Flo Mcilwaine ’13

An Intimate Confidence

Flo Mcilwaine ’13 just wants her customers to feel good wearing her clothing line. She hopes people wear her clothes, first and foremost, for themselves. Although intimate apparel isn’t seen by the public, it can still create confidence in a boardroom or put “a pep in your step,” Mcilwaine says.

After earning her degree in retailing from the UW’s School of Human Ecology, Mcilwaine spent five years in different areas of the fashion world as a merchandise assistant and an assistant buyer, working with designers and factories directly. Today she maintains her position in the corporate office at Home Depot, but finds her passion in a second full-time job: running Hidden Intimates, an online intimate-apparel boutique with a mission to inspire confidence and self-love in women. Mcilwaine launched Hidden Intimates just six months ago with business partner Kate Sisk. Here’s our Q & A with the new entrepreneur.

You originally came to the UW to study finance. Why did you switch majors?
My dream was to be a real estate broker, and I chose Madison because of their business program. I chose that field because [it] would be a good industry to make a lot of money. My first week in Madison, I went to a freshman program and this woman came up to speak. The one thing I remember about her speech was that she said, “You want to pick a career or field that you can see yourself 30 years from now waking up and being excited to go to work.” When she said that to me, a light bulb lit. I knew I needed to change my major because although I was really good at math, I could not see myself doing finance 30 years from then. I decided to change my major. I became a fashion merchandise major in the School of Human Ecology.
Why did you choose the fashion industry?
I was born in Nigeria and came to the U.S. when I was 12. My mom owns two clothing boutiques in Nigeria. I pretty much was raised in those stores because she was an entrepreneur, so she was there from when the store opened until nighttime. I’d go with her in the morning, I’d go to school, and then after school, I’d go to the store, too. I got used to working with customers, helping [my mom] pick out new styles to bring into the store. I was always fascinated with the fashion industry. I knew that was something I could see myself at 60 years old waking up and still loving to do.
What do you love about intimate clothing?
When one normally thinks intimates, you think super sexy seduction. Most people think women are wearing intimates for their boyfriends or husbands or on a date. I find what is most beautiful about intimates is finding products that are just feminine, delicate, and beautiful — things that you are wearing for yourself. You don’t need to wear this for someone else. I’m wearing this because it makes me feel good. I’m a firm believer [that] the way you feel on the inside, you can exude on the outside. These intimate items are things people won’t get to see because you are wearing them underneath other garments. But you still get that sense of confidence when you walk into a room, it still gives that extra pep in your step as you are walking to your board meetings or to the train station or whatever it is you are doing.
What is something special about Hidden Intimates?
We’ve created a curated collection of brands we love to provide a unique and easy shopping experience to our customers who are looking for high quality, special lingerie they can’t easily find on your own. We’re hidden-treasure hunters. What is special is that the brands that we are trying to bring to the table you wouldn’t find Googling silk tops or silk slips. We find unique brands that you don’t have to spend three days to find yourself. For example, we have two designers on our website right now; they are small designers from Vietnam. We found them on Etsy. They were able to create handmade styles for us that were our own colors and our own products that we can sell to our customers. It would be hard for a typical customer to find those unique designers.
On your website you have a lot of personal stories, such as a mother discussing her divorce, and personal stories of the models. Why is that?
Lingerie is strongly connected to intimate experiences. It’s the piece of clothing worn closest to the skin, and it can be tied to more emotion than other types of apparel. For example, one of the voices on our series, Divorcees & Lingerie, was my partner, Kate’s, mother. We wanted to open up a conversation and inspire other women going through something like this — you can still feel beautiful and get your confidence back in a time when you may feel like you have nothing to offer. Yes, we are a lingerie brand, but we like to go beneath the surface, and our goal is to build a community — to share relatable experiences of womanhood and inspire self-love.
You and your business partner both have full-time jobs in addition to Hidden Intimates. How is that?
We’ve realized that although it has its challenges — running a business and working full-time — we can make it happen. It comes easy when you are working towards your dream with your best friend.