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How digital pioneer Figleaves is reconnecting with customers

Once a digital pioneer, lingerie and swimwear etailer Figleaves has lost its way in recent years. CEO Miriam Lahage tells Drapers how she is getting it back on track.

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Ask anyone in the world of ecommerce which businesses were pioneers in the space and they are likely to mention Figleaves. Founded in 1998 by entrepreneur Daniel Nabarro and former McKinsey & Co manager Michael Ross, it offered an unparalleled breadth of choice and quickly became the online destination for lingerie.

“The fact that they were able to sell an almost-unlimited selection of sizes and styles from a broad range of sought-after brands online, and deliver them in a way that was convenient for the customer, was a very big deal,” says Miriam Lahage, the personable Bostonian who joined Figleaves as chief executive last May.

We have 19 years of fit experience. Hundreds of thousands of women have bought styles from us

Yet in the 20 years since its launch, Figleaves’ star has faded. Despite its strong start, the business did not turn a profit in the UK until 2012, 14 years after it launched and two years after N Brown Group bought it for £11.5m.

Ross, who is now chief scientist at DynamicAction, the retail analytics company he co-founded in 2007, tells Drapers: “When we started Figleaves, most of the other ecommerce sites were aimed at men. We were one of the few explicitly aimed at a female market. There was nobody else doing lingerie online. It lulled us into a false sense of security. We did lots of things really well and the online market was growing quickly – life was easy.

“[And then] all the big high street retailers started selling online, pureplayers started going into lingerie and the heady growth of online [sales] started to slow down. It made everything much harder.”

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Making the connection

As chief merchant at German plus-size etailer Navabi, Lahage was not looking for another job when Figleaves managing director Fiona Holmes left the role in October 2016. A mutual acquaintance, Iranian-born businessman and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alliance, introduced her to Angela Spindler, CEO of owner N Brown Group, of which he was then chair.

The opportunity to work with Spindler – Lahage had heard of her through N Brown Group’s plus-size brand Simply Be and describes her as “lovely” – combined with the promise of what Figleaves could be, proved irresistible.

She says: “I figured that this would be a really great opportunity to take on a brand that is still well thought of, and has an emotional connection with its customers, but has tried on different personas and never really got back to the identity I thought made sense for it.”

We’re respectful of the brands: we don’t say, ‘We love this silhouette, so we’re going to do it £10 cheaper’

Figleaves is run separately from Manchester-based N Brown, from its head office in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Lingerie makes up 50% of sales, swimwear 40% and nightwear 10%.

Lahage spent her first six months trying to understand how it had evolved through the years: “I needed to figure out how to tease out the best bits.

“I realised that we had 19 years of fit experience. Hundreds of thousands of women have bought styles from us. And it’s not just size – there’s such a variation in women’s bodies. You might be a 36C, but you’re also a balcony bra customer, not a T-shirt or soft-cup customer. If you have the right bra on, you feel confident. That’s the thing we can give to the customer that no one else can.”

Change of direction

Lahage knows what she is talking about – she began her long retail career in lingerie. It was not her intended path: the granddaughter of Lebanese migrants who settled in Boston, Lahage studied economics at the University of Rochester in New York, and planned to do an MBA and become an investment banker. But one day in the early 1980s, she was out shopping and met the owner of a small teen clothing business, who was planning to open a lingerie store next door.

“The next day I had lunch with her, and we decided I would run both shops and help her to buy. I basically threw away my deposit for business school. My father was mortified.”

In 1984, Lahage joined TJX, the US-based global off-price giant that owns TK Maxx in the UK, as assistant store manager. She stayed there for 22 years, moving from stores to buying, and then to lead womenswear. In 2005, she launched the company’s first ecommerce site. However, that year the chief executive stepped down and the chairman decided to close the fledgling online business.

It was a career-defining moment. “I needed to decide: do I stay in this company I’ve grown up in, where I’ve learned everything I know about retail? Or do I take the plunge and follow my passion, which was quickly becoming ecommerce?”

She chose the latter. But, rather than join another big company, in 2006 she launched her own business, off-price designer etailer Koodos. This meant uprooting her family to the UK: “There were already significant players in the off-price space online in the US, but there was nothing in Europe.”

By 2009, when Lahage sold it to software development company E-Trader Group for an undisclosed sum, Koodos stocked more than 200 brands. Stints as vice-president of Ebay Fashion and managing director of German fashion retailer Peek & Cloppenburg followed (see CV, below), after which she consulted for a portfolio of different brands, including Navabi. In 2015 she became chief merchant and was tasked with growing its own brand, among other things. (She remains a board member.)

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Own-brand launches

The experience was to help at Figleaves. In 2007, the etailer launched own-brand lingerie, which now accounts for 20%-30% of underwear sales. Swimwear followed in 2008 and is now 55% of total swim sales. Manufactured mainly in China, the brand made its wholesale debut with Next Label last year.

The autumn 18 collection features a range of beautiful prints, including tropical palms, and close attention is paid to detail – for example, the hook and eye fastening on many styles is covered with soft fabric, to make them more comfortable to wear. Wholesale prices range from £36 for a bikini to £65 for a swimsuit. Lingerie ranges from £14 for briefs to £60 for a basque.

