Northwest Business Magazine

Success Story: La Bellissima

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Quality ladies’ undergarments are just the start at this homegrown Crystal Lake business, where customer service and quality products are the means to providing something that’s just the right fit – literally.

Kathleen Basista left the corporate world in 2006 to establish her own lingerie boutique and bra fitter, La Bellissima, in downtown Crystal Lake.

Kathleen Basista left the corporate world in 2006 to establish her own lingerie boutique and bra fitter, La Bellissima, in downtown Crystal Lake.

Kathleen Basista knows how a well-fitted bra can make all the difference in how a woman feels. Opening her own lingerie boutique in downtown Crystal Lake turned out to be her own perfect fit.

Set in a two-story home, La Bellissima, 10 N. Williams St., offers mid- to high-end lingerie for women of all sizes, shapes and fashions. Playful hues of purple, green and blue brighten the walls behind a myriad of patterns and styles draped along display cases and upon mannequins. Lines of panties fan out over white-painted French furniture, in company with hanging bras, nightwear, slips, swimwear and comfy pajamas. The open floor plan helps to create a fun and relaxed environment, one where women can feel pretty and at home.

“I wanted it to be a place where you’d come in and feel comfortable, like you’re sitting at your own boudoir,” says Basista. “I didn’t want it so crowded that you feel overwhelmed, because I think some stores have so much inside that you can’t easily see everything.”

The boutique features European lingerie brands including PrimaDonna, Twist, Conturelle, Aubade, Marie Jo and Marie Jo L’Aventure. Not commonly found in big-box stores, these brands are tried and true for Basista, who doesn’t believe in sacrificing quality to save on price. You can’t sacrifice the better fit and longer garment lifespan, she says.

“Every time I’ve strayed a little bit from those original brands, I’ve found I’m disappointed and so are my customers,” she says. “While I’ve dabbled in a few new things, those usually end up in the sale bin, with good reason.”

The boutique offers a wide selection of tasteful, quality items, including lingerie accessories such as garment guards, soaps and adhesives. Basista also makes sure to carry plus-size items. Not every woman is a size 0, 2 or 4, she says, and it can be hard for women of other sizes to shop in quality boutiques. But not at La Bellissima, where pieces are custom fitted to a woman’s body.

“Our claim to fame, obviously, is the bra fitting,” she says. “Fabrics stretch, fabrics move and we’re not as symmetrical as we like to think we are. When you choose a bra, it’s not just about the cup size and the band size.”

Basista works with customers one-on-one to select lingerie that meets both their style preferences and physical needs, including cups designed for specific breast shapes. Certain outfits and clothing materials can require particular kinds of bras, and knowing what works best is essential for picking out special formalwear.

“Bras set the foundation for the clothing you put on top, and they also affect your back health and posture,” Basista says. “It’s not just about how you look in clothes, though that is an important part. If it works under your clothes, fits you and feels good, where is it written that practical has to be dog ugly? If lace works with you, there are styles that can be your everyday bra.”

The frustration of finding a pretty, yet practical, bra was one Basista knew long before she opened the boutique in April 2007. It was something she struggled with most of her life.

When she was preparing to leave her job of more than 20 years at Allstate Insurance in 2006, Basista was ready to start something new. She didn’t know just what to do.

“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s my turn now to do something fun for me,” says Basista. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just thought change would be good.”

Her conversations with female coworkers frequently brought up complaints of poor-fitting bras and unavailable sizes. When she began to consider opening a small store of her own, Basista met a store owner from Woodstock to learn about the process. The woman’s bra strap kept slipping off her shoulder as she told Basista she wished someone would open a quality lingerie store. Basista could no longer ignore the signs.

Basista already had a degree in merchandising, clothing and textiles, so she knew the basics of retail. But she wanted to ensure her boutique would offer state-of-the-art fitting for women of every shape and size.
“I didn’t want to do that little tape measure thing and just call it a day,” she says.

Basista couldn’t find a relevant class in the U.S., so she signed up at the Fashion College of London in September 2006.

“I signed up for the class, paid for tuition and booked the flights. Of course, three days before I was supposed to get on the plane, the class was canceled,” Basista says. “But I decided to go anyway.”

Rigby & Peller, the lingerie retailer that would have taught the class, was located just a few blocks from Basista’s hotel, so she went in and asked for a bra fitting to learn as much as possible. By a stroke of luck, she was paired with a bra fitter of 30 years who also happened to be training someone else that day. Basista explained her situation and the fitter allowed her to join the training for a little over an hour. There, she was introduced to one of her favorite brands, PrimaDonna.

Not satisfied with just one hour of training, Basista kept searching for learning opportunities. Back home, she saw a television feature on SOL Lingerie, a successful Colorado-based boutique run by two sisters. Basista emailed the company and asked if they would train her. She quickly received a response detailing the cost and plan for a full week’s training.

“I was trained by every one of their bra fitters so I could see how it was done, how each girl put their little spin on it, how each woman was different,” Basista says. “They really did a phenomenal job with training.”

With the house on Williams Street already secured, Basista returned from Colorado fully prepared and feeling confident.

“Everything was just perfect. A lot of starting businesses can have trouble with the signage or with the city and other things, but I just didn’t have any of that,” she says.

Even after eight years in business, Basista regularly reaches out to other store owners to continue learning. As a member of the Facebook group Lingerie Consortium, she frequently connects with boutique owners around the world to seek feedback and discover other brands and products.

Basista handles most of the boutique’s fittings one-on-one. While the shop’s selections can be enough of a draw for some women, Basista believes it’s the personal customer service that keeps people returning to La Bellissima.
With each fitting, Basista works to ensure women of all sizes can find a bra that both feels and looks great, a mission that inspired the boutique’s name, which means “the most beautiful” in Italian.

“So many women, when they finally put on a pretty piece of lingerie, cannot believe how good it makes them feel,” Basista says. “For me, it’s been a pleasure to work with so many real women and to show them all of these wonderful pieces they can wear and how beautiful they can be. It’s really wonderful to see somebody’s face change with that experience.”

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