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The Drapers Interview: Steve Hudson, Curvy Kate

Focusing on ‘real women’, Curvy Kate lingerie has enjoyed a meteoric rise, culminating in a Drapers Award last year.

Normally, you’re so caught up in the day to day, but you have that moment where you stop and think ‘We’re doing good things here’,” says Steve Hudson, managing director of lingerie brand Curvy Kate. One such moment was the fuller-cup bra specialist’s triumph at the 2014 Drapers Awards, when it scooped Womenswear Brand of the Year.

“Good” is an understatement of the brand’s performance. Since its wholesale launch in 2009, Curvy Kate has been quite the success story. Catering for women with larger busts in cup sizes from 28D to 44K, it now has about 700 stockists worldwide. While Hudson declines to give turnover or profit figures, he expects sales growth of 20% to 25% this year. This will be as a result of investments made in systems and staffing last year, allowing for increased distribution with key department stores, a refocus on the independent sector and the kind of product innovations Curvy Kate has become known for.

Sharply dressed in Ted Baker, Hudson explains: “2014 was very much about getting the systems and procedures in place to allow for growth in 2015. This is going to be a big year for us.” We are speaking in his orange and blue office - Jaffa Cake-themed he reveals, producing a box from his drawer to illustrate the point.

It looks like it will be another big year for the business. Between February and April, John Lewis will roll Curvy Kate out to 30 stores from its current 12. “We started with John Lewis in just two stores and online, but they quickly realised the brand is working for them and were keen to roll it out.

We’re also seeing lots of growth on etailers such as Figleaves.com, Shop Direct and Bravissimo.” Furthermore, Debenhams is allocating more space to the range and Curvy Kate will employ consultants in some of the department store chain’s stores, such is the demand.

When asked about the brand, John Lewis merchandiser for lingerie Denise Allen says: “Customer demand for larger-cup bras continues to grow for us and Curvy Kate has proven to be a strong addition to our assortment, offering an unparalleled choice of sizes, particularly in larger-cup and smaller-back ranges.

She adds: “The collections are focused on providing a great fit and support proposition in a fresh colour spectrum and with competitive pricing. The multiple award-winning brand’s campaigns, such as ‘Star in a Bra’ [which invites real people to become Curvy Kate models], celebrate and promote positive body image.”

It’s not all about big retailers, though. “We’re also trying to push the independent market and extend the success we’ve already had, because that is where the brand started,” says Hudson. This involved recruiting Clare Woolstencroft as northern sales agent and Sally Courtney as southern sales agent, under the guidance of head of sales Rachel Jenkins, last May. “This will allow us to go to more independents rather than just focusing on the bigger retailers. We want to refocus on that and independents need a more personal service with someone coming through the door [a sales agent]. We’ve been very stretched as the business has grown in all different directions, so we haven’t been able to give them that kind of attention.”

Richard Lowe-Jackson, owner of lingerie retailer and Curvy Kate stockist Just Bras in Rochdale, says this refocus is a good strategy. “The fuller-cup market is core for us, and really it’s the bread and butter for lingerie independents, because those sizes need to be fitted correctly, which can’t always be done in larger stores.”

He adds: “We’ve stocked Curvy Kate since day one and it’s building up a really strong fanbase. Our customers love the Princess bra [the brand’s bestseller] and its ‘Star in a Bra’ campaign and focus on ‘real women’ is received really well by our customers. We get lots of people asking for it.”

However, with the brand growing its distribution online and in major department stores, could this cannibalise sales at independents? “It raises the profile of the brand and gets customers coming into store looking for it,” Hudson counters. “So they work well together. We have around 80,000 Facebook followers and we’re very active on other social media platforms. We always push customers to our independent stockists.”

“The UK is key for us,” he adds, explaining that 60% of the brand’s sales are from the UK, versus 40% from 32 overseas markets, with the US and France being its strongest.

