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The Drapers Interview: Ultimo's under-the-radar innovation

As British lingerie Ultimo brand celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, its managing director Petra Drali has her eyes firmly on the future.

Petra Drali Ultimo

Petra Drali Ultimo

There is something strange about asking a woman you have only just met what underwear she is wearing.

But Petra Drali answers with an easy smile: “Ultimo, of course. I wear it every day.” Thankfully, as the managing director of the British lingerie brand she is proudly sporting, she is used to this somewhat inappropriate question.

Founded by Baroness Michelle Mone in 1996 and still based in Glasgow, Ultimo has built its success on lingerie innovation and “solutions”, including Mone’s original patented use of silicone gel for bust-enhancing bras. It may be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year but 18 months into her role, Drali is looking decisively to the future rather than the brand’s past. With a booming concession business in the UK, an expanding wholesale strategy, an evolving product offer and fresh category push, her focus is on the next 20 years.

“It’s about never pausing,” says the 45-year-old. “I think that’s really it with the game of retail.”

Beautiful beginnings

Born in Finland and educated in Florida, Drali began her career in cosmetics doing sales at Guerlain in 1998, first in the US and then the UK. She progressed to Dior, Molton Brown and Crabtree & Evelyn. Keen to move out of the beauty industry, she became head of wholesale for Europe, Middle East and Africa at chocolatier Godiva  in 2011, and then made her first steps into fashion as head of international wholesale business development at Kurt Geiger in 2013.

Consumers told us they didn’t think a celebrity would make them convert to a purchase

“I had learnt so much from all these fantastic organisations – about branding, marketing, product and retailing in the UK – so when the opportunity came to join Ultimo I was really excited,” she says. “And I love British brands. [They’re] very dynamic, maybe more than some international brands I’ve worked with. [International brands] don’t want to move as quickly with the times.”

But why Ultimo? “I admired its braveness and boldness. It’s been ahead of the game on many occasions with innovation,” she explains. “And I was thinking: I’m so lucky to be working with all a girl’s favourite things – make-up, chocolate, shoes and now lingerie,” she adds with a smile.

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

Drali joined Ultimo as commercial director in October 2014 and was promoted to managing director in May 2015.

Based in London, she commutes weekly to the brand’s Glasgow home: “It’s like taking a bus – when you take the British Airways 7.05am flight on a Tuesday morning, it’s always the same people commuting,” she jokes.

When she joined, the business was going through a period of change. Sri Lanka-based lingerie group MAS Holdings had been investing in Ultimo since 2013, and in November 2014, just a month after she joined, it raised its stake to 80%. By August 2015, founder Mone had resigned from the board.

House of Holland x Ultimo at London Fashion Week

House of Holland x Ultimo at London Fashion Week

House of Holland x Ultimo at London Fashion Week

Changing faces

Despite MAS’s controlling hand, Drali was keen to effect her own changes. She started with the brand’s famous advertising. It had become recognised for its celebrity-fronted campaigns, with Kelly Brook, Helena Christensen, Peaches Geldof and Abbey Clancy some of the names enlisted. Following intensive shopper research, Drali decided to replace well-known faces with anonymous models.

“The consumers told us they want someone fronting the campaign that is aspirational, but didn’t think a celebrity would make them convert to a purchase.” And the change reportedly has not hurt business. Media coverage of the campaigns might have dipped, but Drali has maintained the brand’s media presence through projects such as a collaboration with House of Holland as part of its London Fashion Week catwalk show.

Drali describes Ultimo as “functional fashion” with a core consumer aged between 35 and 55. Product-wise the offer is split between 60% core, 30% fashion and 10% bridal. Retail prices range from £10 for a thong to £60 for a basque.

Drali describes core as the brand’s DNA – products in black, white and beige to wear everyday – as well as its signature “solution” products. These include Ultimo’s consistent bestsellers: the low-back body and the low-back strapless – “solutions to fashion dilemmas” such as low-back dresses, Drali says.

Lingerie is going through this trend where it is worn to be seen, so we did the same thing with the shapewear

Ask any retailer familiar with the brand and these products come up, even if they do not stock them.

“There are a couple of key pieces that are fantastic,” says Michele Poynter, founder of Cornwall independent Mish Lingerie and winner of Drapers Niche Retailer of the Year 2016. “The backless body, there is no one else I know that does that up to a G cup. And I think they’re the only brand doing the low-back bodies.”

Smartly, Drali is making sure Ultimo remains at the forefront of this solutions market too: “We’re bringing something exciting out in 2017 which helps with outfits that have very low fronts, so watch this space,” she says with a wink.

Ultimo

Ultimo

Ultimo

A new shapewear line that launched for autumn 16 is also part of the Core product range, and is a sector within which Ultimo “wants to play” going forward. Whereas traditional shapewear is often bland, boring and designed to be hidden, Ultimo’s is available in a pretty pink, trimmed in lace, or cut with sexy sheer panels.

“Lingerie is going through this trend where it is worn to be seen, so we did the same thing with the shapewear. If someone sees it, it’s okay,” says Drali. “No one is going to run a mile.”

