Toni Marlow is a Toronto-based lifestyle brand that creates undergarments for those who defy gender norms, primarily women and trans men. After mounting frustrations when shopping for comfortable, affordable undergarments, Jalisa Luces-Mendes founded Toni Marlow in 2015 to service an underrepresented market.
With the mantra of inclusivity and timelessness, Toni Marlow creates gender-fluid designs with classic styles, functional cuts at affordable prices. Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to speak with Jalisa to learn more about the Toni Marlow brand.
I started Toni Marlow about a year after I was done school. I went to Ryerson for entrepreneurship. I received my Bachelor of Commerce from there.
In my last year, I founded another startup and I was working on that right after I finished school. I had lost the passion for it so I just started looking at my other ideas. I felt the concept of Toni Marlow was timely and launched it while still working full-time at Ryerson’s Office for Innovation.
At that time gender-neutral had become a buzz word. Gender-neutral clothing started coming out and various campaigns were coming out. Caitlyn Jenner had come out and trans issues and rights were becoming more public and in the media. A lot more people were talking about it. Combined with the gender-neutral stance in fashion and androgyny, I felt it was a good time to do something with this idea.
It was originally going to be a queer brand. But since I did take business, I knew it wouldn’t be wise to pigeon-hole myself depending on the product and the market size.
Boxer briefs for women’s bodies is initially how it started. If you were born in a female body but you’re trans, from a construction or design standpoint, for underwear specifically, those two types would be together. It’s still a large market, but now that our niche knows about us, I want it to be clear that we’re for everybody. All women can wear our products.
Not formally. It’s funny because when people invite me to do certain things, I tell them I’m not a formal activist. I’ll stand up for what I believe in and I’ll always help people out and share knowledge.
At the time when I started the business, I wouldn’t say I was an activist, even now I don’t know that it’s something that I specifically identify myself as, even if what I’m doing is seen as a form of activism.
I like to solve problems. There are a lot of products that aren’t available for myself or folks like me, or folks I care about.
Not every woman, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, wants to wear a thong or even a granny panty cut of underwear. There is a gap in the market for an underwear that is comfortable, covers everything and is fit to the female figure.
The boxer briefs that I’ve seen out there that are made specifically for women, they’re still very feminine in nature. You might still have a little bit of your bum hanging out or they’re completely pink with pretty colours or things that we generally associate with femininity.
For those of us who are more masculine, there’s nothing that fits us and looks masculine. We’re not going to feel comfortable in those feminine products—even if they do cover all of our bums.
With the queer brands specifically, the competitors were all in the U.S. It’s more expensive for a Canadian consumer. And in their branding and representation, there’s not a lot of visibility of different body sizes, different body types, there’s not much gender diversity. There weren’t any brands that cared about including trans men or trans women.
All of these factors played into why I started the company. Since it wasn’t happening, I decided that I would take care of it.
When I made the change from a niche focus in the queer community to designing for all women, I realized that most clothing labels are names. But I didn’t want to use my own name.
I brainstormed with my mother, my family, my friends and we came up with a long list of first names and last names in different combinations.
We actually came up with Marlow first. That always stuck and felt right. We wanted a unisex name and Toni kept coming back to me as a strong female-sounding name.
Capital is an ongoing challenge. But another problem we face is that there are not enough qualified hands. I’m now at a point where we’re needing to expand the team. In terms of the time that it takes to create these pieces, it was way more than I had ever anticipated. Because I’m designing from a place of functionality, I need to make sure that it does solve all the problems that I want it to solve.
I’m saying that our undergarments are going to solve problems and that it’s going to fit all these different body types and different body sizes the same way. That process has created challenges, for sure. Just the time that the process takes can be frustrating as it delays release dates and serving peoples needs.
I put a post on Facebook and connected with a pattern maker. Now I work with a few pattern makers. I’m situated in the Fashion Zone, which is an Incubator out of Ryerson University and they provided a pattern maker as well, along with different types of advisors.
In terms of visuals, we do have a Creative Director that I brought on who does all our visuals and our graphic designs. All of those wicked prints that people see and love, those are all from Carolyn Douse, who is our Creative Director and business partners.
From being honoured and privileged to be a part of the CBC’s HERstory in Black to being on Breakfast Television for Pride and different things like that, it’s really hard to pick just one. We also had an amazing experience at Vancouver Fashion Week.
I think what feels best about those opportunities is getting messages and emails saying, “thank you, I need this.”
For me, it’s always been about function, representation, visibility, and comfort— physical comfort, and emotional and mental comfort. Knowing that our brand is bringing this many more people than my immediate community, sometimes makes me cry.
When I read the messages and emails, it makes me feel like even though it’s hard, I have to keep going. It really does mean something to many other people.
When people write us and tell us at the booth that they’re so happy and filled with pride. Seeing all the happy faces. Hearing the responses.
“Really, I can wear a pad in my boxers?” Or when trans guys confirm “I don’t have to wear a harness?” The looks on their faces, it moves me. It really does.
Outside of that, my mom motivates me. She’s incredible. She’s done so much to support me my whole life, but especially with this endeavour. My team and friends are supportive and help keep me going as well.
I want them to think that we got them. We got their backs. I also want them to think of comfort and style. There’s definitely a fashion component to our brand. I’m very blessed to be working with my two partners, Carolyn Douse and Samson Brown because they are really creative. The designs that they start and I work on are just amazing. I want our customers to know that if there’s a need that isn’t being met, we want to hear from them.
In stores on shelves and dominating online.
We have another component that we’ve just started and it was such a success. We’re doing workshops starting with trans allyship. A portion of our business is about trans folks and their fashion needs—their undergarment needs. Not only knowing their needs but having an understanding of why it’s a need.
In five years it would be great to know that not only is our business thriving—with a good company, a good structure with employees and in stores worldwide—but I’d really like to know that our workshops are thriving, as well. And that we’ve reached thousands of people.
Accessibility and affordability are important to us, so we’ll have various products at various price points available in the near future.
Subscribe to WOCBEAUTY beauty box plan
Customers who would like to give undergarments from Toni Marlow a try can subscribe to a beauty box plan from WOCBEAUTY. In each box, you’ll also receive 4 – 6 full-size beauty items ranging from makeup to skincare and from beauty tools to cosmetics.
We’re so lucky and honoured to be able to partner with Toni Marlow and provide our customers with products designed to match the LGBTQ community’s gender non-conformity with the highest level of comfort in mind.