When they started roughly ten years ago, the founders of Underprotection had to deal with the naysayers and the sceptics. Sustainable fashion was not in vogue and sustainable lingerie was unheard of. A decade later, the brand is big and held in high esteem, and the founders stand vindicated.

Ten years ago, everyone said that they were doomed to fail. No one believed in the two. Some thought it was a wonderful idea but believed them to be opportunists. They said: you can't earn money from that.

That was the all-pervading reaction that the couple-co-founder and CEO Stephan Rosenkilde and co-founder and designer Sunniva Uggerby of the Danish lingerie brand Underprotection-had to contend with. Their idea was to establish a sustainable lingerie brand back in 2010 when nobody talked about "sustainable fashion" and fewer still of "sustainable lingerie." But their mission was clear: to create sustainable lingerie that should be just as desirable and glamorous as conventional lingerie.

As Uggerby recollects: "When we started out there was no one to compete with. If you looked for sustainable underwear, you would only be able to find a pair of white or black underpants in organic cotton. That was it." Today, Underprotection is one of the leading brands in the sustainable lingerie, swimwear and loungewear segment, and can be found in 15 countries and more than 120 stores-online and physical. But how did the Danish brand that can now celebrate its 10th anniversary come thus afar?

The story of a paper stashed away

In 2005, Uggerby was studying at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology when she was asked to do a paper on a fictive design collaboration. She settled for lingerie and came up with the idea of applying the Fairtrade label to the collection which was only seen on products like coffee and chocolate at the time.

"I got a lot of positive responses and I said to myself: 'hey, this is how it should be'. To me, it made so much sense in applying sustainable labelling to fashion apparel as well," says Uggerby. The paper was then stored away in a box along with her other old school papers. Years went by. Uggerby graduated and started working as a designer for different Danish fashion brands, but she was never content with what she did.

In the meantime, she met Stephan Rosenkilde, and as the couple moved in together and started unpacking all the boxes, she discovered the old school paper written five years ago. Rosenkilde went through it and felt it was a brilliant idea. And then it took off. Rosenkilde, who holds a diploma in business administration, chalked out a business plan and Uggerby contacted an Indian supplier who she knew from a previous position.

"She was a wonderful lady who was truly dedicated to organic and sustainable sourcing and who we still work with. Luckily, she was able to accommodate our need for small deliveries-which meant that we could scale up at our own pace," says Rosenkilde. The couple worked every evening and weekends to get the business up and running as both held on to other positions in the beginning to ensure financial headroom.

The business began to grow slowly and in 2012 they were represented in various stores around Europe and the year after they entered Manhattan and were suddenly present in more stores across Manhattan than in all of Denmark. Today, Underprotection is there in Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, Great Britain and the US and is also available online in stores such as luisaviaroma.com, neimanmarcus.com and biankakoben.com. In 2018, Rosenkilde and Uggerby teamed up with a business partner and are now a team of 11 people working from a head office in Copenhagen.

Pure materials at the core

The delicate and elegant lingerie, often in beautiful colours, stand in sheer contrast to the black and white organic cotton underpants that Rosenkilde and Uggerby were able to find in the beginning when they did their benchmarking. Underprotection uses only materials that are classified or certified sustainable. The majority of the natural materials used are Tencel Lyocell, responsible wool and organic cotton, while the synthetic materials like polyester, nylon and elastane are all recycled and GRS or Oeko-Tex certified.

The visionary brand also uses banana fibres made from banana leaves that are suitable for loungewear, milk fibre made out of sour milk from the dairy industry that is suitable for pyjamas, and recycled wool that are all Oeko-Tex certified. Their main supplier is still based in India, but they also work with suppliers in 10 other countries, depending on where it makes most sense. For example, they source their lace in Italy and France as these countries are known for their lace and have been frontrunners in recycled lace too; the recycled polyester is sourced from China where there is a great concentration of plastic bottles.

To make their products easier to recycle at the end of the cycle, they do not mix up different materials, with the exception of the lace which is already recycled: "We think it is very important to take the end of the lifecycle into account in the early stages itself of the design process. There are  still too many mixed products out there which makes it almost impossible to separate the fibres for reuse," points out Uggerby.

"Moreover, when you mix different materials, the product won't perform as good as one of pure material. It will easily get a worn-out look which means that you will not keep it for as long." To Uggerby and Rosenkilde, sustainability must be included in all aspects of their business which is why the suppliers they work with hold certifications like WRAP, Sedex, GOTS, BSCI and Oeko-Tex-all controlled by third parties.

Furthermore, all packaging is made from recycled material and FSC certified; postal bags are made from recycled plastic, and polybags are made in biodegradable or from recycled plastic. For the two founders, Underprotection is not just a good business case-it is a way of living, as they put it.

In fact, Uggerby grew up with sustainability before the word was even invented which she thinks has had an impact on her career path. In the 1980s, her parents bought meat at a biodynamic farm and grew their own biodynamic vegetables. Her mother convinced the local grocery store to stock organic milk. At that time, it was not a common thing to find in a grocery store in the northern part of Denmark where she grew up. "In that sense, my background has always clashed with the fashion industry where it has only been about earning money, not taking the environment into consideration. Luckily, this is about to change," she says. "A part of me always wanted to go in another direction than the conventional fashion industry dictated."

For all women

Underprotection's largest target group is women aged between 24 and 35, but it is of great significance to the two founders that the brand should embrace all women. This is also the reason why they refuse to do retouch, referring to their look books and social media. And yes, if you take a look at one of their look books, you will find a Danish-Ghanaian beauty with several scars on her arms, legs and stomach, while stretchmarks, goosebumps, great beauty spots and curves will pop up on the official Instagram account @underprotection on a regular basis.

For example, one will find a closeup photo of a thigh with stretchmarks and a written text over it saying: "I don't care what your beauty standard says about me." The couple say that they often get negative responses from stockists because they don't retouch. On the other hand, they are also often accused of not taking diversity seriously enough. But they are very much aware of that and that they need to keep a balance to ensure that what they show is still healthy. They also advocate for extreme sizes.

Well, 10 years with sustainable lingerie and being one of the absolute frontrunners in their field - what are the goals for the next 10 years to come? Rosenkilde: "We promise our customers that we will not lean back and say, 'hey, now we did a good job!' We always strive to make the most sustainable choices even if it is not necessarily the most economically sensible choice, but for us it is not only a business, it is also a lifestyle and a belief that the future must and can be greener-not the least for the children we leave it to. It is our goal to always improve-in everything we do."

This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of the print magazine.