After more than 30 years in the industry, uber-agent Philippa Bradley knows a thing or two about the lingerie business. Here, Gemma Champ picks her brains about the state of the industry now.
It is the final day of Moda, and Philippa Bradley is presiding over her agency’s stand, elegantly attired in a delicious petrol blue silk Olivia von Halle kimono dressing gown. It brightens up the room no end, halfway through a slow day, when the rest of the exhibitors and visitors look haggard after three days at the NEC.
She might be wafting around looking chic, but she’s in no mood for waffle. It’s been a quiet day, and she’s not happy about it. “It’s not how it should be,” she says crossly, disappointed with her trading. Days later, though, it transpires that while visitors were fewer than normal, this was the most successful Moda edition that Philippa Bradley Agencies had ever had, with more orders written.
“Although the flow of traffic was definitely down at Moda, which left us feeling a little bit nervous, when we did the numbers we realised we’d had the best Moda to date and wrote the most orders we’d ever written,” says the agency’s co-director Lucy Osborne. “We’ve opened a few new accounts, and we see a lot of the Irish and Scottish customers who don’t come to London, so they use Moda to see us. Before, they would come down to London and make a day of it, but now they don’t have as many sales assistants, so we’ve put in place two sub-agents and also started doing Moda. But it was more the quality of customer rather than the quantity.”
Quality not quantity: a description that could perfectly describe Bradley’s own approach to her business.
With its neatly formed collection of brands, including Eberjey, Laurence Tavernier, Princesse Tam.Tam and, of course, Olivia von Halle, the agency has, if not a strict edict, a very definite philosophy when choosing its brands – and there is no doubt that this is part of Bradley’s continuing success.
“We take a new brand if it has a point of difference and there is a personality behind the brand,” she says. “That’s how it has to be now. It may not have been like that before, but that’s how it is now. And that’s how we got Olivia into Net-a-Porter. The reason why? There’s a story: she’s six foot tall, she’s outrageously clothed, her lookbook is absolutely magnificent.
“As a shopper I like knowing about a brand. I built this agency on being who I am, and now with Lucy, we know what’s out there. We’re not just an agency that sits there and writes an order; we help every customer and I tailor it to every store, because every one of the UK department stores is an individual store. So the brands interview us, but we’re interviewing them at the same time.”
That’s a privileged position to be in during a recession that could triple-dip at any moment, but it comes as a result of flexibility and hard work. Things have changed since Bradley started her South Molton Street agency in 1979, and she is very aware of keeping her eye on the ball.
The rise of Net-a-Porter, with its global online sales, is just one part of it, demanding both extreme canniness in making a deal and a realistic approach to the necessary compromises – such as the retailer’s preference for exclusivity on a brand. “If it’s Net-a-Porter we do bow to it,” she admits, “but we don’t keep it forever; just for the first season. You can’t. They would like it to carry on and they put huge pressure on you.”
Still, Bradley doesn’t give the impression of being someone who is easy to pressurise. She’s a formidable presence, her slight air of scepticism lasting until she appears satisfied that you’re not a complete idiot, and she is clearly driven in her business goals.
“Each year I have worked I’ve had a goal,” she says. “I never had a department store for the first 10 years, and every year I said I’m going to get Selfridges, then Harrods, and slowly, we have got them all.”
Her view on the future of indies is less positive. The bar has been raised by the internet and the obstacles are greater than ever thanks to the economy and the sad state of the high street. Even in South Molton Street, the chic London thoroughfare in which she is based, she has noticed more and more shops closing, and she sees competition from the mass market as a serious issue.
“There’ll always be the good independents,” she says, “but it won’t be as it is now. We’ve got Primarks, we’ve got H&M, we’ve got every type of competition… It used to be that at Harrogate, every day three or four new people would come in saying, ‘Oh, I’m opening a new shop’. I used to sit there for hours telling them how to buy, what to do… We hardly get it any more. The industry is changing. There are maybe half a dozen of us left from when I started, and it’s hard to survive [as an agency] unless you’ve got a big brand behind you.”
And online isn’t the only answer, says Bradley, because some of the outfits are simply too small and too inexperienced in the ways of the industry for her to profitably work with. That’s not snobbery: it’s a simple equation of effort expended and income received.
