do not know any better and they see masses of “5 star” reviews for a range of very cheap products and no reviews or very few for vendors who have a small output.

    I am in the UK and I have restricted my purchases to Europe, due to the added cost of shipping and import taxes from further afield. So far, I have bought – or had corsets on sale or return – mostly direct from the maker, from their websites or Etsy Stores. They have given me even more of their precious time and have all been incredibly helpful, to the extent of advising me NOT to buy particular corsets when they could tell that they would not fit me.

    I have a short torso and am very hight waisted so in every case I have contacted the maker for further details or advice. They have taken the time to give me extra details and careful advice, sometimes taking and sending me extra photographs and/or sending me corsets to try on “sale or return”. Where possible I have left a Review with many thanks for the excellent service, high quality of corset and amazing value for money.

    However, some makers do not have a “Review” facility on their own sites and it is only possible to leave a Review on Etsy after a completed purchase with no “return”. So I have been unable to leave a public “thank you” for all their time, effort and excellent customer service when my enquiries or trials have resulted in a decision not to buy, or I have had to return a corset that looked as if it might fit but did not when I tried it.

    I hope you don’t mind, Lucy, if I take this opportunity to say a public “thank you” to the following makers, as I was not able to do so on their own websites or on Etsy? In almost all cases the “fit” issues were to do with a corset being too long for my torso from waist upwards.

    Priorattire.co.uk (Izabela Pitcher):
    – lengthy correspondence with advice and information then sent the “sample from a photoshoot” corset on “sale or return” – a perfect fit!
    – on two other occasions, Izabela provided information and advice about two other corsets, which Izabela advised me NOT to buy as she could tell that they would not fit me.

    Sewcurvycouture.com (was Clessidra Corsets at the time):
    – Julie Bremble gave me a lot of advice and extra information and sent me the “sample from a photoshoot” corset on “sale or return” – perfect fit!

    Misty Couture (Etsy):
    – I had already bought one corset from Misty and left feedback but, on another occasion, Misty advised me NOT to buy a corset that she could tell would not fit me.

    The Magpie’s Wing (Etsy):
    – Queenie advised me NOT to buy a particular corset when I sent her my measurements.

    Aranea Black Corsets (Etsy):
    – Katarina took extra measurements and then advised me NOT to buy a corset that she had made.

    Rebel Madness (Etsy):
    – Magdalena Nowicka advised me NOT to buy a corset that she could tell would not fit me.

    Jem Corsets (Etsy):
    – Jo Manners advised me on two separate occasions NOT to buy corsets she had made as they would not fit me

    Kiku Boutique (Etsy):
    – Lynn McKay advised, took extra measurements and sent me a corset on “sale or return”. I had already bought one corset from Kiku Boutique that fitted me perfectly. However, in this case, although the measurements looked as if they should work, the different shape meant that it was a terrible fit for me.

    I might have missed some people who I contacted directly if they sold from their own websites rather than via Etsy.

    Anyone lucky enough to have a body shape and size that fits “standard” corsets will probably be unaware of all the extra care and attention, time and effort, that independent makers give to people like me, often for no financial return and with no chance of public recognition for it.

    So a big “thank you” also to you Lucy, as you also gave me a lot of good advice when I used your online Advice Service.

    Best wishes,
    Liz

  2. Corsetiere’s are artists and I have no problem with what they charge.

    So sad to see so many stop trading and we can only be thankful for sites/people like you to push the cause. Please, please keep up the fantastic work.

  3. Karen T. on said:

    As a customer the purchase of a high quality corset is a significant expenditure of money. I have gone to the cheaper well on several occasions, while being aware that you get what you pay for.

    As a result we don’t know which discomforts are an artifact of wearing a corset and which are caused by cheap materials and construction. So when we don’t get immediate comfort from the more expensive corset we tend to blame the maker. While there are customers that simply won’t be satisfied this does give the maker a second chance. While I am not your typical customer if I get useful help from the maker I may very well leave a positive review mentioning the help I received was fast and courteous. I have a lot of experience in retail and how you treat the dissatisfied customer can make or break you.

    When I had a very difficult customer at one job it became extremely contentious. When the customer stormed out he declared he would never come back I leaned across the counter and told him “Thank You!”.

    As you can imagine he ended up in the owner’s office. After I finished closing out the department I went up front to take my medicine. The guy was still there and the owner made a little brushing gesture, telling me not to come in. So I waited around the corner for the guy to leave.

    I went in and the owner asked me to tell what happened from my POV. Afterwards he asked me if I’d learned anything and I replied “Don’t treat an asshole like an asshole.”

    His reply was “Lesson learned”. He then explained what things I could have done. But the big lesson I learned was no matter how dense and stupid the customer is, remain calm. Otherwise you are sinking to her/his level.

  4. Great piece! Sad that it almost feels like we corsetiers need to post our business model on our homepage to justify our costs to customers. So right about being fortunate to have family and friends to help out. My wife, a professional graphic designer, does my website and other graphic design work so that I have more time for corsets.

  5. This is a really great article Lucy!!

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