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The pleasure principle: inside the world of Coco de Mer

lucy litwack coco de mer by sophia spring

Lucy Litwack is building a female-owned, female-run and female-focused lingerie business with a luxury sensibility fit for the modern age.

Entering the Covent Garden Coco de Mer boutique with its opulent, warmly lit decor is akin to walking into a museum of decadent curiosities.

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Coco de Mer spring 20

An array of luxurious silk and lace lingerie sets: from bras to bodies and basques are hung around the store, alongside a range of toys, ties and tools, with vintage books, elegant statues and artwork on display that prompt a double-take, necessitating a second, most-likely quizzical glance.

Founded in 2001, Coco de Mer has made a name for itself with its curated collection of luxurious lingerie and high-end erotica. Its sensual, sexy signature aesthetic has an unabashed focused on female pleasure and empowerment – something that current CEO and owner Lucy Litwack is harnessing to drive the business forward into the modern age, as she widens its distribution channels and branches out from its luxury roots.

Coco de Mer was founded by activist and entrepreneur Samantha Roddick, as a small luxury store focusing on selling high-end products, and with an equally powerful voice in raising awareness for female social causes.

In 2011, Roddick sold the business to online retailer lovehoney.com. Litwack joined Coco de Mer as managing director in 2014, and in 2017 led a management buyout, becoming CEO and owner.

The head office is down the road from the original Covent Garden store, which stocks both its own brand and a small number of others – including Bordelle and Dita Von Teese. The team is made up of just 12 people across the store and headquarters. 

In the three years since Litwack bought the business, Coco de Mer has flourished. While Litwack declines to provide exact figures, she says the business is profitable, and has been since the second year of her ownership in 2018/2019. Before she took over, she says it had never turned a profit. Turnover increased by 9% year on year in 2018/2019 and the business has achieved annual revenue growth of 50% since Litwack joined.

A strong digital presence and a wholesale arm, which Litwack launched in 2016, have taken the brand international, and sales are evenly divided across the three channels. Coco de Mer’s own brand now has 52 stockists internationally: they include Selfridges and Net-a-Porter in the UK, and Bergdorf Goodman in the US.

Litwack’s deep connection and passion for her business is apparent from the moment Drapers meets her in the boutique. Elegantly leaning against a glass counter top wearing high heels and a chic leather pencil skirt, she is in her element: chattering with the store staff, pointing out her favourite pieces in the store’s impressive collections (a £12,000 solid gold vibrator is a particular talking point) and sharing stories of memorable customer interaction.

Litwack’s lingerie CV is impressive. She joined Coco de Mer from high-end Italian brand La Perla, where she had been brand manager for two years, charged with relaunching the La Perla Studio line. She previously held roles at Victoria’s Secret, New Zealand underwear brand Bendon and Myla London, and was behind the launch of David Beckham’s underwear collection between 2008 and 2010. This year, she’s celebrating two decades in the sector.

When the role at Coco de Mer came up, she saw the opportunity to expand her horizons beyond pure lingerie, at a brand with a more female-focused approach than traditional players.

“I felt like there was something so special about it [the brand],” Litwack says. “For me, a lot of that was its focus on women and female pleasure, which had really been its aim from the start. You hear a lot about that now – you didn’t hear so much about it back in 2001. This was a luxury brand that was sexy, it was erotic but at the same time, it came from a point of empowerment. That was something I really wanted to nurture.”

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Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product trends at intelligence business Stylus, says: “Women still want to dress for pleasure – but it’s increasingly on their own terms. So, it’s important for glamorous lingerie brands to design with that in mind. Designing for all with an inclusive mindset is particularly key – as is representation again, focusing on a more inclusive approach to appeal to women who expect female empowerment to be part of a lingerie brand’s agenda.”

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Coco de Mer spring 20

The educational, inclusive aspect has been one of Litwack’s focuses with Coco de Mer, she says: “The importance of female pleasure and female empowerment – everything we do stems from that.”

She explains that this can manifest as buying luxury lingerie, any of the retailer’s toys or erotica products, or in attending one of the “salons” hosted in the store: small scale workshop events hosted in store once every two weeks, giving masterclasses on everything from rope bondage to stripteases. Lingerie is the biggest-selling category, and makes up 45% of all own sales. Other categories include toys, bondage accessories and books.

Alongside growing this more sensual aspect, there were practicalities to perfect when Litwack joined – she describes this as “cleaning up” the business.

She redesigned the ecommerce site for a more “decadent” experience rather than a transactional one, and brought the stockroom in house. It now sits underneath the London store, which Litwack says gives Coco de Mer more control over stock management and enables it to offer customers services such as click and collect via its website.