“Some of the [online retailers] are very small, and we impose minimums for our brands; we have to. You have to work 10 times harder for the same results now.”
Part of the issue Bradley has with some online retailers is something that affects every part of the business, from indies to manufacturers: the rise of the short order, something that can turn into a nightmare for small companies without the continuity stock to satisfy their more demanding retailers.
“The biggest change for me is that I used to work season to season: I had the loyalty of every brand, and we still are very fortunate that, because I’ve been around so long, people do respect us and we are very professional the way we run our company.
“But the change is you used to get your orders, they were substantial orders, and then you wouldn’t see the buyers till next season. Now they give you the minimum order and then phone up throughout the season asking for more, so they’re buying small amounts… It’s difficult. Sometimes things are sold out, sometimes things are not available, they’re discontinued, and you lose out on the continuity, because they sell the stock and then they’ve got nothing left.”
Osborne joins in: “We’re not distributors so we hold no stock in the UK,” she explains. “We have stock coming directly from Miami. It’s got to get through customs, and it’s not going to turn around fast enough. I can’t get over these drop shipments, where they put pictures of the stock on the website, and if somebody buys a bra, then they’ll place the order. We’ve been approached by some very small websites who want to put your entire range on the website and not commit to any stock.”
It’s not that Bradley and Osborne are not sympathetic. “Rates and rents of shops are astronomical, people are very nervous, and the press are absolutely killing trade, and the shops are closing down. The media does have a huge effect in talking down the economy,” says Bradley. “But it’s not all doom and gloom. As an agency we sell very well on all the brands. We’ve got niche brands. I don’t think there’s much of a competition for them.
“But there are hardly any new customers coming at the fair. I saw customers here that I started with maybe 20 years ago and haven’t seen for maybe four, five years, and they’ve come back and bought the original brands that they used to buy from me, but in a very different way. They trust us. So they may try others and get let down with sales, but we are so meticulous in the way we operate.”
The changes in the industry are not merely mechanical or economic, though: for Bradley and Osborne there is one serious trend that plays well with the brands the agency already stocks.
“What we found in Paris, and this is very important…”
She pauses. “I am a lingerie agency, that’s how I started. We then began to call ourselves more of a lifestyle agency, because you’ve got things that are a little bit more like pyjamas or loungewear, that you could sit watching TV in – not those old-fashioned ones, but Princesse Tam.Tam, patterned bottoms and a T-shirt… And the latest Princesse Tam.Tam collection has gone very fashion forward, and it’s almost becoming a fashion house with lingerie. That’s what’s switching for us, and that’s why we attended Pure.
“A lot of that knitwear is crossing with a pyjama. There are extra pieces that our customers are happy to see, because they can grab another customer who comes in maybe for bra and panties, who’ll say, ‘Oh, I need that cardigan, I can put that with my jeans’. So we are finding new customers who are interested in fashion pieces. And that is the biggest change I’ve seen. Across the board. Even with Laurence Tavernier.
“So what’s happening for us, and I’m pleased because we love fashion in the agency, is that we’re managing now to have extra pieces, little pieces, you could wear that with a T-shirt, or in the office.”
For Osborne, the reason is simple: f you’re going to spend a hefty wedge on some luxury lingerie or nightwear, you can get your head round it psychologically if it’s multi-purpose. And with pieces such as the Olivia von Halle silk pyjamas, it’s no stretch to imagine wearing them out and about.
“The ponchos from Laurence Tavernier, if you can wear it as a bedjacket, or wear it to the opera, or wear it to travel on a 12-hour flight, and it’s got more than one use, then that’s what the customer is looking for. With the Olivia von Halle, that’s a pyjama that’s retailing at £330, but we’ve got girls who wear them out as sets, or they just wear them as shirts, and it’s very smart, on-trend look.”
It’s an exciting way of looking at lingerie and nightwear, one that is beginning to reach across an industry that has rarely put fashion at the forefront of its designs, and for all her realism about the state of the trade, Bradley is delighted about this development.
“That’s our strength here,” she says. “The agency is about fashionable women who wear fashionable nightwear.”