Triumph’s Roman Braun and Suzanne McKenna are hoping to change the lingerie brand’s image with a campaign led by actress Julianne Moore.
Drapers has to race across Berlin in a frantic bid to meet Roman Braun, managing partner of lingerie giant Triumph International, and Suzanne McKenna, global head of brand as they make a flying visit to the German capital.
Both are based at the brand’s headquarters in Bad Zurzach, Switzerland, but are in Berlin for an event attended by Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore, the face of Triumph’s new premium range, Florale.
Braun is tall and softly spoken, Glaswegian McKenna more forthright. Both are warm and friendly, joking and anticipating the night’s events.
Triumph began life in 1886 as a German corset company, founded by corsetmaker Johann Gottfried Spiesshofer and merchant Michael Braun – great grandfather of Roman Braun.
Armed with just six sewing machines and six employees, Spiesshofer and Braun began making corsets in a barn. They expanded rapidly before rebranding as Triumph – inspired by the Arc de Triomphe – in 1902.
More than 130 years later, the business is still wholly owned by the Spiesshofer and Braun families. Wholesale partners in the UK include John Lewis, House of Fraser, Debenhams and Selfridges, and the brand is sold in 120 markets. It also owns the men’s and women’s underwear brand Sloggi, which focuses on technical fabrics and comfort.
Pre-tax profits at Triumph’s UK arm rose 33% year on year in the year to 31 December 2016 to £2.4m, on turnover of £32m, which was down by 2.1%.
Braun entered the family business in 2010, holding a variety of senior roles and becoming a managing partner in 2013. McKenna has 25 years in retail and joined Triumph in 2009, following a long stint at denim giant Levi’s as UK marketing manager and merchandise director.
She made the leap from denim to lingerie after deciding it was time for a fresh challenge, and has since observed a host of changes in an ever more competitive market.
“[The lingerie market] is going through peaks and troughs,” she explains. “When I first joined Triumph, the conversation was about La Senza and Victoria’s Secret, then it moved on to Victoria’s Secret and Hunkemöller. What you have now is a proliferation of smaller independent labels who are trying to offer choice.
“The market has gone in two directions. There are the smaller brands, which are often focused on a particular style or look, and the real monsters, which are going through tougher times in the same way as the wider apparel and footwear market.”
Many fashion bosses are considering what to do with bricks-and-mortar stores – downsizing, changing locations or focusing on experiential retail.
In July this year, Triumph announced it was to close all its UK stores – in Cambridge, Exeter, Churchward in Wiltshire, Walton-on-Thames in Surrey and Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre – by the end of the year.
Although Braun stresses that Triumph had comparatively few stores in the UK, closing them was still a big decision for the brand.
“It was part of a retail consolidation,” he explains. “We’re expanding our retail stores across Europe and will look at doing so selectively in the UK [in the future], if we can find good locations that match our model.”
With wholesale now an even more important part of the UK business – it has more than 700 UK doors, and 11 ecommerce and mail order stockists – the brand is keen to redefine itself with its partners.
“Traditionally, we’ve been the high-functioning brand that buyers see as being the brand for bigger-breasted women, or, let’s be frank, the brand for your grandmother,” argues McKenna. “We’ve spent a long time trying to change that perception and the UK has been one of the tougher markets.
“We decided last year to step back, clean up our current distribution – because how we looked in wholesale wasn’t helping – and try to ensure there is choice in the assortments consumers are seeing in our wholesale partners.”
Triumph has two bestsellers: The Amourette line is known for comfort, comes in both padded and non-padded styles, and offers bralettes, minimisers and high-apex bras. All bras in the supportive Doreen range, meanwhile, are non-wired.
Braun and McKenna joke that most of their customers would be delighted if Triumph found a way to combine the two, and both styles are popular among UK stockists. It also offers Triaction sports bras, the larger-cup range Beauty-Full, and Shapewear control garments.
“We do very well with Triumph, particularly with good, well-fitting non-wired styles like Doreen, and the well-known Amourette bra, which sells in all the different styles,” confirms Gayner Johnson, owner of Leicestershire-based independent Johnsons and lingerie etailer The Lingerie Company. “Both fit very well and that’s the most important thing for me and for my customers.”
Michele Poynter, founder of lingerie independent Mish in Wadebridge, Cornwall, agrees: “I started stocking Triumph following customer demand. Shoppers were asking for particular products from their ranges, like the Doreen. It’s not my personal favourite but it certainly has a place. Customers know that if they’ve bought those styles before, the fit won’t have changed.”
We’ve got lots of other products and styles that the consumer often doesn’t see
Although Triumph acknowledges the importance of having such a successful bread-and-butter product – McKenna says the business Amourette does alone is bigger than some entire lingerie brands – it can be a double-edged sword. The brand has to convince retailers to look past those two styles and consider its more fashion-led lines.
