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The Drapers Interview: Tracy Lewis, Wacoal Eveden

Lewis leads wacoal’s united front: a new name signals a fresh approach for lingerie group Wacoal Eveden, chief executive Tracy Lewis explains.

Change is afoot at the headquarters of Wacoal Eveden when Drapers visits its central London showroom in 27 Beak Street. The lingerie house announced in July that after nearly 100 years of trading the Eveden name will be dropped from January 2015. This comes as part of a restructure by its Japanese parent company, Wacoal Holdings, in which Wacoal Eveden will merge with Wacoal France to become Wacoal Europe.

“Adopting the Wacoal name is probably a more positive way of putting it than dropping Eveden,” laughs Tracy Lewis, chief executive of Wacoal Eveden. She joined Eveden Group in 2003 as marketing director, after leaving her role as head of sales and marketing for kidswear at Marks & Spencer, before taking the top job in 2006. Lewis then led the company through a period of change as Eveden, which is famous for its specialism in fuller cup sizes throughout its portfolio of brands, was bought by Kyoto-based Wacoal Holdings in 2012.

Lewis is unsurprisingly keen to hammer home the benefits of the restructure for the European business, which she says has not involved any job losses but rather has seen new opportunities in the marketing, sales and design teams, with some positions being brought in-house rather than using agencies. Lewis is on the hunt for a UK-based design director and has increased the in-house sales team in France. The thinking behind the restructure is to build a solid foundation for Wacoal Holdings in the Western Hemisphere. Currently, 56% of Wacoal Holdings’ turnover (net sales to March 31, 2014 were ¥193.7 (£1.1bn) comes from Asia (excluding China), while 20% is from the US, 13% from Europe and 9% from China. Wacoal Eveden’s latest annual net sales to March 31, 2014, were £95.6m .

“Wacoal has got a very successful business in America,” explains Lewis, “so alongside them we’ve got the two pillars for the Western Hemisphere. We’re now working really closely together [with Wacoal America] on how we market the brands and increase our presence. We want to really show the strength of what we’re doing [in Europe] and alongside Wacoal America become as big a presence in the West as we are in the East.”

Key to this is product development. Along with its own label, Wacoal Eveden owns and manufactures Freya, Fantasie, Huit, Goddess, Elomi and B Tempt’d - with Freya, Fantasie, Huit and Elomi also producing swimwear lines.

For spring 15, the Wacoal label is a key focus. The range, which comprises five mini-collections with about three bra styles in each, has been redeveloped over the past 18 months and was relaunched to buyers in July. Previously, Wacoal America and the European Wacoal collections were designed separately, but the two have been merged into one global collection for the Western Hemisphere (which also includes Australia and New Zealand) for spring 15, with the design headed up by Lewis’s UK team. “What we wanted was to bring something that had a little more of a European edge,” says Lewis. “Customers wanted more lace, colour and design so we’re giving them that.”

The brand has 164 UK stockists, including John Lewis and Selfridges, and offers sizes up to an H cup. Wholesale prices range from £5.60 for a basic bra to £39.22 for premium styles.

The new collection has already been well received. “We’re really excited about it,” says Zoe Norman, lingerie and nightwear buyer at etailer Figleaves.

“Alongside new colours of bestsellers, the ranges include floral embroideries, guipure laces and beautiful decorative detailing. We love that Wacoal has combined this new handwriting with its passion for great fit and comfort and we think this is exactly what customers will be looking for in their spring buys.”

Another area of development for spring 15 has been within Fantasie, which has been nominated for Womenswear Brand of the Year at the 2014 Drapers Awards in November and is also the bestselling brand in the Wacoal Eveden group, with 359 UK stockists including Debenhams, Bravissimo, John Lewis and House of Fraser. The A- to K-cup label is frequently mentioned as a big seller in Drapers’ Indicator survey of UK independents’ biggest-selling lingerie brands.

“For spring 15 with Fantasie you’ll see much more of a premium element,” explains Lewis. This comes after the closure of Fauve for autumn 14, another of Wacoal Eveden’s labels, which was positioned at a higher price point (around £65 retail). “We’ve taken lots of elements of Fauve such as bestselling shapes and styles of lace and merged it into the Fantasie collection,” Lewis says. “We tested it a little to see customer reaction and it was phenomenal.” Fantasie’s retail prices now range from about £25 for a basic moulded bra to approximately £45 for a more luxury product that may include European lace, for example.

Closing Fauve and offering its more premium elements as part of Fantasie is also a strategy to maintain customer loyalty. “If you are a larger cup size and you get a brand that really fits you, you stick with it,” Lewis explains. “So as long as you are surprising that consumer and doing something a bit special, she doesn’t have to go elsewhere.”

Marlene Lovett, owner of lingerie retailer Bare Essentials in Loughborough, Leicestershire, tells Drapers Fantasie is a bestseller that always does well with customers. However, she is sceptical about the higher price range, saying: “It’s very good, but with Fantasie the top end before was £41 and they’ve gone a little bit further to between £46 and £48. The lace is maybe a little different on some but if you’re showing two white bras and one is £28 and the other is £48 you have to really like the lace on the other bra.”

However, for Lewis the key factor is encouraging stockists to buy more deeply into her brands. “It’s a very mature brand,” she says of Fantasie. “Our distribution won’t change dramatically because there aren’t lots of new retailers out there. It’s about doing what we do better and gaining market share.”

Of course, having seven labels within its portfolio means the group’s presence across the UK market is impressive; go to almost any department store lingerie section or independent lingerie boutique and you’ll likely find at least one. Freya, which specialises in colourful, design-led ranges up to a K cup and wholesales from £12.80 to £20.64 for bras, has 297 UK stockists, for example. Meanwhile Elomi, which is known for its fuller-figure offer, with back sizes from 32 to 48 and wholesale priced from £13.14 to £36.02, has 202, and younger fashion-led brand B Tempt’d, which is priced from £5.40 to £12.95, has 102. These figures don’t even include the brands’ swimwear ranges.

“The fact we have seven brands in our portfolio helps because it develops a level of trust that the standards you apply to one brand will apply to the others as well. They all complement each other so we’re a one-stop shop almost.” However, she smiles and says: “It doesn’t help our sales people because they have quite a lot to do.”

She is not exaggerating. The sales team are kept busy not only with the breadth of the portfolio but the fact that the brands sell all year round, with two collections a year and impressive delivery times. “We deliver to many of our UK boutiques in a 24-hour service.

“That’s really important to people when their cash flow is tight. With the way things are, they don’t want to sit on lots of inventory, they want to be able to pick it up quite quickly.” Add the consultants on the road for UK retailers to help advise on fitting larger bra sizes, and it’s easy to see how the team is kept busy.

Fortunately, the market is getting a little easier according to Lewis, who affirms that the last round of selling in July and August has been better than in recent times.

One much-discussed factor is the so-called Fifty Shades of Grey effect, driven by the erotic novel. “It hasn’t had a big impact,” Lewis shrugs. “I think it was great to hype up the lingerie industry and it’s getting us talked about. If it gets our retailers excited, or gets them doing a special window, then great.

 

‘We want to show what we’re doing in Europe and become as big a presence in the West as we are in the East’
Tracy Lewis, chief executive, Wacoal Eveden


We may see a little bit of excitement when the movie comes out next year, but we haven’t designed anything for it, put it that way.”

All in all, it’s an exciting time for Lewis, particularly in January when the company officially becomes Wacoal Europe. “It’s been pretty unprecedented for a Japanese business to have made the changes we’ve made together over the past two years. I think it shows the confidence the team in Japan have with us, which I’m very proud of.”

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