A decade ago, after designing fashion and childrenswear for major brands like Topshop and Disney, Deborah Fleming dropped everything to become a swimwear designer. It was a risk that paid off and now her brand, Pistol Panties, is celebrating 10 successful years in the industry
It was June 2004 when Deborah Fleming put her needle and thread down, after having completed the finishing touches of her first-ever swimwear collection, and immediately wrote to Selfridges, determined to put her luxury brand Pistol Panties on the map.
Her ballsy plan worked; Selfridges wrote back and asked to see her designs in person. “They asked me to come in, so I did, and they just loved [the collection]. They bought the lot,” says Fleming. “I had to find a factory straight away, which I didn’t have (they didn’t know that) so I found one and I produced it all a month later.”
Now, a decade on, not only are Fleming’s garments stocked in Selfridges – and many other high-end retailers based in the UK and overseas – but she has opened her own boutique, had her work featured in national media and collaborated with an endless list of fashion designers and retailers.
To mark her brand’s 10th anniversary, the designer has formed another exciting partnership – this time with aristocratic model Lady Mary Charteris. Together, they have designed a 1980s-inspired swimwear collection that was launched at Mode City, Paris earlier this month.
But that’s not all Pistol Panties has planned for this season; the brand will also add a cruise line to its large-cup swimwear range Big Guns, and put plans in motion to open new stores across the UK, as well as pop-up shops around the world.
Never one to do things by halves, Fleming has ambitious plans to become the “Rigby & Peller of swimwear”, providing a professional fitting experience through retail, while retaining a strong brand identity. But with the success she has had so far, it seems nothing is out of her reach.
Diving into swimwear
Fleming has always been surrounded by fashion and retail, having spent the first years of her life watching her mother run a chic boutique in the heart of Paris before moving to Miami, where she studied a double major in business and fashion at the American Intercontinental University.
“Straight after that, I went to Paris and I got a job working as the head designer of a label there and really learned the ins and outs of the brand. From there, I worked in Verona, Italy, for a manufacturer who made collections for Top Shop and Urban Outfitters,” she says. “I was designing product and actually selling it, so it was really good to learn both sides of the business.”
Fleming later moved on to design childrenswear for Disney, where she could really let her creative juices flow.
“It was just really fun, combining frills, pom poms and asymmetric lines,” she enthuses. “Sometimes I look at my swimwear collections and think ‘oh dear, is it too sort of kid’s Disney’ and it can be a bit!
“So the shiny fabrics that I sometimes use are, I suppose, subconsciously inspired by Disney because [when I worked there] there were pretty much no constraints; I could be as colourful and as playful as I wanted.”
But despite the freedom she had when working for the children’s brand, Fleming wanted to have complete control over her own designs and it wasn’t long before she decided to go it alone.
“I loved helping people with their brands, but I felt like a natural entrepreneur and that the only way I could grow was to do something by myself.”
The designer came up with the idea of creating a swimwear collection as she was cycling around Notting Hill – now the home of her Pistol Panties boutique.
“It came to me like a light bulb,” she recalls. “I remember going to shops around that time, looking for swimwear and I thought ‘I can only buy swimwear when I go on holiday and it always seems to be plain and functional, as opposed to fun and fashionable’.
“So I quit my job and went for it, all guns blazing, literally.”
With her first collection stocked at Selfridges, Fleming had another brush of good luck when her designs were noticed by a big-time magazine editor who happened to be sitting next to her on a London bus one afternoon.
“I had just done a photoshoot with my friend, Andrew Brook. The shoot was with this girl who had just arrived from Brazil who ended up being a Victoria Secret model…her name is Izabel Goulart.
“Anyway, I was on my phone looking at the pictures and the editor asked me what I was looking at. I told her I was looking at the pictures from the shoot and she asked me to come to her office. [One of the pictures] ended up being on the cover of Sunday Times Style. It was amazing,” she says, still excited by the thought of it.
“That happened within a month of starting my collection. I know that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, so it was pure luck, pure magic.”
So what made Pistol Panties’ first collection so popular with buyers and the media?
