Quietly dominating the market in super-soft cotton jerseys and broderie anglaise, Hanro has been worn by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Pope John Paul II. To celebrate its 130th year the company looks back to its knitting heritage.
How is it that even after 130 years, Hanro remains one of the best-kept secrets in lingerie?
The brand has appeared on screen in some of the most iconic roles of the 20th century, from Marilyn Monroe’s knickers, just visible in the famous subway scene of The Seven Year Itch, as her skirt blows up, to Nicole Kidman’s intimates of choice in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.
Even now, Hanro is now regularly bought by those who are used to the best, from Donatella Versace to Beyoncé.
Yet ask many consumers, and if they’ve heard of the brand at all it will probably be merely as the purveyor of functional, albeit super-soft, plain white cotton vests.
“There are a lot of celebrities wearing Hanro, and they don’t write to us, you know, but we have shop-in-shops all over the world, and our sales girls tell us who has been buying,” says Stephan Hohmann, Hanro’s managing director.
“We are very proud of it. We cannot advertise it because they are our customers, but we talk about it. It’s a best kept secret. We cannot put logos on them – it’s underwear, and we have to be very discreet.”
Yet as the company celebrates its 130th anniversary, it seems that its international and online expansion plan may at last be about to change that.
“Internationalisation is going on,” says Hohmann. “China is one of the major markets we are focusing on, and we are now in Beijing, but it takes time. Asia is definitely the market to be in. We are very big in Japan, which is where the Chinese look to take fashion from, way more than from America for instance.”
Other routes into expanding the brand’s market are online, with shop-in-shops and in standalone stores, with one due to open in London this autumn, and a newly opened boutique in New York’s meatpacking district.
Indeed, this omnichannel approach is at the heart of Hanro’s current strategy, says Hohmann, and he insists it can only benefit the brand’s wholesale customers.
“We are running a webstore in the US which is almost doing a fifth of the turnover. We have a website in the UK too, and it’s doing really well. And it means a lot of things for us – a different way of photography, totally different usage of pictures. It’s a real business: you don’t get it for free – it’s huge work and investment,” he says.
“But online will never replace going to a store, which has to be a discovery, an adventure – you need to get in touch face to face with the brand. I think human beings are like that. The experience of the brand is very, very important. That’s why our focus in marketing is at the point of sale.
“We’re investing huge sums in shop-in-shops. And the New York store of course is one part sales and one part marketing – we want to show what we do, and display our brand. It is also linked with the US online business.It’s really this omnichannel concept. You cannot replace the hand of a fabric or get it through a screen.
“The retailers are very important. You grow notoriety of the brand via ecommerce, so everybody’s profiting. We see a rise in sales in the US in all channels – in Neiman Marcus and Saks, we are growing despite the huge success of online shopping. It just brings our brand more on top of the mind than before.”
The long-term success of Hanro though, despite its low-key approach to advertising and marketing, is purely down to its product: the softest of soft natural materials, relaxed knits (a recent development), cotton loungewear and lingerie, with the subtly pretty embellishments of lace and broderie anglaise.
The product manager Heike Dückers has, in her five years at Hanro, presided over a time of real change at the company, and has made an effort both to draw on the immense archive (which is currently being turned into a museum) and to reimagine heritage pieces in new, modern, relevant fabrics.
“We really go into the archive collection, and we renew it for the main collection today, and this is quite successful, especially for the press,” she says. “But we always come back to the DNA of Hanro – I think that’s quite important for us.”
Part of that DNA is quality, she says, and relates back to the company’s manufacturing history. Hohmann expands on the brand’s facilities, which are shared between Switzerland and Austria.
“Always part of the underwear is our capability to produce our own products, which we still do: it’s all in our hands,” he explains.
“We have the fabric production right behind this office, so we have samples on the table every week. It’s a source of innovation and it’s a source of differentiation: we don’t buy fabrics on the rack, and that’s very important to us. It makes us flexible and faster, and we have the quality under control.”
Another crucial – though rather more surprising – strand of Hanro’s DNA, says Dückers, is playfulness.
“Nowadays everybody would say Hanro is so pure, Hanro is so sober, but Hanro is also playful,” she says.
“In the archive you find really playful things – not just the laces, but also the smaller details. We found, for example, a little ballerina, that has always been used for Hanro, and we are using for next summer. We found it in plastic on tops, we found it in leather, we found it in gold, and now we are renewing this little ballerina.
“What I think is important is that the DNA of Hanro is to find out what the important detail is, and not to use many of them but to bring it to the point. This is the most difficult work we have here: to reduce and reduce and reduce and in the end to have the little things that gives the twist and everybody says, ‘wow’.”
It’s not just in women’s lingerie that innovation is happening. The menswear lines are being modernised, expanded and given an extra push for SS14, says Hohmann.
“We’ve really attacked menswear and opened the eyes of all our partners in the export trade – and we are particularly successful with men’s products in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.
Men are not as complicated as women – they need a brief, and they always need the same, and many of them. In women’s nightwear and underwear you have many different sizing issues and taste issues, so the Italian market is more playful, the Scandinavian market is more clean. It’s much more difficult to cover in one collection, because we are selling worldwide.
“But now the times are over when men would say it doesn’t matter what I wear underneath. And in the luxury market we see that it is growing by 15%, double the women’s. Men are more fashion victims than they have ever been before!”
For SS14, the women’s lingerie line has a special edition, celebrating Hanro’s 130 years, called Rita, after Rita Hayworth, and featuring an appropriately pin-up style – something of a departure for traditional, classic, safe Hanro.
“It’s really inspired by the past, so each little detail comes from the archive,” says Dückers.
“We are very happy that we could recreate the materials, because it’s a challenge to get that right. So there’s a very cute little nightwear collection, with a spaghetti top, French knicker, a little nightgown, a small robe, and the tulle is a vintage-style polka dot. We even did the colours in a greyish tone and apricot, so it looks like it’s been lying in the archive. And then we also put the little dancer on that we found.”
In a brand that will never be less than discreet, detail like that could
be what makes it more successful than ever for a post-recession generation suffering logo fatigue.