Protecting skin the fashionable way
Erica Sullivan Feggeler has used her mom’s melanoma diagnosis and her own scare as motivation to design clothing that protects one’s skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Watching her mother go through mental and physical anguish during treatments for malignant melanoma left Erica Sullivan Feggeler ’20 feeling as if her life was being pulled apart at the seams.
Prompted by that diagnosis and her own fair complexion, Feggeler underwent a skin check that revealed two atypical spots. Tests for melanoma came back negative, but the two scares put her on the runway toward a career somewhat unique for someone with a degree in communication studies – clothing.
Feggeler serves as the founder, CEO, and top designer for L.U.V., which stands for Low Ultraviolet. The acronym fits a company that focuses on sun-safe apparel.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. And according to the website skincancer.org, two people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour, while one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
Some people stay out of the sun to avoid their exposure, while others use certain lotions to protect themselves, but Feggeler, a graduate of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, decided to take a more fashionable approach to preventing skin cancer.
She wants to help others protect their skin – but with style.
“I was 21 years old when I went for my skin check, and I was just confused,” Feggeler said. “I always thought skin cancer was an old person's disease. I had absolutely no education around it. I started turning to friends and family and Facebook groups. … Through these conversations, I learned that a lot of people my age had experienced it, or had a family member who had, and we just weren't talking about it.
“In those same conversations, I was searching through the internet trying to find cute clothing [for protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays], clothing that I felt comfortable in because, again, I was 21 years old. I hadn't even graduated college yet. I wanted to look cute. I didn't want to wear these old, bright, ill-fitting pieces, and I found that there were a lot of people who felt the same way. So, through those conversations, I'm like, 'OK, there's an opportunity here.’”
Feggeler’s mom was diagnosed in the spring of 2019. Approximately six months later and after her skin check, Feggeler, then a senior at Virginia Tech, decided to weave together a business plan for a sun-savvy product line after receiving an email from a friend about the Virginia Tech Entrepreneur Challenge, a campuswide student start-up business competition organized by the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs that offers student entrepreneurs a chance to win up to $40,000 in prizes.
“I was like, 'Oh, I don't know.' And my friends were like, 'Erica, shut up and do it,’” Feggeler laughed.
Feggeler was on her way to earning a minor in fashion merchandising from Virginia Tech as well and had studied at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising in New York City during her summers while in high school. So she knew how to design clothing, but she somewhat lacked the business acumen needed to pitch product ideas to a panel of judges who represented the best and brightest in their respective fields.
Smart enough to know what she didn’t know, Feggeler decided to enter the competition and assembled a team of fellow students from the College of Engineering, the Pamplin College of Business, and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences to help her – a group that included future husband, Matt. Together, the group knit a comprehensive plan for the launching of Feggeler’s sun-sheltering clothing line that ultimately won the “fan favorite” award.
That type of cross-college collaboration is common among aspiring entrepreneurs at Virginia Tech, according to Derick Maggard, executive director of the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs.
“One of the one of the reasons why we’ve built Apex the way we've built it is to be a resource for any student, any major, any college, any year,” Maggard said. “We see freshman students in engineering come up with novel technologies that they want to move forward. We've seen students from liberal arts, from communications, from business, and it's fantastic when you bring all those students together because there's a community that's built and they're able to exchange ideas and help each other.”
Maggard continued, “We’ve had 94 different majors represented in all our programs, and so, it’s incredibly interdisciplinary. We do see a lot of students just like Erica who are in a major and have an idea, have that entrepreneurial bug, and say, ‘Hey, I've got something that I think can materialize into something else for me. Let me see if I can make a go of this.’ That's when we step in and provide them resources, funding, mentorship, and things that will help propel them forward.”
Feggeler launched her company in October 2020 with help from Snigdha Sangisetti, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2020 with a degree in computational modeling and data analytics. They both run the business while working full-time jobs with other companies. Feggeler works in marketing for a real estate firm in Washington, D.C., while Sangisetti works for Octo as an artificial intelligence engineer.
Feggeler calls her position in marketing as a “9-to-5” job, and she starts her “5-to-9” position as the CEO of L.U.V. as soon as she gets home.
The money that Feggeler’s team won from the Entrepreneur Challenge – since renamed Demo Day – served as seed money for her to start L.U.V., enabling her to forgo any equity partnerships and allowing her to maintain full control of her business. Those resources also were used to find an apparel manufacturer and a source for ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) fabric.
Feggeler’s product line includes women’s dresses, shirts, gaiters, and hats and a limited selection of men’s clothing – an area where she wants to expand in the future.
Feggeler said business has been good, with 99 percent growth year over year since the launch. Her line includes 36 items, with three more on the way, and customers continue to provide positive feedback.
All revenue generated from sales gets reinvested into the business, and with trendlines looking positive, Feggeler hopes to be able to commit all her time and energy to L.U.V. in the future.
“I would love for this to be my full-time job. I would love to grow a team,” Feggeler said, adding that Sangisetti’s work has been “brilliant.” “I always tell people I think the next three to five years for UPF clothing is going to be insane. Just from the market research you do, you can see that the amount of this is starting to take form. … The companies are starting to pay attention to it. Big companies that are now starting to advertise they have UPF. I think the next three to five years are going to be crucial for the industry. So, I'm trying to figure out how we can make sure that we're at the forefront of it.”
Feggeler has found designing sun-resistant clothing to be the fabric of her being. Tenacity stands as one of several common traits among successful entrepreneurs, and Maggard, who first met Feggeler three years ago, sees that in Feggeler.
“There's a level of resilience,” Maggard said. “Entrepreneurs see failure day in and day out and they're able to kind of fight through that, and that resiliency just translates into successful entrepreneurs, but more importantly, successful leaders, successful community members. And I think this generation has been built with a level of resiliency that is going to create amazing entrepreneurs just like Erica.”