In their first interview together, outgoing chief executive Tracy Lewis and incoming chief Geoff Embley discuss the future for Wacoal Europe, blazing a trail in the larger-cup bra market.
After 13 years at the helm, Tracy Lewis announced in January that she is stepping down from her role as Wacoal Europe chief executive. On April 4, she will be succeeded by finance director Geoff Embley, who has been with the company for 10 years.
Tracy Lewis joined the Eveden Group in 2003 as marketing director, after leaving her role as head of sales and marketing for kidswear at Marks & Spencer. Three years later, she was appointed chief executive of the then Eveden Group, which was acquired by Kyoto-based Wacoal Holdings in 2012.
In January 2015, the lingerie house dropped “Eveden” from its name after nearly 100 years of trading, merging Wacoal Eveden with Wacoal France to form Wacoal Europe.
Wacoal Europe spans seven lingerie brands (Fantasie, Goddess, Freya, Elomi, Huit, Wacoal and b.tempt’d), four swimwear sub-brands and one sports sub-brand.
The group sells directly to consumers in the UK via its Leia website, which was launched in 2009, and two Leia stores, in York and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.
The Wacoal Europe brand is sold in more than 73 countries worldwide. Its biggest markets are the UK, France, Netherlands, Germany and Australia. The UK accounts for around 40% of Wacoal Europe’s business, spanning retail and online. Wacoal Europe’s headquarters are in Desborough in Northamptonshire.
Wacoal Europe’s Tracy Lewis and Geoff Embley
How does it feel to step down from your position at Wacoal after 13 years?
Tracy Lewis: My time at Wacoal has been amazing, I can’t believe it’s been 13 years. The business has changed so many times since I joined in 2003, when we were much smaller and a private business, then through private equity and the Wacoal integration over the past four years. So it feels like it’s been four jobs anyway, which is great.
When I started 13 years ago, our turnover was around £35m and now we’re at three times that. While our export business was in very early stages, we were pretty UK-centric with some fabulous UK partners such as boutiques, etailers like Bravissimo and department stores such as Debenhams and House of Fraser.
It was about getting out there and getting some great people involved who are still with us today, entering new markets, for example really pushing on in the US and starting to establish the Fantasie and Freya brands. We worked to expand the reputation of Freya as a fuller-cup fashion brand, which has driven a lot of growth.
We’ve done so many different things, and it has been great to have the experience of all the different iterations of the business, right through to selling to Wacoal and becoming part of a huge corporate business. Back in 2012, we knew at some stage the business would be in different hands, so it was about finding the right partner. The man running Wacoal America [Richard Murray, who retired as president of Wacoal America two years ago] was a really close ally and we felt very comfortable that our businesses would sit really well as part of the Wacoal Group. We now employ 300 people in the UK and between 600 and 700 worldwide.
What are your highlights from the past 13 years?
TL: One of my highlights was introducing Elomi to the US, as well as launching Wacoal and changing the name above the door. It’s all been quite symbolic. Another highlight was opening our joint venture manufacturing facility with a supplier in Sri Lanka in 2006. We also manufacture in one of Wacoal’s 40 factories across the east in Vietnam. For us it’s all about speed to market and making sure the quality of the product is phenomenal.
How is the female consumer changing?
TL: Women are demanding, but that’s a good thing. There’s so much choice out there and you need to do everything you’re doing better. Women are also changing. Even as they get older, they are getting younger in their lifestyles and wanting sexy lingerie, irrespective of their size. That’s what the introduction of Elomi did in 2008. We designed it for the fashionable fuller figure – the round Latino body types. We’ve been first with a lot of the brands and the product we’ve created, which is something we need to be proud of and build on for the future.
What is your all-time favourite product?
TL: For all the fabulous press and the number of units sold over past decade, it has to be the Belle Bra by Fantasie, which is a favourite with Madonna. When Belle came out, it was ground-breaking in terms of its size, going up to a JJ cup. Most products take 18 months in the development, and with two shapes in the group and all the grading, it was a huge development. Madonna still wears it now.
Geoff, why was now the right time for you to step into the role of chief executive?
Geoff Embley: Having been with the business for 10 years, I was looking for another challenge. I’ve become familiar with the lingerie industry, although it is still a very difficult product for a man to relate to. From a finance point of view, what we do at Wacoal is probably the ultimate in jobs, because of the fact that we’ve got manufacturing, a great sales market, we work with distributors and in foreign currencies – yet for me to take on the number one role is an unique opportunity. It’s very rare that finance people get to move into this type of role in this type of industry. It’s a real privilege. I see my role going forward as a conductor of an orchestra, making sure that the violins, cellos, percussion all play in harmony. The biggest challenge is to follow in Tracy’s footsteps.
The Sofia padded half cup bra by Fantasie
What are your plans for Wacoal Europe?
GE: It’s fairly simple what we need to do: we’ve got a great portfolio of brands and a great opportunity to continue to develop those brands. We have to drive innovation, because, if we don’t, other brands and own-label players will take over. While there are currently no plans for any new brands, we are focused on the continued development of our fuller-bust product and expansion of the Wacoal brand across Europe. Currently we have no plans to extend our retail footprint beyond our Leia-branded UK stores.
Behind the UK, France is our second-biggest market in Europe. We are also looking to grow other European markets. We’ve expanded in northern Europe, Scandinavia and markets like Belgium and the Netherlands, where fit is appreciated and they love fashion and colour. We have also expanded in southern Europe, in particular in Spain and Italy, as well as eastern Europe, supported by our base in Poland.
TL: To service Australia and New Zealand we opened an office in Melbourne in 2008. It’s the fashion capital of Australia, and the consumer is interested in European fashion. We needed to get established, and we’re already in the two key department stores – Myer and David Jones – as well as across the independent fashion sector in every state.
GE: Internationally we need to expand our European presence. We’re dominant in the UK, which is still our biggest market, but we are less reliant on the UK than we were. The objective is to continue to grow our European markets, particularly France and Germany.
What’s next on your agenda?
GE: As a new CEO, my aim is just to listen to our customers and take time to really understand the market in more detail.
TL: For me, my decision to leave is a combination of wanting to do something different, looking for a further challenge, and this being the right time for Geoff to carve a new path. There are a few different opportunities – maybe in fashion, but not necessarily lingerie. I am, however, very much looking forward to not getting up at 5am in the morning and driving to Desborough. After 13 years, I might have a lie-in.
Don’t miss the video behind the scenes with Tracy Lewis and Geoff Embley