“Ultimo creates really beautiful shapewear,” says Katie Atkinson, senior editor for intimates and swim at trend forecasting agency WGSN. ”[It] is lightweight and powerful and uses beautiful luxurious lace, so it doesn’t look frumpy. It’s hard to find shapewear with that seductive element.”

Wedding belles

In terms of its bridal offer, Drali says it has grown organically, without significant investment. The size range was expanded  – up to a 38G bust – and sales have doubled in just a year, now accounting for 10% of the business.

Reeling off facts with ease, Drali says: “There are 300,000 UK weddings a year. The average age of the bride is 30. She spends on average £25,000. Her dress costs around £1,600 and she spends between £65 and £70 on lingerie. So there is a huge opportunity with that [for Ultimo].”

She also acknowledges the future acquisition opportunities that bridal offers: “If we can make her perfect day even more perfect, then she will trust us moving forward.”

“[Bridal] comes in a wide size range – starting from 30-inch backs – and they also do a large cup version which goes up to a G,” says Claudia Walker, buyer for lingerie and hosiery at House of Fraser. “As well as being functional, the range is also very pretty and feminine – our customers love the beautiful eyelash lace trim.

“For spring 17 we’ll be growing the range with the addition of a high-waist brief – which is very on trend now – and a teddy that is perfect for the wedding night or honeymoon.”

The biggest part of our business – our concessions – that’s currently tracking at 64% up on last year

The business is currently split 43% concessions, 36% wholesale and 21% own retail, which is solely via ultimo.co.uk rather than any own stores.

Although Drali declines to reveal exact figures, she says business is doing well: “We are looking to finish the year at a 15% increase on last year. The biggest part of our business – our concessions – that’s currently tracking at 64% up on last year in terms of sales. So we’re very pleased.”

Ultimo’s first concession opened in House of Fraser’s Glasgow store in 2014. There are now nine in total, in House of Fraser’s London Oxford Street, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Reading stores, and in Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield with Debenhams. Ultimo also runs its online business with House of Fraser and Debenhams as a concession.

Drali believes these concessions work to Ultimo’s advantage, as customers still prefer the choice and variety on offer in department stores but will be drawn to its branded areas and dedicated staff.

“Concessions are really like stores,” explains Drali. “It gives us an opportunity to create those experiences for women [via dedicated brand ambassador staff], because most women we know don’t really look forward to getting bra fitted.”

Drali is tightlipped on concession progress, but does say: “We are carefully looking at other locations. We have some empty spaces in the Midlands, so it would be nice to open some spaces there.”

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

Ultimo House of Fraser Glasgow concession

The brand has around 20 wholesale stockists – including Shop Direct’s Very, Asos and Next – which account for 36% of sales.

“Ultimo is an iconic British brand that our customers love,” says Kelly Tolman, senior lingerie buyer at Shop Direct. “[They] trust the brand and often repeat purchase their styles.

“Ultimo continuously adds innovation and excitement to their products, which has sustained its performance and customer interest. It continues to evolve and meet customers’ needs with new and exciting products, like bridalwear and shapewear.”

Bid for independents

One area the brand has not explored so far is the independent market, although Drali admits it is on the agenda: “We are proceeding with it. I can’t tell you today that we have things signed, but it’s on the agenda and we’ve started all the conversations.

“Our strategy is not to go to a huge amount of independent stores, but the ones suited for our client profile.” This is likely to include independent department stores, as well as “bigger accounts with a strong online presence”.

Online is another area in which the brand has been excelling: around 70% of Ultimo’s products are now sold online, via concession websites with House of Fraser and Debenhams, wholesale stockist’s channel’s and iltimo.co.uk.

We should make it fun for women shop for lingerie

Drali’s smart wholesale strategy has helped drive this: most of Ultimo’s stockists are pure play etailers. Ultimo.co.uk was also relaunched in February this year and additional functionality will be added – although she does not say when – including new fitting guides, as well as the launch of a virtual brand ambassador to try to replicate the levels of customer service and advice offered in concession stores.

“We set ourselves a goal that at the end of the first year from the site launch we wanted to be on double-digit growth – and we are,” says Drali. “At the moment [ultimo.co.uk is] 21% of our business and it’s hugely growing. I see that becoming stronger and getting bigger in terms of sales.”

Ultimo

Ultimo

Ultimo

Drali believes online will also be the gateway to Ultimo’s international expansion. Although predominately UK focused, international sales do come via wholesale partners, such as Asos.

“Not for this year, but latter part of next year,” she reveals. “[International expansion] will probably work as online first and then some department store presence. There are department store chains in western and northern Europe that are very good that will give us the bricks and mortar presence because that’s the perfect mix – a little bit of the store experience and online.”

Drali recognises it has been a tough time for the industry, as wavering consumer confidence affects the wider fashion world.

But she believes the important thing is to evolve constantly: “I see great potential for [lingerie] to become so much more upbeat – when you shop on a cosmetic floor, it’s like you’re going out in a nightclub but, when you come to lingerie, it’s a little more demure.

“We should break some of those barriers and make it fun for women shop for lingerie and not make it so traditional. The consumers keep us on our toes all the time, so we have to keep up. You have to always come up with something new.”

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