All hail the linen queen

All hail the linen queen

Traditional values and digital nous have sped Inga Lukauskiene’s emerging fabric empire to global success, as Linas Jegelevicius discovers

It’s a formula made in business heaven: a luxury product steeped in history and tradition, sold to the world via state-of-the-art e-commerce and B2B channels. Inga Lukauskiene, founder of Lithuania’s online fabric shop LinenMe has done just that.

The firm Linomeda, which processes and wholesales linen products for some of the world’s best known stores as well as selling branded goods over its fast-growing LinenMe website, is arguably doing as much to promote the ‘Made in Lithuania’ quality marque as the nation’s development agency.

How did she do it? Linen, made since ancient times from the woven fibres of the flax plant has been a speciality of northeastern Europe, with some of the world’s best quality flax growing in Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus. In Soviet times, Lithuanian factories churned out sheets and pillowcases for the entire USSR.

All of this history might have stayed history, had it not been for Inga, whose family were steeped in the linen trade and whose mother worked in one of these Soviet-era factories. The girl, who grew up selling flowers from her father’s horticulture business at Saturday markets and was known as the ‘queen of roses’, is now the undisputed queen of Baltic textiles.

“Actually, the very beginning of the company goes quite far back in history, to the roots of the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence when my parents, living in the Plunge [pronounced Plun-gay] district in northwestern Lithuania, started a linen production company, Linomeda.

“Before the dawn of independence, when my mother still worked as a production manager at the state company Linu Audiniai, one of the oldest linen-processing factories in the country, a trickle of foreigners started to become aware of the fabric.

“In 1992, a Danish businessman walked in and handed my mother a fancy  handmade napkin, asking her whether the factory could copy it. Nobody wanted the job because they were interested in the production of simple sewing items, but my mother brought the napkin home and the next day took it to our neighbour who taught handiwork. She agreed to hem-stitch other napkins, a job that took her a couple of days. He left very happy with the quality and wanted to continue the collaboration. I remember at first we made 12, then 24 table napkins.

“The second client we had was a Swedish woman. But the word about our linen embroidery was out there, and the trickle of customers has eventually turned into a stream.”

Still a schoolgirl, Inga would help the family cope with increasing orders. “We opened >> a sewing shop in our living room and started hiring seamstresses. It is funny to remember now that in the beginning the sketches were cut and ironed on the kitchen table. It was then that my mother and I focused on business marketing and participating in exhibitions. Now all our family members - my parents and sisters - were involved.”

With sales of around €2.5m euros from both LinenMe and Linomeda, Inga deals with clients, product designing, marketing and sales. For about quarter of the year she is attending trade exhibitions from New York to Tokyo. The rest of her working time is spent overseeing production and web sales.

In 2007, realising that it would be very hard to launch an international business from Lithuania “which, frankly, still is unchartered country for many people” Inga moved with her family – husband, a daughter and son – to the UK, and “hunkered down” in southwest London. Previously she had studied at the KLC School of Design in London’s upmarket Chelsea district, “I took several boxes filled with linen products. The website for the start-up LinenMe had already been created and I just needed to do some updates upon arrival in London.”

From there she would work on design with clients before sending sketches to the production line in Plunge.

“When we started selling online, our customers doubted whether orders in Lithuania can be fulfilled in time and properly. So for the purposes of burnishing the trademark, it made sense to relate it to a company operating out of the UK.”

Deciding to sell directly online was a stroke of inspiration, and a great illustration of the transformative power of e-commerce.

“I didn’t like the idea that we do the hardest work and the foreign customer just puts their label on our linen article and sells it for a whole lot more. Therefore, some six years ago, we decided to launch our own trademark”.

As any e-commerce specialist will tell you, creating a successful site requires huge investment in time and resource.

“At the same time, weaknesses in the back-up needed in areas such as search engine optimisation and order fulfilment cause the vast majority of sites to fail. For those that succeed, the rewards are slow to arrive. The LinenMe site inspired many imitators, but
none survived.

“I chose e-commerce because of the lower costs [than traditional retail], and the vast reachability online commerce gives. We signed up with eBay at first, though many were very skeptical about the decision. In the early days, eBay was deemed a second-hand e-shop, and people thought we were putting the new trademark at risk. But the risk has paid off.

