Making bras and lacy lingerie is tough work, but DeMillus has conquered the Brazilian market for ladies' underwear and moved into related lines of products, including men's and boys' underwear, and cosmetics. The company does all this while providing work for thousands of women across Brazil, Jeffrey Matthews reports.
When DeMillus’ Founder, Nahum Manela, started his company in 1947 at the age of 21, little did he know that his small operation, consisting of a few seamstresses in a small space in Rio de Janeiro, would eventually grow into Brazil’s biggest producer and seller of feminine undergarments?
Now the company makes a full range of brassieres, panties, nightgowns, socks and lingerie for “more intimate moments,” using a team of more than 20 designers to stay on top of the latest trends from around the world so it can offer its customers the most up-to-date fashions available, said DeMillus President Abdala Haddad.
“We visit the fashion shows in Paris, in Milan, twice a year, where we see what the world trends are,” Haddad said. “From there we’re inspired and we design the products, the embroidery, the colors, the prints, everything, and that’s how our clothing lines are created.”
DeMillus’ biggest sellers are the dozens of different styles of bras and panties, with different colors and embroidery patterns that the company makes for day-to-day use. The company is constantly innovating, and recently launched a bra that has straps that cross the lower back, for use with dresses or gowns that bare the upper part of the back.
Another of DeMillus’ newest products is a bra with straps that can be attached at various parts of the garment, permitting it to be worn in more than 160 different ways, so it can be adapted to almost any sort of garment worn over it.
DeMillus makes products for girls and women of all sizes. In 1989 the company expanded into the market for stockings and pantyhose, with its Dantelle line of products that were an immediate success. In 1997 a line of cosmetics products was introduced, taking advantage of the sales synergies available. The company also makes underwear for men and boys, and has a line of children’s pajamas.
The sensation of underwear against the skin, especially lingerie, is very important for selling the product, and DeMillus uses only high-quality cotton and microfibers to make sure its products are comfortable and feel good to the wearer, Haddad said.
“Some of our products are made from a polyester microfiber that’s very similar to silk,” he explained. “Lingerie today needs to have a special feeling, so a lot is made of microfiber, which is very, very fine.”
DeMillus sells its clothing through two main channels, retailers and door-to-door through its network of about 120,000 salespeople. The country is divided into seven retail sales regions, each with a distributor that sells to stores of all different sizes, from giant department stores down to small neighborhood shops. The company sometimes produces special collections for big chains.
The most important distribution for DeMillus, though, is its door-to-door sales, which account for about 70 percent of revenue. The salespeople, who are mostly women, sell to friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors. They all have repeat customers, whom they visit several times a year to offer the company’s latest products, or just see if their kids have outgrown their underwear and need more.
DeMillus distributes between six million and eight million catalogs per year, each containing more than 4000 SKUs, or stock keeping units. About 20 percent to 30 percent of the items are renewed in each new catalog.
“Our seller gets the catalog, and then she gives them out in her workplace, or in her neighborhood, or to her family and her circle of friends,” Haddad said. “Once per campaign she makes her order to our call center, and she receives the products at her home. After that she has 21 days to pay the company. Our saleswomen can sell our products without leaving another job. If a woman needs to help out with bringing money home, this is a good way to do it.”
DeMillus started door-to-door sales in 1985, and it has proved to be a very successful system. Last year sales rose 20 percent, to about 300 million Brazilian reais ($136 million). Revenue has increased 15 percent to 20 percent each year since 2005, and the company expects growth of 20 percent this year as well, Haddad said.
Through the door-to-door network DeMillus provides many job opportunities, but the company also employs a lot of people at its three factories. Sewing is very labor-intensive work and the company trains its seamstresses at a special school, ensuring it has enough qualified workers. It gives thousands of young women with little or no work experience an opportunity.
“They come in here without knowing anything about sewing, and we start them in the sewing school, we make them professionals,” Haddad said. “This is something that we’re very proud of: We teach them a skill they can use for the rest of their lives.”
The company takes care of its workers in other ways as well, offering them medical care in the factories, as well as annual medical exams. Training courses are also available to help promote workers from within the company when job openings appear.
DeMillus has two factories in Rio de Janeiro and another in Paraiba state in Brazil’s northeast that together produce about 3.6 million pieces per month. DeMillus is unusual in that it produces about 95 percent of its supplies in-house. The company buys fiber from local suppliers, and from that point goes it alone.
“We have an embroidery factory, and we make all the hooks, eyes, the wires for brassieres, and all the plastic pieces, it’s all internal,” said Haddad. “We take it from fiber to the final product; not many companies do that. We do that because that way we have economies of scale, we can produce at a lower cost and have a more controlled quality.”
The company has a well established ecological policy to make sure that it emits as few contaminants as possible, and also recycles as much as possible. Leftover dyes are treated to extract the water in them, which is then re-used to make new dyes. Nylon and other materials are also recycled whenever feasible.
“This is an ecologically correct company,” Haddad said. “We’re vertical, that means we make the dyes, the cloth, everything, so we can make sure we treat all our waste properly. That’s very unusual in Brazil. Whatever is left over after the industrial process are reused as well. Nothing is thrown out.”
DeMillus has had a caring attitude towards its employees and the environment right from the beginning. As the company has grown over the years into Brazil’s biggest underwear maker, it has increased and expanded its efforts to use ecologically sound processes and to help its employees improve their lives, while at the same time offering its customers high quality, reasonable prices and trendy, sexy designs.