Lingerie manufacturer Bendon changed the shape of the UK lingerie market with Elle Macpherson Intimates. Now its European boss is ready to make her mark on the sector.
When a brand or retailer launches a new concept, they often cite - rightly or wrongly - “filling a gap in the market” as the reason for doing so. And in 2002, when lingerie brand Elle Macpherson Intimates (EMI) arrived in the UK, it did just that.
Revered by rivals and loved by consumers, EMI brought fashion-led lingerie at affordable prices to a sector dominated by the mainstream product of Marks & Spencer.
“It sounds obvious,” says Helen Atwood, lingerie buying manager at Selfridges, which stocks EMI, “but young, fashionable lingerie at accessible prices wasn’t available at the time.”
It’s now seven years since the birth of EMI, and Bendon, the New Zealand lingerie supplier and licensee of EMI, is in filling-the-gap mode again. Under its EU president Beverly Hill, it will unveil a premium EMI sub-brand, launch a fashion-led, larger-cup brand for spring 10 called DimitySo, enter the European market with EMI, and bring men’s underwear brand Macpherson Men to the UK.
“It’s simply all about the product,” says Hill of EMI’s success. “When it launched, the UK lingerie market - much like Europe - was all about black, white and nude.”
Hill is right. Yes, the association with supermodel Elle Macpherson initially helped to draw attention to the brand, but EMI is not a celebrity brand any more, and its longevity is testament to the fact that it is the product rather than the celebrity that does the talking.
For spring 10, Bendon is launching premium range Obsidian, an EMI sub-brand, to target a more affluent consumer. With its black, grey and ivory colour palette on luxurious fabrics including Japanese leavers lace, ultra-fine mesh and Swiss and Austrian embroideries, it offers pared-down luxury, which Hill believes is in keeping with the current climate.
“Obsidian reflects the anti-ostentatious mood in this country today,” says Hill. “It’s for the sophisticated woman who has moved on from the colour and fun of EMI.” In other words, it allows EMI to retain its existing customer base as they grow up from EMI, and target new shoppers, all with a higher-price product. Sitting alongside Myla and La Perla, Obsidian will retail from £55.
Hill will also unveil new brand DimitySo for spring 10. Crucially, the brand will extend to a J cup, catering for the UK’s ever-growing cup sizes. The brand could be a more successful version of Fayreform, Bendon’s other, more mainstream larger-cup brand, which has a solid turnover in Australasia.
Hill admits Fayreform is “not a big profit maker” in the UK (Selfridges dropped the brand because of poor sales), but she is confident it has given Bendon a platform to triumph in the larger-cup market. “DimitySo will reach out to a broader customer than Fayreform,” she says.
Also on Hill’s agenda is the launch of EMI into Europe, which began last month in Germany. Denmark and Sweden will follow in November, with France, Russia and Greece next January.
At the moment, Bendon UK, which covers the UK, European and Middle Eastern markets from the London office where Hill presides, accounts for 14% of total turnover, but Hill believes EMI’s push into Europe represents one of its biggest growth opportunities. “We don’t even need to look at emerging markets because we haven’t gone into the main markets yet,” she says.
And last on the list - for now - is the launch of men’s underwear brand Macpherson Men into the UK next year, details of which are being finalised.
The new launches and initiatives could not have come at a better time for Bendon. Rivals certainly have plenty of praise for Bendon’s strategy and the EMI brand. “EMI offers the retailer an improved margin and the team at Bendon is experienced, which helps on the logistics side,” says the director of one lingerie brand. “I don’t think any other lingerie brand has entered the UK with such initial success.”
But he argues that EMI failed to keep the momentum going: “EMI stopped adding excitement. Fashion-led brands need to keep the ball rolling.”
The other problem for EMI was that its success became a double-edged sword. EMI’s concept of fashion-led lingerie at affordable prices led, in part, to the proliferation of clothing multiples launching equally feminine, but cheaper, fashion lingerie offers to compete. While Hill does not agree that the product lost its way - “the numbers didn’t,” she says - she appreciates that everyone else caught up: “I think the launch of EMI led to clothing multiples doing something similar.”
It is a lot to take on - two new brand launches, a men’s brand launch and expansion into Europe - but if the numbers are anything to go by, the strategy is likely to pay off. Sales at Bendon UK for the year to March 31, 2008 climbed 1.4% to just under £8m, while pre-tax profits rose to £287,766 from £273,862 the previous year - not easy in a shrinking lingerie market.
According to retail research firm TNS Worldpanel Fashion, the total underwear market including men’s and women’s declined by 4% in the year to April 26 to £1.3bn and the recent collapse of Intimas Group, which owns the Lepel, Discover Mademoiselle and Charnos brands, shows the market is not immune to the recession.
“Globally, it’s tough, and the UK is particularly temperamental,” says Hill of the downturn. “But at same time we’ve adjusted our costs and we’re set to ride out the next few years.”
Who do you consider to be your fashion mentor and why? It has always been Donna Karan. Her brand is phenomenal and the way she has segmented it is phenomenal. She has always stayed within her core values and I love her product too. I used to work as international sales director for DKNY and she was tough but absolutely focused and inspirational. You were in no doubt about what you needed to do for her.
What is your favourite shop? A furniture store called ABC Carpet & Home in New York. It’s a seven-storey emporium of homeware, with a floor of mid-century Danish furniture, which I love.
What has been the best-selling product you have worked on? It has to be a pair of tortoiseshell-rimmed sunglasses with a dark green lens when I worked for [eyewear brand] Cutler and Gross - they were very rock ‘n’ roll. The brand sold many thousands of that particular style. Cutler and Gross is a fantastic company.
What has been your proudest moment? Personally, my two children. Professionally, breaking into Europe and the Middle East with many of the brands I’ve worked with in the past, especially as I don’t speak any other languages. What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? I used to row at school, so my dream job would be physiotherapist for the Great British men’s rowing team. But if I couldn’t do that, then I would want to be an architect.
2007 EU president, Bendon
2006 Wholesale and franchise director, Charles Tyrwhitt
2004 Vice president US sales, Concept LH
2001 Vice president international sales, John Varvatos Europe
1999 International sales director, Donna Karan International
1997 Country manager for under-wear, Calvin Klein
1992 General manager, Club 21
1989 General manager, wholesale, Cutler and Gross