Each appointment with Katherine Bice begins the same way: with the turn of a lock.

At La Lingerie, LLC, a lingerie boutique tucked into a studio on Johnson Street, Bice is the only employee and runs things her way at what she calls “the appointment-only fit house.”

That starts with introducing herself to her clients and locking the door behind her for utmost privacy. Casual passersby looking to browse are gently turned away by a sign on the door.

“It’s really not about that,” Bice says with a smile.

Instead, Bice has a greater mission: “Empowering women though everyday beautiful lingerie that fits,” and doing so through a unique, high personal service model of business.

“You have to want and need my help, and you have to accept it really, too,” she says. “So I’m here to help you, but…you have to be ready for that.”

In other words, this is not bra shopping with your mom.

Mixing business with passion

“I’m not used to this, but I think I could get used to it,” a client says from the fitting room.

Bice pauses for no more than half a second before offering her thoughts.

“The key for a strapless bra to stay up is to have that tight band,” she says as her hands grip an imaginary ribcage in front of her. “The last thing I’d want to do is sell you too big of one and have it drop down.” She speaks quickly, but softly, gently emphasizing a few words of every sentence in a soothing manner. She then glides to the sales floor and selects more options to try, asking her client about her job as a hairdresser and following each question with the word “dear.”

Bice boasts six years in the lingerie industry, working at both “big box” stores like Victoria’s Secret and smaller specialty shops like Trousseau in Chicago. While she expected she would climb the corporate ladder at Victoria’s Secret, she left the company after discovering how her values differed from theirs.

“Their size run doesn’t empower women in my eyes,” she says. With a smaller range of sizes available in-store, employees like Bice could only fit so many women before turning away the rest.

“So any woman who walks in the store, including myself, including pretty much all of my customer base, cannot be fitted at that store.” Bice says. “…Automatically in your head you’re like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with me.'”

This led to the foundation that La Lingerie would be built on.

“How many times have we tried to fit ourselves into a store or brand instead of the brands fitting us”? Bice asks.

Off the ground

That realization was just the beginning. Six years later – and at just 26 years old – Bice owns her own shop with a carefully cultivated philosophy that shows.

The shop features a blend of red, white, ivory and black, with the added personal touch to give the shop a home-like feel. A table with local magazines greets each patron, as do a few books and an Audrey Hepburn DVD collection. To the left of the door is a blonde piano that Bice plays occasionally; currently, the backboard serves as a display for Spanx products while the bench is piled with lacy underwear.

And then there are the bras. Neatly hung on plastic hangers, spread out on tables or fitted onto mannequins, they are organized by brand, size and color. They’re not necessarily flashy like those found at her competitor’s shops – you won’t find neon colors, crazy prints or even push-up bras at La Lingerie. Instead, Bice’s selection focuses on beautiful lace, quality and looking natural.

“I believe in true beauty everyday, so I want you to feel beautiful and comfortable and wonderful everyday,” she says.

Between the selection, the soft guitar music and the small, inviting atmosphere, La Lingerie positions itself as an environment wholly unlike the typical bra shopping experience – which is exactly what Bice was going for.

“It’s very a safe environment,” she says.

To launch the shop, Bice sought the help of her father, Phil Bice, an accountant and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“I tend to evaluate what the likelihood of a business plan in a market sense is going to do, and with respect to Katie, it was pretty obvious that her expertise and her capabilities would allow this to work,” he says.

With her father’s help and a loan of about $30,000, Bice put her business plan into action. While she holds a degree in advertising from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she chose to throw her money mostly behind inventory. La Lingerie carries 60 percent more sizes than the typical big box lingerie store or department store, thus automatically broadening her customer base.

“The niche that I have is that I can fit all women,” she says. “So there are lots of women that need my store, not just can want it as a luxury, they need it.”

“That’s that expertise that she has, she knows what works, what doesn’t, what can come in, what cannot,” her father says.

Her strategy worked – business grew 30 percent in 2011. And that success she credits to two strategies: intense networking and powerful word of mouth through her clients.

The clientele

Bice can usually size a woman by eye alone. But in the fitting room, she brings out the measurement tape anyway.

“I don’t really need it, but its nice to do to get the direct measurement.”

After measuring around the ribcage under the bust (and confirming her initial estimate) she goes to the store floor to “pick out a few fun things.”

Upon her return, she, with the client’s permission, assists in the dressing process by adjusting the straps and securing the hooks in the back.

Her eyes expertly glance over the client to study how each part fits, including the straps, the wings that hug the ribcage, the underwire and the gusset, or the fabric between the cups. As she moves around the client, she takes time to explain what she is looking for: a new bra should be fitted on the loosest hooks, so as the bra ages, the wearer can tighten it. The straps on the shoulders should have tension of an inch, but no more.

For some, what happens in that fitting room is life-changing. That’s how it was for Mona Melms, who is just one loyal convert to La Lingerie. Owner of Studio Melt, a fitness studio and personal wellness center, she is both a client and Bice’s personal friend of two years.

For Melms, lingerie shopping was an experience wrought with pain. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent a lumpectomy 18 years ago that involved the removal of one quarter of her breast.

“She treated me with such kindness over that whole issue of where my scars were and that, I walked out of there feeling more beautiful than I had in a long time,” Melms says.

Bice has her own stories of how a fitting can change a woman’s outlook.

“I’ve had multiple women cry in here,” she says. One such client was a woman looking for the perfect sports bra. A size 32F, finding a bra with adequate support was impossible – until she met Bice.

“She was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and she just started tearing up. ‘My whole family are runners, I have never been able to run.'”

“Those are the best moments,” Bice says.

“It’s been working, so it’s wonderful.”

One of the more striking features to La Lingerie is the credenza that sits on the right wall. With dark wood tones and a deep shine with years of care, it has been passed down by Bice’s great-grandparents who owned a grocery store on East Washington during the Depression.

“They would not have expected their great-granddaughter to have a storefront in Madison,” Bice says with yet another smile. She admits that owning a shop was a lifelong dream, but one she didn’t think would be realized until her 30s or 40s – not at age 26.

“This has been a dream of mine, I just did not expect it to happen so early and without a lot of money behind me,” she says with a small laugh.

And making it work is her unique sales approach that keeps clients, like Melms, coming back.

“She helps you develop your body confidence…you just feel better about how you look,” Melms says.

And Bice’s father doesn’t see her going anywhere either.

“I could probably find 50 people who couldn’t make this work, but Katie just happens to be one that can.”