“We had to consider everything to be sure the business could take off, even feedback on e-Bay and Amazon, which we took very seriously. In pursuit of nicer online comments, we bent over backwards to please customers – organising one-pound online auctions for handmade sophisticated linen embroidery, for example.

“We’d exerted lots of effort before nailing down the very first order on our website. In fact, we got it eight months after the site was launched.”

LinenMe now ships linen garments, bedding and household items (towels are the bestsellers) to over 50 countries worldwide. No fewer than 8,000 parcels were sent out last year from the firm’s fulfilment centre in Plunge, part of an operation that employs 80 workers.

From Plunge, LinenMe is being dispatched as far as Chile, Brazil, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan where the ‘Made In Lithuania’ trademark is increasingly valued. The Japanese, are obsessively ecology-conscious as well as quality-fixated and know authenticity when they see it. Five people, including Lukauskiene, are engaged in marketing, sales and
customer support.

“I reckon the secrets of our success are having a trustworthy supplier – my own family in Plunge. Secondly, having the articles handmade. Even if we use some machines for some more serial production, every item still passes through our hands. And, thirdly, the flexibility we have. Without exaggeration, we can fulfill an order in a matter of days.”

By any standards, the firm’s achievments are impressive after only six years in business.
Inga grins: “It’s all about work and only work. I really don’t count my working hours. Frankly, this upsets my children, but I tell them that LinenMe is my third child and their sibling, so they ought to be considerate towards it.”

A German-language site has just been launched, along with other language options on eBay and Amazon sites.

Ironically Russia, once the main market for Lithuanian linen, barely features in the firm’s plans. “Today’s Russians tend to like luxury items, often dazzling and shiny stuff" Inga explains, "Not linen.”

Likewise the home market has yet to catch on to the quality cues that dominate LinenMe’s marketing material.

“My compatriots expect linen products to be cheap, and that is not always the case,” she says. In fact over 95% of the firm’s output
is exported.

“It cannot have hurt the business that, in person, Inga Lukauskiene is warm >> and charming and far from the stereotype of a strict and assertive ‘Dragons Den’ businesswoman.

But Inga downplays the contribution of her personality “Frankly, I see myself as a pretty introverted kind of person. I prefer listening over talking.

“But I am hard-working and principled and I seek to give 100% to the business. I am happy mingling and networking with other businesswomen all over the world.”

Where then does LinenMe go from here? Inga is targeting 20% growth in the online business in what has been a turbocharged year. “That’s not a figure plucked from the sky, it’s based on past performance.”

In the meantime the company’s offer continues to make inroads as buyers in search of quality shift their attention from established Western European brands, most prominently the Belgian firm Libeco.

LinenMe also has a wary eye on Chinese competitors, whose access to cheap (lower quality) flax makes them unattractive to discerning linen-fans for now, but the Chinese ability to move up the value chain, imitate and improve value is rightly to be feared.

Although too industrious to ever be complacent, for the time being Inga is enjoying her reign over a sweet spot in a global textiles industry where high quality
and competitive price overlap.

A lady in love with linen

Listen to Inga Lukauskiene wax lyrical about linen’s “soothing, calming effect, coalescing with nature itself” and you will quickly be convinced of the semi-magical powers she ascribes to the fabric.
One of its chief qualities, she says, is durability: “Linen items are known for their longevity. We try to encourage the inter-generational sentiment, allowing young family members to replicate items that their ancestors enjoyed.”

The first rule of business is to know your customer. “Someone from the middle or upper middle class who are fond of embellishing their home, someone who values product quality, longevity, handmade work and is ecology conscious.”

She herself is a walking advertisement for the products, and is usually decked out in a crisp
linen dress.

“All our family, my husband Paulius, my nine-year-old daughter Ruta and 10-year-old son Mindaugas love wearing linen clothes. Frankly, when I get into a hotel room abroad with bedding other than linen, I don’t feel very good about it.”

LinenMe is using customer interaction to weave more value into its range, including a recent website feature called “Your Story Told In Linen”. Inga explains: “We aim to put more focus
on personalised items.

“Having our own manufacturing and more than 300 fabrics in stock, we strive to unleash the creativity of our customers and therefore have asked them to come up with some catchy phrases which would be a source of inspiration and, at the same time, would fit the LinenMe brand’s personality. We carry out these kinds of competition for our customers every month.”

The girl who grew up growing and selling roses, is seeing her carefully nurtured enterprise achieve spectacular bloom.