After three years as managing director, Litwack staged a management buyout in 2017. Lovehoney’s online business had taken off, and Litwack says the owners were keen to focus on growing that side of the business, rather than focusing on Coco de Mer.

“Sometimes you just have to go for it,” she says. “It felt like it was the right timing. I had been running it for three years, so I understood the business really well and I felt like I had a really strong team who I would want to grow the business with.” 

Coco de Mer appeals to the customer who is a true lingerie connoisseur

Libby Page, Net-a-Porter

In the three years since the buyout, one particular success for Coco de Mer has been the growth of its wholesale arm. Coco de Mer has always had its own brand, but Litwack launched this for wholesale for the first time for spring 2016.

“It is a great opportunity on so many different levels. It’s great for brand awareness, but it’s also good for testing new territories and trying to work out what areas are right for the brand, if we ever wanted to launch a boutique internationally, for example, wholesale gives us a much better understanding of the different markets.” 

Today, wholesale is growing strongly. There was a 48% revenue increase from autumn 18 to autumn 19, and a 36% stockist increase in 2019.

“Coco de Mer appeals to the customer who is a true lingerie connoisseur,” says Libby Page, senior fashion market editor at Net-a-Porter. “Season after season, each collection takes on new inspiration that keeps things fresh and exciting for the customer. The brand is known for its sensual designs, created from the finest silks and lace. It’s a luxurious lingerie brand that offers the customer a real statement piece that is daring, without compromising comfort.”

The main collection sits firmly within the luxury sector, with retail price points ranging from £75 for an eyemask to £465 for a robe. For spring 20, the brand is looking to widen its reach with a newly launched diffusion line, Muse, which sits at a much lower price point, starting at £30 for a bra.

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Muse

“Muse is making the brand more accessible,” says Litwack. “We have a lot of younger customers come into the store: they really aspire to the product and they love the brand, but the lingerie has been out of reach for them. This is helping to open it up to a broader audience.”

You walk into that boutique, and you really understand Coco de Mer

Lucy Litwack

Litwack says the collection revolves around the concept that “women can be so many different things within one”. The collection comprises four “muses”: the minimalist, the siren, the pin-up and the romantic. Each will inspire a new set of styles every season.

As with the main collection, Muse is manufactured in Europe, which Litwack says helps the brand to keep a closer eye on quality and ensure the luxury finish their customers expect. Previously, Coco de Mer had worked with a lingerie manufacturer in Wales, but when wholesale became the focus for the business, Litwack laments that the costs of UK manufacturing were too high to make continuing UK production a commercially viable option.

Wholesale, international and digital growth may be exciting developments, but Litwack is adamant that the Covent Garden boutique remains the beating heart of the business – an integral aspect of Coco de Mer’s proposition and success.

“It’s the soul of the brand,” she says. “You walk into that boutique, and you really understand Coco de Mer.”

Litwack has focused closely on creating a unique retail experience in the store with its luxurious design, varied offer, knowledgeable staff and “salon” classes – aiming to make it more than just a retail location.

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“That’s how we’ve helped Coco de Mer stand out in a competitive marketplace,” she says. “We don’t just offer products. We offer these experiences, this education that allows both men and women to make discoveries and explore their desires and embrace the complexities of pleasure in an environment that is welcoming, empowering and a little bit indulgent. That is what all luxury brands are at the end of the day: it’s not just about need.”

Underpinning Litwack’s goals for Coco de Mer is a deep belief in championing women’s causes. Since it was founded in 2001, activism has been an important part of the brand’s message – encouraging conversations around female desire and championing charities working to remove barriers women face around the world. Most recently, this has involved working with charities campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM).

“The core of the Coco de Mer brand revolves around the importance of female pleasure, and FGM is a direct disabler of that,” says Litwack. “We have a voice and a platform that we could use to talk about it with a new audience. It was important for me that Coco de Mer stands for something over and above selling beautiful product.”

The brand collaborated with anti-FGM activist Waris Dirie and her campaign group The Desert Flower Foundation last year, and is working with other NGOs and campaigners, including activist Nimco Ali, to raise funds and awareness for the cause.

Looking ahead, wholesale and online are the main focuses for future growth and change within the business. Other expansion is being looked at on a longer-term basis – the possibility of creating licensed collections is something Litwack is considering for 2020, and further ahead international stores and additional locations could be on the horizon – although Litwack is clear that these are by no means imminent plans.

For now, she is proud to be running a business that champions women in all aspects. Litwack herself is an inspiring figure. Her passion for promoting women’s issues, business focus and activist endeavours aside, she has shaped Coco de Mer into a female-focused, female-run company that serves the needs of a varied and forward-looking lingerie customer.

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