Over the last 30 years large-cup lingerie specialist Panache has built up a cult following in the UK and overseas, and its Sheffield headquarters is where the technical team takes an idea from concept through to commercial product. Tara Hounslea drops by to see the team in action and find out more about the process.
The vital link
Nestled on a business park 20 minutes from Sheffield city centre, Panache’s sample room boasts more than 200 years of collective experience in machine work and acts as the link between the large-cup specialist’s in-house design team and the Far East factory network that manufactures the finished goods.
Producing lingerie under the Panache, Cleo by Panache, Panache Black and Sculptress brands, the family-owned firm, which has been supplying specialist independents and department stores since 1982, regularly invites its stockists to a series of fit schools developed to help retailers fit their bras correctly.
When Drapers visits, the design team are busy translating trends into style concepts for spring 17 that are kept very much under wraps, as the in-house production team work on technical fit for autumn 16 and overseas partner factories are producing spring 16 product. The upcoming season’s designs take inspiration from Portuguese Porto tiles and floral prints with lace detailing, delicate embroidery and repeat prints.
Head of design and technical Audrey Harris explains the sample room is used to develop new prototypes as well as the processes that can be replicated for wholesale production overseas.
“We have eight very experienced people working in the sample room and a lot of them have come from local companies when they scaled back, such as [swimwear, nightwear and intimate apparel supplier] Bentwoods and its parent company Stirling. These skills are few and far between so it’s good that we can keep hold of them here.”
The process starts with initial inspiration when designers visit trade shows such as Salon de la Lingerie in Paris and Miami SwimShow, stores and exhibitions in the likes of London, Paris, St Tropez, Miami and New York to gather new ideas for prints and styles, then they work with the technical and commercial teams to create a range that can actually work in terms of fit and price. Panache bras typically range between £29 and £34 at retail, while Panache Black is between £40 and £44, Cleo between £25 and £34 and Sculptress between £33 and £39.
Wired for success
“By around the third meeting we sit down with the sales people, product manager and directors to whittle it down to six options per range,” says Harris. “Then we have to work out which of the third party factories based in China, Thailand, Indonesia or Sri Lanka will make each range based on costings, margins and availability.”
It is critical that the sample room has made a clear range plan and ‘method of make’ which can be easily followed by Panache’s partner factories.
“A Panache bra can have between 15 and 20 components and upwards of 25 processes to put it together so it is important that we are all talking about the same thing,” says Harris. “The huge amount of sizes [from a B-K cup and 28-44 back size] is also an important factor.”
Panache maintains a long-term ambition to increase its manufacturing in the UK and it is currently making swimwear accessories such as sarongs, sundresses and kaftans on site, although they do use a third-party cutter.
“We made as many as 750 pieces in the last six-week period so it shows that UK manufacturing could be an opportunity in future,” says sample room supervisor Sarah Bavester, although it is not commercially viable at the moment.
While Panache has a number of core ranges such as the popular Tango bra, which was launched around 14 years ago and is repeated each season in new colours, head of innovation Clare Robertson is charged with exploring new ideas using new materials or processes.
Her biggest success to date was the Sports Bra, which was launched in 2011 and took around three years in development. She is currently exploring new versions for spring 17 and working with new moulded products that could be introduced into Panache ranges.
Global sales director Denise Shepherd, who joined the company to lead further growth in 2013, says Panache is stronger than ever following a rebrand which started in the same year and a new marketing campaign that focuses on aspirational role models for women.
“We now have more than 2,000 stockists worldwide including Selfridges, Harrods, Fenwick, Figleaves and Bravissimo in the UK, as well as a huge network of independents,” she says.
“We opened 32 new accounts last year in the UK including Beales and Hourstons in Ayr and we’ve opened around a dozen more this year, with a lot of them smaller independents from a new generation of women that really understand our focus on fit.”