“I think it was just what the market needed at the time,” says Fleming. “It just needed fun and glamorous swimwear that wasn’t restricted to certain colours and prints.
“I was using lots of 50s shapes and recreating 50s silhouettes with much more modern fabric. I was using colours like florescent pink with a heart-shaped foil print on it and people would say ‘no way would you wear that’ and then they would see it and it actually worked. I had just finished working for Disney so it seemed normal to me.”
Ten years in the business
Pistol Panties’ anniversary collection, which launched in stores earlier this year, is a throwback to the debut range, featuring retro shaping, candy stripes and pastel hues taken from the British seaside in the 1950s.
For next season, Pistol Panties has taken a slight change in direction, while still staying true to its quirky design handwriting.
“One of the things we are doing for our 10th anniversary is we are collaborating with Mary Charteris to design a 12-piece collection aimed at a younger audience. It’s called Mary for Pistol,” Fleming shares exclusively with Lingerie Insight.
“Mary is best friends with lots of girls from the cool London scene and we’re naming styles after her friends so that’s quite exciting. Mary and I have been friends for years and we thought it would be great to do something together.”
Mary for Pistol was launched to trade this month, for a January or February delivery.
“The collection is based on 80s rock, with a feminine vibe. To sum it up, it’s good girls on acid, basically,” Fleming explains with a laugh.
“So it has a fresh, floral sweetness about it, but it’s got a rock edge. We’re bringing in Brazilian cuts but with floral skirts, so it’s a real contradiction. It really reminds me of how Pistol Panties started, so it’s bringing back that rock edge a little bit more,” she continues.
For Pistol Panties’ SS15 main line, the brand has rolled back the years to created a swimwear collection inspired by sunsets in the 1970s.
“I’m just rounding up our final samples, but basically it has a 70s vibe and it’s very much based on that whole sort of Raquel Welch era,” Fleming says. “So it’s very sort of bronzed with muted coppers and it’s sexy. We’ve also introduced a lot of solids and it’s very shimmery.”
Importance of fit
Over the years, as Fleming has gained more experience, she has realised that the business part of her brand is just important as the design side, and, as a result, Pistol Panties has become even more commercial.
“Fit has always been so important to me, but after having three kids it’s taken on a whole new level because I don’t want women to think that just because she’s had three children she can’t wear Pistol Panties anymore,” she explains.
Realising there was a demand for sassy and sexy swimwear in larger cup sizes, Pistol Panties brought out the Big Guns (collection) last year, in sizes 28D to 38GG. And for SS15, Big Guns will be produced and launched in cruise for the first time.
“It came down to our customers’ needs – I saw so many walking out of the store empty handed. They wanted the swimwear to fit so much because it looked great, but the cup size wasn’t right,” says Fleming.
“I used to make four bikini sizes and now I’m making up to 36 sizes of the same style, in the same print. So it’s a whole new dimension, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to take, to take the brand to the next level.”
As part of her plan to provide women with better-fitting swimwear, Fleming also wants to add to her retail portfolio, to ensure women across the UK, and indeed the world, get a proper fitting experience.
“One of my favourite parts of the business is having my little shop in Notting Hill, which I call my fourth baby because I nurture it so much. Everybody says having a boutique is so last decade because it’s all about the internet now, but I totally disagree, in fact I’m actually looking for more shops.
“People come to our shop because they rely on finding the right fit, trying something on and talking to me. Obviously, I couldn’t talk to my customers in every world destination, but I’d do as much as I can to travel and make sure the boutique is set up properly and girls get a proper fitting when they are there.
“I would say that I want to be the Rigby & Peller of swimwear,” she enthuses.
Fleming is currently looking to open a new store in Chelsea. “We have a couple of locations in mind but we haven’t signed anything yet,” she says.
“We’re also looking at pop shop locations around the world, so we’re looking at holiday destinations and hotels where we’ll open a pop up shop for a few months.
“We’ve looked at Ibiza, Miami and St Barts. They are so seasonal, so we could do a pop up in St Barts in the winter, Ibiza in the summer and Miami could be both. I think there’s definitely a future in that.”