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Bluebella: from Fifty Shades of Grey to John Lewis and Next

Emily Bendell, founder of lingerie brand Bluebella

Emily Bendell, founder of Drapers Award-winning lingerie brand Bluebella, reveals how Fifty Shades of Grey opened the door to stockists such as Next, Asos and House of Fraser

Emily Bendell, founder of lingerie brand Bluebella, is laughing as she tells Drapers about an unusual career high: “We recently had someone send a picture of their tattoo into the office, which is of a woman wearing one of our Nova lingerie sets,” she explains. “I’m not sure you could call it a career-defining moment exactly, but having our designs on somebody until the day they die is still a pretty big thing.”

Bluebella-themed tattoos aside, Bendell has plenty to celebrate. Her brand, which she started in 2005 aged just 24, beat giants in the sector such as Wacoal Europe, Figleaves and Hanro to take home the award for Lingerie Brand of the Year at the 2017 Drapers Awards last week.

Asos, Next and House of Fraser are stockists, and, although Bendell does not reveal figures, she says Bluebella’s turnover doubled this year and is on track to do the same in 2018. The brand has also set its sights on new categories, readying a capsule swimwear collection for spring 18.

We grew initially as a direct-selling company with a network of self-employed women

Bluebella has made its name with modern lingerie and sleepwear that is as much about fashion as it is about function. Directional straps, mesh bodies and silk pyjama tops are designed to be seen, and tap into the ongoing trend for underwear worn as outerwear. Prices are kept competitive: bras retail from £18 to £38, knickers are £8 to £26, a chemise and knicker set is £28 (£48 for full length), and stockings start from £8.

Bluebella nightwear

 Bendell studied the elite philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) course at the University of Oxford, before starting a career in journalism in 2003. Her interest in retail was sparked when she grew frustrated with the “outdated” lingerie offer on the high street and the price tags that accompanied high-end brands.

“I couldn’t find what I wanted,” she tells Drapers at Bluebella’s headquarters in Chiswick, west London. “I’d always loved lingerie. When I started Bluebella, you could get well-designed clothing that was affordable, but I felt lingerie was left behind. Most brands had a binary outlook on lingerie and saw it as either sexy or functional. There wasn’t really a brand that spoke to me or my friends.”

It is difficult without money behind you, if you want to sell at an affordable price point

Bendell started small when she first launched. She began by selling independent lingerie brands that were not available on the high street to friends and at local events, fitting the business around her journalism job. She moved in with her father to save on costs.

After around 18 months, she had a clear idea of what was missing in the market and what would sell. So she set about finding production for her own designs.

“It’s a big step to find the right production,” she says. “It is difficult without money behind you, if you want to sell at an affordable price point, because lower prices are often driven by volume. But I found some production in Europe and started to introduce my designs gradually.

“Quite organically I found girls who wanted to sell to their local networks. We grew initially as a direct-selling company with a network of self-employed women.”

Bluebella grew quickly through its direct-selling model, building a network of 500 self-employed sales consultants at its peak, but retail never stands still for long. The ecommerce boom made operations more difficult to sustain and in 2011, Bendell decided to shift the business towards a wholesale and ecommerce model.

It bothers me that what we do was ever considered left of centre or risque

At around the same time, she started to hear a growing buzz about a yet-to-be-released novel called Fifty Shades of Grey. In 2012 she pitched for and won the licence for Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie in the UK and most of Europe in 2012.

“We sold the direct-selling side of the business [in 2014] to another company looking to enter the UK market [French label Soft Paris] and were hearing about the intense interest around the first Fifty Shades of Grey book, which was starting to go crazy.” The range launched in 2014 and was sold by Tesco – where one in four of copies of the book were purchased – alongside its F&F clothing range.

“It was a brilliant experience and a very large project,” Bendell explains. “We did it while also in the background almost re-platforming Bluebella as a wholesale and ecommerce business.”

