Charnos and Lepel have been through a turbulent few years, falling in and out of administration and into the hands of new owners. But, finally, it seems the brands have found stability thanks a new sales and marketing to team that is focused on driving the brands forward.
Eleven months ago, when Peter Cronin returned to Lepel, the lingerie brand he managed from 1994 to 2006, the label was slowly returning to growth after a turbulent few years.
LF Intimates had bought Lepel, together with Charnos, in 2009 – when their parent company, Intimas, went into administration – and rescued them both from the brink of closure.
Over four years, the group focused on rectifying fit issues and securing orders, but it needed someone who could direct the brands back to where they should be in the market place, after they had lost their way.
Enter Cronin, who had just completed an eight-year stint as UK sales director at Panache. “They needed someone with sales and marketing experience and I sort of fitted the bill,” he says, modestly.
“I left Panache because I was only involved in sales, not product development, and that was part of the job that I really liked. I wanted more involvement and so when LF Intimates came along, it seemed perfect.
“I knew the brands, I had strong feelings about where they should be in the market place and I could really get involved in the product. And, touch wood, that all seems to be working really well.”
Indeed, Charnos and Lepel have recorded a 17% increase in sales for the year ending June 30, compared to the last financial year.
“Where we really made ground was from January, when we were presenting Autumn/Winter 14 to trade. In our order book for that season, we’ve sold out on three of the Lepel ranges and two of the Charnos ones. I don’t think we’ve ever done that before,” says Cronin, almost dumbfounded by the result.
So how has Cronin and his team been able to achieve such growth? According to the new sales director, it has not been down to any drastic changes, but simply establishing who Charnos’ and Lepel’s end-consumers are and tidying up marketing materials in order to make it easier for retailers to sell their products.
With Lepel, it was about defining a brand identity through improved photography and modernised logos across its lingerie and swimwear lookbooks, advertising campaigns, and fixtures, as well as developing product lines that sit cohesively alongside one another.
“We needed to introduce a product that didn’t compete with Fiore, which is the best-selling collection, more like complement it,” explains Cronin.
Lepel has also developed a good, better, best price profile, with bras priced at £20, £24 and £26. “What we try and aim for is that when someone picks up a Lepel garment, they look at the fabrication, then look at the price, and realise it’s really good value for money,” says Cronin.
“[The prices] were a little bit mixed up before – we had bras priced at £23 and it wasn’t quite balanced. So we have cleaned up the offer. It’s the little things that make the big difference to a brand.
And the market’s response to these small changes has been extremely positive, particularly for Lepel, according to Cronin.
“[Retailers] love what we’re doing with Lepel,” he says. “We had three orders come in last week [end of June], which exceeded last year’s orders completely. They were from Figleaves, ASOS and Bravissimo, which is a new partner for us. I think that they have all recognised that we’ve moved on from the previous season.”
As for Charnos, this brand had already showed a huge leap in distribution even before Cronin had made his mark on the brand, with almost double digit orders taken at the Associated Independents Stores (AIS) trade show last September, in comparison to the previous year’s show.
What the brand needed was to engage with its target consumers. “What we did with Charnos is carried out some consumer-focused groups, which really said to us that we have two consumers, who we actually named in the end,” explains Cronin.
“So we have the first consumer who is aged 30 to 50 and we called her Kate. She likes the modern classics, so Sienna, Suzette – these kind of products. Then we have Kate’s mum or older sister, who is classic Charnos. This brand has been going since 1958, so we do have a long-term consumer. We’ve called her Susan and she is aged 50 to 90, and above.
“In design meetings, there were always lots of products being developed for Kate, but we can’t forget Susan, so with Charnos, we wanted to have this balance. That’s been reflected in sales.”
Under the ownership of LF Intimates and with a new sales director in place, it seems Charnos and Lepel have at last found their place in the market, competing with some of the most well-known British brands in the business.
The group also took on Steve Hazlehurst as head of marketing last October. He too joined the company from Panache and has been working alongside Cronin to establish the brands’ identities and revamp products and pricing structures.