Of course, it’s not all about distribution. New product launches are part of the company’s growth plans for this year. Spring 15 saw its first strapless bra, Luxe, available for 28D to 38J in black or biscotti shades. Since strapless bras have their limitations, it could only go up to a J cup, but Hudson says: “It is a real feat of engineering as much as design to give a great shape across the D to J cup size range. And that is a key driver for us going into the new year. A girl of that size is always looking for something that will do that. There are not many [strapless] products that offer that support very well, and when you get into the H and J cup sizes your options dwindle. So it has been picked up by a lot of our accounts.”

Autumn 15 sees even more launches. These include the brand’s first lace bra, Ellace, retailing at £31 and available in a 28D to 40K cup (extending to 44 for D to G cups), and a range called Florence, a semi-sheer style for cups 30D to 40J, which sees the retail entry price point lowered to £25 from its previous £27 to £32.

The swimwear collection, now in its fourth season, will launch its first autumn collection this year, with styles including bandeau and plunge options, priced £34 to £38. “I think our swimwear range can be developed a lot further and stand up in its own right, rather than as a lingerie brand doing some swimwear,” says Hudson.

Sub-brand Scantilly is another launch for autumn 15. Priced at a more premium £38 to £46 and catering for a 30DD to a 38HH, with plunge and balcony styles, it consists of three ranges and six options in total with matching briefs. “It’s kind of Curvy Kate’s naughty sister,” explains Hudson.
“This is a more risqué and seductive collection and the response from buyers has been fantastic. It’s not quite the full size range but these are more elaborate products.”

He explains that the decision to launch the range was in part driven by the brand’s social media following. “They are delighted by what we are proposing to do because there isn’t a lot out there like this in these sizes. A lot of the risqué stuff is an A, B, C or sometimes D cup, but it peters out when you get to DD, and we’re focusing on DD upwards. It also fits well. It’s not just there to decorate.”

Curvy Kate has gone from just five lingerie styles in 2010 to 20 today, with 96 sizes in some bras, and more than 2,000 SKUs in total, hence the need for the business to get its systems in place behind the scenes in order to facilitate further growth. “We have a much more robust system now for managing stock and forecasting stock, and that is a key part of the business, making sure we have availability of what we need when we need it.”

Given Curvy Kate’s success, you’d be surprised to learn that Hudson didn’t start out with ambitions in the lingerie market. He was made redundant from his job at an IT firm in 1992 and joined his stepsister selling lingerie at hospitals and offices on a mobile market stall from the back of a van, with a trestle table and a rail. “It was very unglamorous,” he laughs. He then set up fuller-bust size bra retailer Brastop in 2000, with stores in Harrow, Baker Street and Victoria in London, and began developing Curvy Kate in 2006 to sell in Brastop’s shops. It was only when other retailers started showing interest in the range that Hudson decided to begin wholesaling it, closing the Brastop shops soon after but keeping its ecommerce platform. Trialling the bras within Brastop shops meant any production issues were ironed out before significant quantities were manufactured.

Hudson decided to show at the final edition of the Harrogate Lingerie & Swimwear Exhibition in spring 2010. “We were overwhelmed with the response on the day and from that point on we opened about 100 accounts within five or six months.

“We weren’t really geared up for it as we were used to retailing, but we had to learn on our feet.” He then exhibited the collection at Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris, gaining more momentum as a result and taking the brand into markets such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the US.

Clever use of social media has allowed Curvy Kate to reach a large audience, led by PR and marketing manager Hannah Houston. The brand, which employs 17 at its Harrow head office, never uses professional models. Instead, it searches for Curvy Kate fans via social media. The 2015 hunt for the next face has just launched and will take the search international for the first time, with the winner becoming the global face.

“It’s a big part of our marketing calendar,” says Hudson. “Hannah is brilliant and social media has been instrumental for us in getting the message out there, particularly at the start when we didn’t have much advertising budget.”

Curvy Kate will be exhibiting in Paris again at the time this interview is published. It will then head to Moda in Birmingham in February, followed by US shows CurveNY in February and the Las Vegas International Lingerie Show at the end of March through US distributor SBC Clothing.

Naturally, Hudson is feeling confident: “We have great staff who are really passionate about the brand. Curvy Kate is all about personality, and the demand just keeps on growing.”

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