Back in 2015, when Chelsea Hughes founded Cantiq, the lingerie designer was just looking to make a few pieces that fit her tastes. Though she began the line sewing everything on a vintage machine in the corner of her kitchen, it quickly expanded—especially when she pushed into the plus-sized and gender fluid markets. Cantiq, Hughes says, is about creating “lingerie for all, regardless of body type, race, or gender identity,” and the brand is thriving. She’s got an L.A. storefront, a new swim line, and a rabid fanbase of customers who say Hughes and Cantiq have changed what they thought was possible in the world of intimates.
Byrdie talked to Hughes about what it means to make “lingerie for all,” and how Cantiq is pushing the boundaries of gender expression with its innovative designs.
Byrdie: How did Cantiq start?
Chelsea Hughes: We started about seven years ago, and it definitely didn't start off the way that we are now. When I started, I thought that in order to be successful, I had to emulate the only lingerie brands that I knew were successful. I had to be the next Victoria's Secret or the next M. Frederic, or the next Cosabella or whatever.
In the last three or four years, though, we've really taken a 180 from that and gotten more into body positivity, inclusivity, and championing all body types, not just the ones that society deems acceptable. That started with us expanding our line into plus sizes, and then we expanded into gender fluid sizing. Most recently, we expanded into extended sizes. We've always done custom work, so we have always tried to cater to the most people, but now we’re just trying to make it more accessible.
What made you want to get into lingerie in the first place?
I've always been a fan of lingerie, but also it didn't seem like a saturated enough market at the time. Most consumers can’t name 10 lingerie brands off the top of their heads with the same ease they can name 10 denim brands or 10 T-shirt brands or even 10 swimwear brands. There’s a smaller pool.
What were and are some of the biggest challenges Cantiq faces?
Well, there’s the fact that we're completely self funded. It's not like we have financial backing, which would make things a lot easier.
There’s also the process of getting the right fit and the sizing correct and choosing the right fabrics, because you have to be really aware of that. These are undergarments. This is the first thing that touches your body, so you have to be aware of comfort levels in more ways than one. It’s not just about the style, but also the fit, the fabric, and how all of that fits together.
Even convincing people [to try Cantiq] can be a challenge, because people are so used to the big fashion companies out there that aren't catering to their bodies. We have to let people know, “We’re actually here for you. This was made for you. You don't have to be skeptical about it.”
Also, we have a brick and mortar store now, but before we had that, we were just selling exclusively online and that's tough, too. Especially with the larger sizes, how can a customer know if something’s going to fit beyond a photo or a size chart? It's almost like you have to convince the customer. That’s especially true in the plus-size and gender fluid communities, because the industry in general has been telling them that their body isn’t valid, or saying, “no, we don't cater to you” or, “If we do cater, we only do it in a limited way.”
People in those segments are just so used to being told no, that when we finally say “yes,” they’re like, “Are you sure, though? Because I’m not.”
Cantiq makes all of its products in house. What has that enabled you to do?
It's definitely enabled us to have a little more hands-on control over the product and the quality. We're also able to create as we go to try and fill more orders in a rolling way. Although, sometimes we do get behind because it is all small batch versus bulk ordering from a manufacturer.
If you’re ordering from a larger manufacturer, though, you have no control over the way that workers are treated. You’re not always aware of who you're choosing to work with. Here, we know that the AC is on all the time. This isn't a sweatshop. All our workers are paid fair wages, and they're all given as many breaks as they want or need. We have an area for them to eat their lunch, and we supply water and snacks and make sure that it's a comfortable working environment.
When you're sending out your garments to be made somewhere else, how do you really know? Factories can tell you that they're ethical, but especially if it's overseas, not very many people are flying to do audits of their factories to ensure the quality of the way that their garment workers are being treated. If you're making things locally, it's a little bit better. You can at least go down there and look, but what happens behind closed doors when you're not there? Are they showing you the payroll? Probably not.
We have to let people know, “We’re actually here for you. This was made for you. You don't have to be skeptical about it.
