Nestled between racks of bras and stacks of knickers at the Harrogate Lingerie and Swimwear exhibition in North Yorkshire last month, Panache sales director Peter Cronin could not be more at home. "How could you not love the lingerie industry?" he winks, surveying his busy stand.
A "stalwart" of the industry, according to Glenn Arthur, sales manager at rival brand Triumph, Cronin began his career 30 years ago and has been with Panache for 15 months. The brand, which has been synonymous with larger cup sizes since it was founded 30 years ago by Anthony Power, brought in Cronin to give it - well, some panache.
"Panache is a well-known brand with a strong heritage in technical fits and the larger-cup market," Cronin explains. "I've added in a bit more styling and upped its fashion credentials by introducing Italian fabrics, prints, and lace, and combining that with Panache's technical expertise. Now we offer modern, fashionable lingerie in bigger cup sizes."
This led to the creation of the K cup, a first for the lingerie industry. In collaboration with retailer Bravissimo, Panache launched the size for spring 07 and has introduced it to swimwear for the first time this season.
"We launched the K cup to build our profile in the D-plus market," says Cronin. "The actual number of K cups we sell is not commercially viable, but it's the value and recognition we get from consumers and retailers that is important. They think: 'If Panache can do a K cup that fits, then all its cups must fit'." The launch coincides with Panache's new slogan Love the Fit, which the brand trademarked for spring 08.
According to Cronin, the only other brand that could offer a K cup is its closest rival Eveden, whose labels include Freya, Fantasie, Fauve and Goddess. When Cronin joined Panache he developed a five-year strategy - until then, the company had none to speak of - which included plans to differentiate itself from its main competitor. "Because we share domination of the market the larger cup size market, I didn't want our product to look the same. We wanted to provide an alternative in the D-plus cup market. Now a retailer can quite happily buy Panache, Fantasie and Freya and sell them all - we don't take sales from them and vice versa," says Cronin.
The brand's spring 08 orders are already up 20% on last year, with swimwear selling particularly well. Cronin sold about 300,000 units of Panache swimwear in spring 07, compared with 70,000 the year before, and the figures are climbing for spring 08. "But what has made a difference is that the collection is now more co-ordinated. We start off with the block colours in the plain range and use them as accent tones in the prints collection," he explains.
A highlight of Cronin's five-year strategy has been the use of celebrities, most notably Katie Price, aka glamour model Jordan. Panache first produced a Katie Price lingerie and swimwear range for spring 07 and it now accounts for 8% of the brand's total sales, having brought in £2 million to date. The line's most notable success is with supermarket Asda, with which it had an exclusivity period of six months. The range is now stocked in 200 Asda stores and Cronin intends to extend the distribution to department stores.
Cronin attributes the success of the Katie Price range to the model's involvement with the collection. "It has exceeded my expectations. Katie is involved in the design and fitting of her range, she offers her opinions and is always available for store openings and new launches, but she knows when to leave the designers to do their job," he says, carefully. Some celebrities feel that they are the designer and that's when it can go wrong." He cites one unnamed celebrity tie-up and says the word on the street is that the styles just don't fit the consumers. "And the designs are just awful," he winces.
Having said that, celebrity endorsement seems to be the way forward in the lingerie industry, with Panache and Triumph poised to announce new tie-ups. Both brands are staying tight-lipped on the subject, but consumers may well see Panache's first male underwear collection for autumn 08, featuring a well-known TV stylist.
The celebrity route certainly works for Panache, where sales are up 30% on last year. But it has not all been plain sailing for Cronin. Complaints from Panache's customers have been directed at the brand's delivery times. Julie-Anne Smith, owner of lingerie etailer amplusfigura.co.uk, which has been stocking Panache for two seasons, says the label's punctuality is "shocking".
"We buy a lot from Panache because it sells very well, but it can take up to three weeks to deliver when most brands take one week at the most. We have images of the brand on our website so it's important that we can deliver to our customers. If I hadn't bought so much from them, I would have closed the account," she admits.
Her sentiments are echoed by Norah Watson, owner of Upfront in Dunfermline, Scotland. "Panache takes so long to deliver," she says. "But it's great value for money and the fit is second to none. It sells through every time. The swimwear is looking particularly good and I've bought three more lines this season."
But Cronin does not shy away from the criticism and is well aware of the problem, which he attributes to a change in the brand's warehousing arrangements. "We've had our problems where logistics is concerned, but we're turning it around," he admits. "We were ambushed by our computer system and used to outsource our warehousing until December last year. The combination of the two led to a big problem in delivery times. We've now taken warehousing back in-house but it has taken a good six months to physically move our warehouse and put in place our own system." Cronin points out that he has increased the Panache team by about 25% since he joined, strengthening the warehouse and sales teams in particular.