So what went wrong for Charnos and Lepel for them to need such guidance?
According to Cronin, Lepel and the other brands at the Sherwood Group – later named Intimas – were turning over around £24m in 2006, the year he left the company and the group acquired Charnos from the administrators of Nelson I.A. Limited.
“In that period they went into retail and bought shops and I didn’t necessarily agree with that. Anyway, it didn’t work out and the brands started to struggle, I’m sure not just for that reason, but for lots of reasons,” he explains.
But Cronin didn’t leave Sherwood solely because he didn’t like the way the business was heading. “Back then, we had a chief executive called Carol Duncumb and I was managing director of the brands. She felt that she could do that job as well, so I was made redundant,” reflects Cronin.
“So I took my redundancy and John Power from Panache gave me a call the next day and said ‘come for a curry’. So we went for a curry and a chat and a couple of weeks later I was at Panache. I learnt a lot at Panache, actually, and I loved my eight years there, so there are no hard feelings [towards Sherwood] at all really.
When Cronin joined LF Intimates in September 2013, Lepel’s management had changed, many people he had worked with previously had also been made redundant and staff motivation had taken a tumble.
“There were some people there who were probably a bit beaten up, you know? So we reorganised the place and chucked a lot of stuff out,” says Cronin.
“I remember moving into my first flat in Barnett and it had orange walls. I said to myself I’m going to repaint and get rid of those orange walls. But then, as a bloke, on my own, I wasn’t so motivated about decorating and I suddenly didn’t see the orange walls anymore.
“And I think that the people who worked [for Charnos and Lepel] didn’t see that the welcome mat was worn out,” Cronin analogises.
“So I chucked out all the old plant pots and went through the whole place to try and make it more business-like. I created new Lepel and Charnos showrooms and they both have their own identities now. It made us all a bit prouder of our work environment,” he explains, with a smile.
“We are trying to make ourselves more of a modern business, which had lost a bit of direction. So from tidying up our offices, all the way through to tidying up our brands, we’ve turned ourselves around.”
After finishing the financial year on a high in June, LF Intimates has just finished its first month of trading 30% up on July last year and, based on its daily Key Performance Indicator report, the group expects to record a successful first quarter.
“[The report] tells us how much we’ve invoiced in the previous day, how many orders we’ve received and how much stock we’ve received. You can see by looking at those three barometers that it’s positive because we’re invoicing ahead of where we were last year,” explains.
“ASOS gave us an order on 8500 units,” he exclaims with a gasp. “I shouldn’t sound incredulous because they’ll think ‘wow, we’ve over ordered!’, but it’s so positive for the brand. And Figleaves have increased their order with us by 350% over the last year. I mean, wow!”
Cronin predicts a strong performance from both Charnos and Lepel for the full year, but remains cautious.
“I’d like to think that by the end of the year we’d be between 20% and 30% up, as long as we don’t do anything stupid like introduce a poor product that doesn’t fit well. That can always come along and bite you. As long as we behave ourselves, and not get too excited, we’ll do really well.”
If all goes well this quarter, LF Intimates hopes to re-budget for the coming year and spend some hard-earned profits on growing Charnos and Lepel, both in the UK and abroad.
“We will consider coming to Salon International in January and properly introduce the brands to Europe,” says Cronin. “LF intimates came to Paris about two years ago and they didn’t make such a statement. They came just looking for orders, rather than having a strategy. So that’s the thing to do.
“It’s best to have a plan and enter the market it in the right way. I know quite a few of the ecommerce French retailers so I’ll probably try and get the brand moving with them.”
Charnos and Lepel are currently stocked in the UK, Poland, Australia and Scandinavia.
“We definitely want to expand in Europe and I’d love to get going in the states at some stage and find the right partner over there,” he says excitedly, before realising he might be getting ahead of himself.
“But, I think to be honest with you, given the growth we’re seeing in the UK, we’ll probably stay where we are for the rest of this year. We want to take our time. I just love seeing the potential.”