Not only do we have control over our production, but we also have control of the quality of life of our garment workers. That's a big thing that we've been advocating for as a brand, too. We've teamed up with the Garment Worker Center in downtown L.A., which is essentially the closest thing that garment workers can get to a union. We recently won a battle for legislation to end the per piece rate of pay in the garment industry. People were getting paid based on how many pieces they made, but let's say your kid keeps you up all night because they're sick and you're a little tired and you run a little slower than normal, well, then your wage is going to be directly affected by that, which is totally unfair. Life happens.
A lot of people assume that's going to be happening overseas, with sweatshops, and essentially, modern slavery is happening overseas. What people don't realize is that it's happening in our backyard. They just don't know about it or do the research. Big companies are here in L.A., paying by the piece and jamming as many factory workers in a warehouse as humanly possible, with no space, no AC, no anything. They’re getting away with it, too, because it was legal up until recently.
We teamed up with the Garment Worker Center as a brand to show our support so the legislators can see that brands are also rallying for this. We’re not going to lose local jobs and not every brand is going to take their business elsewhere if something like this is passed.
Cantiq is also proof of something opponents of this always argue, too, which is that if you paid more, the prices of the clothing would go up astronomically. T-shirts would be $100. Your bralettes start at $42.
That's always everybody's excuse. “That's going to be so expensive.” But it's really not. Is it harder? Absolutely. It's way harder. But is it more expensive? No. People just don't have the commitment or are, to put it bluntly, lazy and don't want to put the extra effort in to ensure that they can create a product ethically at a fair price. It's doable.
It’s the same argument in a lot of aspects of the industry, really. “Oh, we can’t do plus sizes because it’s too hard.” It really isn't. You just don't want to.
There’s also the thing where a brand is shouting “We’ve got an extended range of sizes! We’re doing plus!” and then I go and look and it’s just up to 2X or something. There are limits to what some brands are willing to do.
Absolutely. We started out by expanding our plus size to 3X, but we're also a tiny brand with a team of four and we had to take it on in digestible size bites. Brands that have logistics and hundreds of employees and financial backing have no excuse.
The fact that you’re making gender fluid garments is incredible, and it’s especially important that you’re making compression or tucking garments, because people have been using such thrown-together solutions for so long.
Oh, yeah, and it's totally unsafe, too. So many people out there are marginalized. In the fashion industry, most fashion brands look at market segments, and say, “There aren't enough people for me to market to because there's just not enough money to be made there. I want to just hit the general population, because there's more money to be had.” The funny thing is that at the same time, even though there's maybe not as many people in the gender fluid or trans segment, there's also not as many brands catering to that segment. So there is money available. There are customers to be had, and there's less competition. More than that, though, there’s a group of people that deserve to be seen and heard and have their needs met.
For our gender fluid stuff, we started out with “more room” sizing, which is created with bigger gussets for external genitalia. We recently launched our first round of our compression line, which is tucking panties, specifically geared towards the trans community. It's been wildly successful, because everybody said, “I have never been able to find this.”
Now, you’re seeing Cosabella and Fenty coming out with men’s lingerie. I personally don't like to say men's lingerie, because not everybody who has external genitalia identifies as male. But that's what they're doing. They're starting to realize, “maybe there’s more opportunity than we originally thought here.” I felt the same way when I first started. If you had told me four years ago that I'd been making lingerie for people with penises, I would have laughed in your face, but now it's one of the most rewarding things I do.
It’s great that you’re out there producing a quality product for those who identify as men, too, because there have to have been male-identifying people out there for years who have been buying ill-fitting women’s lingerie off places like Amazon. Now there are options.
I'll never forget. I went to Folsom Street Fair, which is a kinky gay event in San Francisco, a few years back, right around the time when I started making gender fluid lingerie. I literally went with a backpack full of pieces, because I was just trying to get the word out there.