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Lahage says there is “definite inbound interest” from other retailers: “We just have to figure out a way to fit it in with what we’re already doing, make sure the partners make sense for us, and make sure our goals are aligned.” Figleaves also sells its own brand through N Brown Group stablemate JD Williams, and on Amazon and Ebay.

She insists third-party brands have been happy with the development of its own-label offer. Figleaves stocks 100 brands, of which Wacoal Europe’s Fantasie and Freya are bestsellers.

“We’re respectful of the brands: we don’t say, ‘We love this silhouette, so we’re going to do it £10 cheaper.’ That’s not the business we’re in,” asserts Lahage. “Also, data shows us there’s huge loyalty to lingerie brands.”

Belinda Leca, head of sales for Wacoal’s Freya, Fantasie, Elomi and Goddess brands, says Figleaves has a “beautiful” online platform that represents brands well: “Over the years, they have built a very important relationship with their consumers, who keep coming back for our brands [on the Figleaves site], as they have great availability and assortment. They also offer a strong online fit message and service.”

We’re shifting from a lingerie retailer that looks like it cares about the male gaze, to one that cares about our customer

However, she points out that it is somewhat limited by its pureplay origins: “They don’t have the benefit of allowing consumers to touch and see the product, so they have to work much harder to get this message across.”

Lahage recognises this, and hints at plans to introduce Figleaves to consumers as a bricks-and-mortar presence for the first time: “We’re probably going to do some collaborations that will allow people to be in a physical space, and see and try things on,” she says, adding that it is too soon to go into detail.

Another way Figleaves communicates its “deep understanding and commitment to fit and quality” is through Live Fit – a virtual fitting service that launched in October and connects customers with advisers via Skype.

“It’s about bringing humanity into the interaction,” explains Lahage. “We’ve always had this legacy – if you’re a small or big cup, we’re the place to go. But if you looked at our site, we used 32B models who were airbrushed beyond belief. From now on we’ll have a variety of shapes and sizes on view. For our [spring 18] lookbook we had to order samples in size 14 and 36D, which was unheard of. We’re shifting from a lingerie retailer that looks like it cares about the male gaze, to one that cares about our customer and how she feels. That’s what it was about in the beginning, and I think we lost our way.”

Competition 

N Brown Group’s revenue grew by 5.6% year on year to £453.4m in its first half, ending 2 September 2017, while its adjusted pre-tax profit was up 1.7% to £32.2m. It posted a further 3.2% year-on-year rise in group revenue for the 18 weeks to 16 January 2018. The group does not provide a breakdown for its brands.

Among Figleaves’ biggest rivals is Marks & Spencer, which has a 27.6% share of the UK lingerie market. Lahage also names department stores and Primark, which sells bras for as little as £2.50, as competitors.

“There are a number of other online retailers with more edgy, attractive designs and greater interactive functionality,” argues Gemma Illes, founder of lingerie etailer Knicker Locker. “There are new entrants to the market every day with fresh new ideas.” However, she believes Figleaves’ greatest strength is its reputation: “It was one of the first online lingerie retailers, and it has set a benchmark the rest of us aspire to. It probably has the greatest stock holding of anyone in the market.”

For Lahage, the breadth of product on offer – Figleaves stocks sizes that range from a 28 to 40 back, and A to K cup – is both a strength and a weakness: “We made it really hard for the customer to find [the right product].” Figleaves will continue to pick up new and emerging brands – Bluebella is a recent addition – but, “we don’t believe that we need to have every brand, or every style from every brand”.

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Swimwear is a focus for Figleaves

Swimwear is growing at a faster rate than lingerie, and this will be a focus for the next 12 months.

“We’re assuming we’ll continue to push on an open door when it comes to swim market share, while lingerie is now more mature,” explains Lahage. Figleaves is also developing a sports bra range, and expanding loungewear.

Internationally, the focus is on the US. Figleaves has always operated a US site, but Lahage admits it is currently “underserved”: “We’re going to pay more attention. Victoria’s Secret is lovely but it’s all about the male gaze, and the [American] department stores are brand led, a bit boring and don’t necessarily offer all sizes. Nobody really fills the niche that we do.”

Lahage is convincing on the potential to restore Figleaves’ reputation as a market leader. There are opportunities to grow the business, from increasing its swimwear market share to launching new categories such as sports bras, growing sales in the US and making more of its fit expertise. But with online retail growth slowing in the UK and increasing competition from all angles, Figleaves will have to fight even harder to make its voice heard above the clamour.

Miriam Lahage CV

May 2017-present CEO, Figleaves, and board member at Lux Fix and Navabi

January 2015-April 2017 Chief merchant, Navabi

June 2012-June 2013 Managing director, Peek & Cloppenburg

September 2010-March 2012 Vice-president fashion, Ebay

January 2010-June 2010 Consultant, The Outnet

June 2006-November 2009 CEO, Koodos

May 1984-November 2005 Various roles, TJX Companies

 

 

 

 

 

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