A Look Back at 80 Years of Leading Lady
Leading Lady has been in my family for three generations now and it’s remarkable to think how it has grown from very meager beginnings. I think much of the company’s success is due to my grandfather’s integrity, positive attitude, and work ethic, combined with some amazing good fortune along the way. During our 80th anniversary year, I am moved by the memories and history that has shaped our family business.
Memories of My Grandfather
My grandfather was a very hard worker and cared deeply about people. I can remember he was always scratching down ideas and business figures on the backs of envelopes, even during family time. I continued to see that dedication as a teenager, helping in the shipping room at our Leading Lady warehouse in Cleveland every summer.
Once a seamstress, Peggy, came to work bruised and beaten and explained she was the victim of domestic abuse. She couldn’t afford an attorney to divorce her husband, so my grandfather gave her what she needed to leave the abusive relationship. Another time the same woman was robbed on the bus on the way home from work. My grandfather immediately replaced her wages. Peggy still comes to visit us sometimes and fondly recalls my grandfather’s generosity.
And it wasn’t just loyalty to his employees that was important to my grandfather. When he first bought the business, he made a sales call to a large department store in Pittsburgh. He waited in the dressing room all day to be seen by the buyer. When the store closed, he still wasn’t called back so he slept at the YMCA down the street for 75 cents and returned the next morning. The buyer felt so badly for making him wait, she ordered seven of the eight styles my grandfather had to offer. But my grandfather didn’t have money to pay for the materials to fill the order, so he begged a fabric distributor to sell it to him on credit. My grandfather continued to purchase everything possible from the same distributor for 38 years because the man had been so compassionate in his time of need.
The History of Leading Lady
My grandfather – Frank Farino – was an Italian immigrant who came to NY after his father earned enough money digging for the NY subway to pay for his passage. With nothing to his name and knowing very little English, my grandfather took odd jobs like plucking chickens and delivering groceries to help support his family. Eventually he got a few good sewing jobs and ended up working for the Madeline Brassiere company in Cleveland, OH. He worked there for five years without one vacation.
Ruth Hirsh was the owner of Madeline Brassiere and when she was ready to leave the business in the late 1930s, she sold it to my grandfather for $240. The only problem was, he didn’t have that kind of money. So, he paid her $5 a week until he owned the company outright in mid-1940.
With five sewing machines and a few inherited customer accounts, my grandfather kept busy. But as WWII trudged on, materials were in short supply. The only way he could get the fabric he needed was to make nursing bras, since they were considered a medical item. Leading Lady carved out such a niche in the nursing bra business that my grandfather continued to sell them, along with regular bras, after the war.
My father, Alfred Corrado, joined the business in 1951 after serving in WWII and attending college. At the time, all retail sales were done with buyers at maternity shops, corset shops (lingerie boutiques) and department stores. This required quite a bit of travel and a good sales strategy. My father was an excellent salesman because he was very personable and honest. He used these assets to expand our brand beyond the Midwest and eventually landed our biggest customer at the time, JCPenney. This took the company to an entirely new level and we contracted with, and eventually bought, a second factory.
I came on board in 1977 after graduating college. I lived in Chicago and created a large Midwest territory for us, thanks to the company’s impressive reputation and the polite and subtle sales strategies I learned from my dad. In 1985 I opened our Target account, a huge win for us. Then in 1989 I moved back to Cleveland and in 1992 my dad and I ran the business together after my grandfather passed. In 2010 I became the sole CEO when my father passed. Now I own the company with my mother and sisters.
Leading Lady’s Core Values
Within the past 10 years our company has grown in different ways, including our online store, new accounts, and working with retail marketplaces. But we still believe in the same basic principles of business: treat people fairly, be honest and humble, and bend over backwards to make our customers happy. We know that bras are subjective – not every bra is right for every woman. That’s why we offer a wide ranges of sizes to fit every body, quality styles to appeal to every lifestyle, and free returns and exchanges. We’ll do everything in our power to ensure our Leading Lady customers are so pleased they’ll recommend us to their friends.
We also strive to empower women in our community and across the nation with our Annual Nursing Bra Donation and donations to women in critical situations. During our 80th Anniversary year, we made our largest donation ever of more than $600,000 in maternity and nursing bras to new moms who often would not be able to afford them otherwise. Through this philanthropic program, along with donations to a local domestic violence shelter and bra donations to recent hurricane victims, we hope to uplift and dignify women. We believe giving the simple basic need of a bra can heal and inspire.
Despite all the changes in the retail industry, I am proud that our company has maintained the integrity and customer-focused attitude my grandfather established 80 years ago. Through innovation in products and ways to efficiently meet our customers’ needs, we will continue to evolve our growth strategies to be the best for our customers. As a family-owned and operated business, family comes first to us. And in our world, that means everyone – including the sewers who make our bras, the employees in our offices and warehouses, and our customers – are like family too.
Thanks for a wonderful 80 years!
-Mark Corrado, Owner & CEO of Leading Lady