I saw this person walking down the street wearing what looked like the most uncomfortable thong I've ever noticed. I walked up to them and I was like, “Hey, what size are you?” I pulled something out of my backpack and I was like, “Here, put this on.” They did, and the look on their face, it was just like, “Oh my god, I can breathe. There's finally air for me.” They told me they couldn’t pay for it, though, and I was like, “No, I’m giving this to you because I want you to know that there is a better option than your woman's thong that you bought on Amazon for God knows how much and that you're forcing yourself to fit into.” Your clothes should fit you, rather than you trying to fit into your clothes.
And that has to be a good reminder that you’re worth it, too.
Exactly. It's validating in more ways than one. It's like, “Hey, I'm allowed this.”
Your clothes should fit you, rather than you trying to fit into your clothes.
Having talked to plus-size designers before, I’ve heard people say that oftentimes, when they go to have their clothing made, people don’t understand what they want or why they’d want certain cuts. I have to imagine that making your own garments in house helps you stay away from that second-guessing.
Absolutely, though there are certain things that we do send out. For example, I get our patterns graded at an outside place. It just blows the guy’s mind every time I go in there and I tell him that I have 11 sizes. He's like, “Why?,” and I’m like, “Oh, buddy. That's just the bras. We have 21 on the panties.”
Another wonderful thing about manufacturing in house is that we are able to make the plus size stuff wider and broader if we want. We don't have to answer to other people's preconceived notions of what it's supposed to look like.
When we first came out with our plus-size line, I listened to other people saying, “This is how you're supposed to do it.” I was like, “Well, I guess then that’s how we do it!” I'm what I would consider mid size, so I haven't experienced the plus-size experience. I was just like, “If that's what the industry says, then that's what goes.”
But then I stopped listening to the industry and started listening to actual people. We’d have friends in or people from our Instagram or other social platforms, and they’d tell us, “That's just the bigger version of a small. I need a bra that has thicker straps. I need a bra that has a wider band. I need more back coverage.” You can't just take a small bra and magnify it to a 6X and call it a day.
And now you're doing swimwear, so that must mean you’re doing something right. Something must be working.
Swim is my nightmare, honestly. It's been wildly successful, though. I've received so many messages from people being like, “Oh my God, this fits amazing,” or “They never make sexy bikinis for 5 or 6x people.” Our gender fluid clients with external genitalia, they’re like, “I've never been able to find a bikini that fits me. I can actually wear this and not have to mold myself into it. It molds for me. I’m not molding for it.” So it's been great for that.
From a manufacturing and logistical standpoint, when we first decided to do swim, we didn't have the correct garment worker. I found a workshop downtown that I was able to confirm was ethical and they came highly recommended. It ended up being a total logistical nightmare, so now we're making it in house. We bought the machine and we hired another sewer. Her name is Stella. She's amazing.
Last question: Say you’re giving the Cantiq TED Talk. What’s the lesson you want people to learn from your experience?
I think normalizing what we're doing is the ultimate goal.
People always say to me, “Aren't you bummed that Fenty is making lingerie for men now?” I'm like, “No. That's the point.” Obviously, we all need to make a living and capitalism, whatever, but it’s more just about making sure that more people are being heard and validated. If that means that we're setting the example for bigger brands to expand into these markets that they otherwise would have scoffed at, then great. That's what we're here for. We're here to show that it's worth doing.
Even outside of the gender fluid community, there’s the plus-size community. There are so many videos of plus-sized people on the internet saying, “Every time I go to a store and I'm looking for my size, they say it's all online or have it in really limited colors only.” My TikTok manager did an audit of our orders where she found out that, of the last 100 orders that we had, over 60% of them were plus size. When brands are saying, “There's not a market for it,” or “We can't sell it, it doesn't sell well,” that's lies. You're just not marketing correctly.
I want it to just be normal that you can get clothes wherever you want, whenever you want, regardless of your body, your anatomy, your gender, identity, whatever. That's the point. We're here to make positive changes in the industry. This isn't about glorifying obesity or whatever people like to use as their excuse for hating fat people. It's about allowing people to be comfortable and valid in their own bodies and giving them the opportunity to do so.