A life in lingerie: honouring Tony Jarvis

After 21 years in the intimate apparel industry, working in executive roles at Pretty Polly and Triumph before taking the reins of Gossard and Berlei, Tony Jarvis has announced his retirement. In a special interview, he looks back on his illustrious career and shares his ambitious plans for the future.

How did you get into the intimate apparel industry 21 years ago?

I was a TI graduate, so in those days, when you left university, you took a graduate course to learn about the various business departments. Then I joined TI Raleigh, hence the move to Nottingham. I was there for three years – on the road, which was vital experience in selling, and then back up to head office. And then somebody I knew had been working at Pretty Polly as brand manager and said, ‘Tony, you ought to apply for this job because I’m moving on.’ So I applied for it even though it was a totally different industry. I joined Pretty Polly in 1979 and spent nine years there. I started as grocery brand manager at a time when supermarkets started to become a powerful presence in the UK. Within a short period of time, Pretty Polly accounted for 40% of the grocery market, selling 90 million tights per annum. I left in 1988 as sales and marketing director and with Wendy, my wife. Not a bad result!

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What have been your most memorable moments?

At Pretty Polly, it would be winning the Institute of Marketing Gold Award three years in a row, which is a unique achievement for any company, and then I suppose launching certain products, including Nylons. When you think that they are still around now, it’s a nice achievement to look back on. At Triumph, it was totally reorganising their sales and marketing team and building a much closer relationship with UK retailers and international clients. That was exciting because I was working not just with the Triumph brand, but also with the Sloggi brand, Valisere and Hom. Onto Gossard and Berlei, I suppose the nicest thing has been to help re-build two brands with a passionate team. Winning a hat-trick of UKLA Awards has been a real highlight, especially the Award voted for by the public. I hope that the foundations have been successfully laid for some really good years ahead.

What will you miss the most about the lingerie industry?

It’s always people, isn’t it? When I look back to my Pretty Polly days, I remember introducing a colleague of mine to my MD, who was Mr Hosiery in the industry, and my friend kept going on and on about how brilliant Pretty Polly was and my boss turned around and said, ‘yes, it’s great product, but we could be selling bog rolls; it’s all about the people’, and I think that hopefully that has been my philosophy. It’s been an incredibly nice industry to work in.

What won’t you miss about the lingerie industry?

It’s a good question. I suppose there are certain things you have to do in my position – everyday stuff really. I will certainly not miss e-mail ping pong, motorway traffic jams and travelling during the rush hour.

How have you seen the lingerie sector change over the years?

The most extraordinary change has been the retail environment, from a very straight forward high street shopping environment plus mail order, to the advent of online retail. The biggest challenge now is for brands to stand out, create a differential and, to a certain extent, be seen in a variety of environments. It comes down to product development and creativity, supported by marketing and advertising. When I first started out at Pretty Polly, we would create an ad with a London agency, put it on during the break in Coronation Street and we knew that 20 million people would see it and people would talk about it. It doesn’t work like that now. The power of communication is great, but it makes it so much more difficult to reach your customers. Coming back to retail, I find the move to click and collect quite intriguing. I don’t believe that people will want to be sat down on the internet all day buying things – they will want personal contact, and that’s where click and collect will come into play. You want retailers to be thinking not just about bottom line, but the whole shopping experience. And let’s not forget, there is no substitute for a personal fitting service in our industry.

If you were starting your working life now, would you still make the decision to join the intimate apparel community?

Yes, I think it’s a fascinating industry and going back to what I said earlier; it’s a good industry to work in. I couldn’t imagine working for a finance company in London where it’s dog eat dog. We’re not like that – it’s a really nice environment and it’s been a joy. I mean, a lot of it is about contacts and opportunities and although you’re always competitive, it’s in an environment that is a pleasure to work in. I’m not sure what it’s like for my dad though, who was in the army. I think he finds it quite amusing telling people ‘my son travels in ladies’ lingerie!’

How do you plan to spend your retirement?

I’m going to look after my daughter’s hamster and my daughter’s tortoise and the bloody zoo we’ve now created! No, only joking, it’s going to be really nice. My wife and I have a few holidays planned. Then, I’ve got a couple of friends outside the industry who have got their own business and I want to help them out. I also want to mentor young entrepreneurs. I’ll obviously be enjoying the sporting life too – a bit of coaching, playing a little golf, and 2015 is a great year for watching sport. As my son says, I’ll end up with a 50-day week if I end up doing all the things I say I’m going to do.

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