Despite its shortfalls in logistics, Panache seems to be ahead of the game when it comes to ethical sourcing. The lingerie industry appears to have escaped the recent backlash against retailers and their treatment of factory workers abroad - Panache sources largely from China and has an office in Hong Kong. The brand uses six factories, two of which have a full-time member of staff monitoring its ethical practices. Cronin aims to extend that to all factories and says the brand conducts official visits every six months, along with intermittent unannounced inspections.
"It's not a massive investment," says Cronin of the full-time staff, contradicting claims from other retailers. "Triumph has an office in Hong Kong too, but I'm not sure that other major brands do."
Panache has steered clear of retail, unlike contemporaries such as Triumph, Intimas and Eveden. Intimas, which owns Lepel, Charnos and Discover Mademoiselle, opened a concession in footwear chain Faith in May ahead of a retail launch later this year. Triumph will open its first store in Basingstoke in Hampshire on September 14, followed by a second shop in Exeter, while Eveden opened its first multi-brand store, called Leia, in November 2005.
"We're leaving retailing to our customers," says Cronin. "If you become a retailer, you need to understand that your first shop may not be a success - retailing needs big pockets and is a long journey. If you haven't the stomach or the investment, you shouldn't do it. You see retailers entering the market and not making money for years. Look at designer accessories brand Mulberry - it's a fabulous organisation, but it is only in the past few years that it started to make any money, and I'm sure it's the same in the lingerie market. Plus, it does upset a lot of the retailers when manufacturers go down the same route - they don't want to compete with suppliers."
Cronin adds that the market is already crowded and some brands or retailers could lose out. International retailers have been steadily entering the UK, with Italian retailer Intimissimi opening four stores and Tezenis, owned by Intimissimi parent company Calzedonia, set to make its London debut this year. Hot on the heels of Calzedonia is Vendetta, a Russian brand that will open multi-brand, upmarket lingerie stores in the UK this year.
"I think all competition is a good thing, but international retailers are coming into a saturated UK market, with Marks & Spencer and La Senza accounting for about 70% of the sector. If the competition is driven by price, not everyone will survive. Panache won't really be affected because we're driven by fitting. Even big retailers such as M&S struggle in that area," says Cronin.
In fact, Cronin is confident that Panache will go from strength to strength. "Turnover-wise, Fantasie and Triumph are probably ahead of us in the market, but we're not far from being number three. There are so many strengths in this company and the opportunity for growth is tremendous," he smiles. "I started Lepel from a blank piece of paper 14 years ago, then I launched Discover Mademoiselle and Ted Baker Intimates into the market - it's what I do."
PETER CRONIN: THE CV
Mar 06-present: Sales director, Panache
Jan 04-Mar 06: Managing director, Lepel
1990-93: UK managing director, Lovable
1984-90: Managing and sales director, Exquisite Form
1969-84: Various roles, including sales manager, Gossard
VITAL STATISTICS: PANACHE IN FIGURES
Turnover up 30% to £18 million in 2006 compared with the year before
Profits up 12% to £1.9 million for the same period
Wholesale accounts: 520
Number of staff: 100
Brand split by sales
- Panache Superbra: 50%
- Panache swimwear: 15%
- Masquerade: 12%
- Atlantis: 10%
- Katie Price for Panache: 8%
- Frilly: 5%
SMALL WONDERS: PANACHE'S RANGES
Panache's Superbra spring 08 colour palette includes lime green, pink and blue, with detail coming via delicate florals and embroidery. An unfussy range, it also features smooth, basic options. The average price is £25.
Panache Swimwear draws on a similar colour palette to the Superbra range, taking block colours from the plain options into its prints and florals. Other colours include brown and gold, and styles comprise bikinis, two-piece suits and halternecks. Prices are about £25.
Masquerade is more aspirational, made up of muted tones including dark purple, cafe latte and ivory. Beading, rosettes and bows add detail and styles are more varied, including balconette bras. European fabrics, silk and lace are used, and prices are about £30.
Frilly targets younger consumers and was introduced to allow indies to compete with high street and department store own labels. The range comprises diamante detailing, frilly trims and florals, and has a small red heart logo on price tags. Prices are about £18.
Atlantis is Panache's gel-filled bra collection. Predominantly a basics range, it is made up of smooth shapes in black, white and nude. A light shimmer on some styles adds glamour.