“One of the difficulties we faced is that, in the past, Triumph has been pigeonholed as being the ‘functional’ brand,” says McKenna. “We’ve tried hard to work with our customers to build our business out beyond only Amourette or only Doreen. We’ve got lots of other products and styles that the consumer often doesn’t see, especially in the UK. If you look to other markets, such as Germany, it’s a completely different situation because we’re known for being the brand for lingerie, whether it’s basics, sport, or something sexier for the weekend.”
New products are helping to shift the industry’s perception of Triumph. For autumn 17, the brand launched the stretch lace Amourette Charm, which Braun describes as “the next generation” of Amourette, and Triaction was relaunched for spring 17 to tap into growing consumer interest in all things wellness-related.
Some buyers do acknowledge Triumph’s attempts to broaden its customer base: “Triumph has a true heartland and a loyal customer who will buy from them again and again,” says Philippa Lawley-Barrett, assistant lingerie buyer at Debenhams. “The brand also offers innovative bras and new concepts, to keep up with the ever-evolving market and demand for new technology.”
Then there is Florale. The new premium collection launched for autumn 17 and includes bras, briefs and bodysuits with floral patterns and embroidery in muted shades. It is designed to appeal to a more mature customer, who is prepared to spend a bit more on elegant lingerie. Retail prices for Florale bras range from £52 to £70 and from £28 to £40 for briefs.
“We have a big business in 45-plus – women who want a high-functioning product,” explains McKenna. “We did some research, which showed there was an opening for a more luxurious product. Just because you’re over 45, doesn’t mean you’re past it, and the campaign with Julianne came together at a time when there was a lot of talk in the industry about mature models. Even we were surprised by how much pick-up there was on the story.”
Braun names Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski as his two favourite Julianne Moore films, and is equally enamoured with the Florale campaign: “She has substance. Julianne has played so many interesting characters in her movies. She’s known around the world and we’re known around the world. It’s a good match with a brand that also has a lot of substance and a lot of heritage.”
The range has found fans among the brand’s wholesale stockists: “Florale is particularly suited to our customers,” explains Sarah Allen, designer at mail order womenswear business David Nieper. “The price point is slightly higher, but they will love the luxurious fabric and beautiful embroidery.”
Beyond product, another focus for McKenna is nailing the brand’s omnichannel offer.
“[Omnichannel] is a really tricky thing because our product needs fit, and the question is how you bring a fit concept to life beyond a bricks-and-mortar experience. We’ve put a lot of effort into omnichannel,” she says, pointing to a renewed focus on service and choice.
“There’s so much talk about visual merchandising and making your store look attractive, but that has to happen online as well. It’s not just about big glossy pictures: it’s about easy navigation, how key words read on the page, and how you click through different pages.”
She highlights partnerships with etailers as particularly useful for the brand: “We’ve performed really well with our etail partners such as Zalando and Figleaves, because what we’ve realised is a good omnichannel business is about not just your own dot.com, but also making sure what customers see on Zalando or Amazon or [Chinese ecommerce site] Tmall is more aligned to what they see on our site.”
McKenna’s focus on omnichannel is an acknowledgement that the lingerie market is changing, as new brands enter the fray and consumers’ ongoing interest in athleisure drives a transition towards softer, more relaxed shapes.
Closing UK stores was a bold decision, even though Triumph’s wide spread of wholesale partners gives it a stable base in the UK market. The brand has a long history and plenty of heritage to draw on, and Braun and McKenna are determined to stay ahead of the curve.
Ludovic Manzon, CEO of Sloggi, talks about repositioning the underwear and bodywear brand
”I started at Sloggi about 19 months ago and my belief was that we had to carve out Sloggi as a standalone brand within Triumph to explore its potential.
The starting point was rethinking how we position the brand – it was a very nice jewel in [Triumph’s] crown but it had started to slip a little bit. We came up with a new mission statement to make it very clear what the brand should stand for, which is comfortable, innovative daywear which emboldens people. In the past, there hasn’t been a clear understanding of what the range stands for. You don’t need a PHD to understand Sloggi, it’s a friendly brand, an accessible brand. Simplicity and comfort are key to us moving forward, although that doesn’t mean we can’t also be innovative.
Part of the strategy has been to build one global brand, whereas before the approach was very fragmented. We also wanted to bring back a cheeky, light heartedness to the DNA of the brand and embrace a tone of voice that was meaningful and stood out in the lingerie market. We’ve also introduced the ZeroFeel range, which you can’t feel on your skin and is extremely comfortable. It first launched in Japan and we’re scaling it up every market.”