John Lewis partnership

Bluebella in its current form has been operating for the past three years. Bendell says wholesale is still the largest part of the business but ecommerce is the fastest growing. And in the last 12 months Bluebella has put its foot on the gas, winning a raft of new wholesale stockists: it launched in John Lewis for autumn 17, and its larger-cup collection, More by Bluebella, is soon to be stocked by lingerie chain Bravissimo. It now has more than 150 stockists. Internationally, Bluebella is sold in Dutch department store De Bijenkorf, and in the US by Nordstrom, and etailers Revolve and Shopbop.

Pandora bra and thong

Pandora bra and thong

Bendell believes Bluebella’s growing number of wholesale partners reflects a wider shift in the lingerie market. Details once seen as risque or provocative, she explains, such as the intricate multiple straps on many of its bras, are now viewed as fashion-forward: “The wholesale accounts we’ve won over the past 12 months were unthinkable for a brand like Bluebella five years ago. It means society is coming around to our view of lingerie: instead of being a niche approach, it’s becoming more mainstream.

“It bothers me that what we do was ever considered left of centre or risque. If being in John Lewis means we’ve had a small part in moving things on, then that means a lot to me.”

I really liked the idea that our crowd-funding investors would also be our brand champions

Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at research company Stylus, agrees: “Detailing like the use of multiple straps has definitely found a home in the mainstream market, making this look easily accessible to consumers across all price points. The widespread adoption by brands and retailers is an extension of the egalitarian mindset we’re seeing emerge within the lingerie market more generally.”

Broadening horizons

Bluebella expanded into hosiery in early 2016, launching with 10 styles designed to complement its lingerie range. The business was growing its infrastructure, too. It implemented new systems, moved into a new Warehouse and expanded its team.

Then, last autumn, Bluebella joined the growing number of retailers turning to crowdfunding to fuel its growth. It launched a campaign on Crowdcube seeking £500,000. By the time the campaign closed in December 2016, Bluebella had smashed through its initial target, to raise more than £1m. The fund­raising was on the back of “the expectation is that Bluebella will have grown to a scale to enable exit within three years via a financial/trade buyer”.

“I really liked the idea that our investors would also be our brand champions, which doesn’t always happen in the corporate world,” Bendell explains. “I remember once being in a bar with a business contact and he said: ‘Oh look, there’s my beer. They’ve got my beer here.’ He’d invested a small amount in this beer company through crowdfunding and he felt ownership of the product.”

The funding is earmarked for international growth, says Bendell: “It allowed us to launch a US-focused ecommerce site in autumn 2016.

The US had already started to come to us – it’s a huge market and we felt it was a good time for us to go over there.”

Bluebella Karolina bra

Bluebella Karolina bra

To support this growth, in May this year it bolstered its board with senior appointments: Richard Sims, who has previously invested in womenswear labels Mint Velvet and The Fold, and Eva Pascoe, managing director of digital marketing agency The Retail Practice and former managing director of Topshop’s ecommerce division, who joined as chairman and non-executive director respectively.

“The Bluebella team have shown great drive, focus and dedication to build a sustainable brand that is recognised and respected by its customers,” Sims tells Drapers. “This effort has resulted in impressive, consistent sales growth.”

Pascoe agrees: “Bluebella is a rare brand where a strong commercial focus is matched by a passion to help women feel good about their bodies.”

Previous investment rounds had proved frustrating. Bendell points to securing funding through more traditional routes as one of the biggest challenges Bluebella, as well as female entrepreneurs more generally, has faced.

“There is an issue in this country, particularly with female-focused businesses, because the investment community is very male dominated. Before crowdfunding, we had previously been through some angel investor rounds. The business angel community is 95% male and typically invest in businesses they understand and have experience of. After one early round of funding, I was quite disillusioned and just put on an event myself, cold-calling high net worth women asking them to come along.”

New baby

Bendell is expecting her first child this month and says this has helped refine her focus: “It’s going to be challenging, because Bluebella is my first baby. I have a luxury a lot of women don’t, because I can determine the balance. It’s my business and I can’t step out of it, and nor would I want to. But I think everyone should pretend they’re having a baby, because it makes you look at everything you’re doing, whether you’re using your time in the most valuable way or if there are things you could be empowering your team to be doing.”

The combination of directional product and Bendell’s willingness to adapt, whether it be tweaking the business model or exploring crowdfunding, has transformed Bluebella into one of lingerie’s most exciting brands.

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