In an exclusive interview with Lingerie Insight, Bordelle founder Alexandra Popa explains how her directional lingerie collections have become everyday fashion statements.
Bordelle made its mark on the fashion sector when it introduced a groundbreaking concept in women’s lingerie and bodywear almost 10 years ago.
Toying with themes of seduction and domination, its unique collection, made up of body-con silhouettes featuring 24 carat gold-plated hardware and customised satin elastic bands, was one of the first modern-day examples of how underwear can be transformed into outerwear.
This concept took consumers by storm and in 2009, Bordelle’s bondage inspired girdle dresses sold out at Selfridge’s Oxford Street flagship in just 24 hours.
It wasn’t long before celebrity stylists began dressing their A-list clients, from Cara Delevigne to Madonna, in the brand’s signature styles for fashion shoots and music videos and Bordelle became the designer label to be seen in.
And this wasn’t some fleeting trend; Bordelle is now one of the only lingerie brands to be stocked alongside ready-to-wear labels in handpicked department stores, fashion concept stores and specialist boutiques in over 20 countries worldwide.
In the last 12 months alone, revenue has soared 40% – the biggest growth Bordelle has witnessed in almost four years.
One of the drivers behind this growth is the expansion of Bordelle’s product offering.
“We have more than doubled our collections in terms of the number of styles and also in terms of the sizes that we offer,” says founder Alexandra Popa.
“All of our pieces are adjustable, so some of our bras can be adjusted by up to 15-20cm, but what we have found is that there was still a demand for additional sizing because obviously the cup is fixed,” she explains.
“What is interesting with the Bordelle designs, which is very difficult to explain to clients, is because of the unique nature of the designs, they can’t always be adapted to either very small or very large sizes. So what we have done is add two additional sizes – SS and LL. We started out with small, medium and large.
“The SS is targeted towards our growth in Asia and LL for Europe and the states. It’s been a very big project and it’s taken almost two years to complete.”
Bordelle has also introduced new product categories, including a bridal range for the unconventional bride and a swimwear capsule range, and added softer, feminine fabrics to the collection, whilst remaining true to its unmistakable signature style.
The Cabaret triangle bra, for example, features soft mesh cups and directional strapping, and the Sensu bodice bra combines elastic panels with Swiss embroidered tulle.
“I wanted to maintain the DNA of the brand throughout the seasons,” says Popa.
“There are so many brands out there that are essentially doing the same thing and it’s difficult now to look at a product and say ‘this is this brand’. So I wanted to maintain that identity so when people see the product they know instantly that it’s Bordelle.”
The Bordelle team has also grown; the brand now has a fully functioning studio on London’s Exmoor Street, where seamstresses develop made-to-measure and bespoke pieces.
“We make all of our samples in house still and we fit everything in house,” states Popa.
Underwear as outerwear
Perhaps the biggest driver of growth has been the continued widespread demand for directional lingerie styles that can be styled as outerwear.
“Gradually, over the years, [the bodycon/strappy look] has become a commercial concept,” says Popa.
“It’s just like how you always have lacy bras and you always have your nude comfortable bra – it’s just another concept. Its directional fashion lingerie that you can mix in with your ready-to-wear wardrobe,” she explains.
“On our website, we suggest how customers can wear certain lingerie styles. So if it is a long-line bodice bra with a strappy back, for example, we would advice on how our customers can style it with outerwear.”
So how does Bordelle maintain its identity whilst keeping the brand fresh?
“I always worry that one day I am going to run out of ideas!” says Popa, laughing. “I actually work best when I’m under pressure,” she adds.
Popa is not a trained designer – she studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science before establishing Bordelle in 2007 – and admits that she doesn’t adapt ideas from technical drawings.
Instead, she gains inspiration from different cultures or artists.
“The way that I work, because I’ve never been trained, is that I pick a theme. So I think of a person like an artist or someone I find inspiring and develop a theme around them,” she explains.
“So right now we are working on AW17/18 and the main theme is the life and work of Tamara de Lempicka,” Popa reveals.
“For the AW16 season, we looked at Japan and developed a guipure embroidery piece, which was based on Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. We took that print and developed it with guipure.
“We then linked this theme to bondage, so we looked at Kinbaku, which is an ancient Japanese artistic form of rope bondage. We also looked at Japanese photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki,” she continues.
“So this is normally how the inspiration starts and then I allocate certain tasks – research, technical developments, design developments etc – to my team because a lot of the things that I want to come up with don’t always work technically. Obviously, I also have to manage the business and look after social media and marketing.”
Online versus wholesale
Bordelle has witnessed a revenue growth of 40% in the last 12 months, with online sales climbing 72% after relaunching its ecommerce site this time last year.
The brand recruited Alchemy Digital to create the new website, which offers the complete Bordelle collection and a made-to-measure service.
And it’s currently working another revamp, with a new and improved website set to launch this month alongside its SS17 collection.
“Initially, online only made up 10% to 15% of the total business,” Popa recalls.
“Now, it’s growing every month and even we didn’t expect that it would grow as much as it has,” she enthuses.
“What’s really shocking is that we were looking at the returns rate for online and over the last 12 months and our refund rate is only 5%, which is really small for this industry. So we must be doing something right.”
The wholesale side of the business has grown between 20% to 25% over the same period, with the strongest growth coming from Germany, the Middle East and the US markets.
“We’ve signed up to the KaDeWe Group, which operates the top department stores in Germany, including Alsterhaus and KaDeWe,” she says.
“We’re being contacted all the time about new projects in the Middle East because I think luxury lingerie is an area that is under developed in the region. They have La Perla and a franchise of Agent Provocateur, but there’s not much else there to compete with,” she explains.
“We have several partners that we are in discussions with now. They are the big luxury groups and they basically bring all the big brands to the area, whether it’s through opening a shop or licensing. So this is something that we are seriously considering, but it’s a very big project so it would be something that’s a lot further down the line, but it’s in the works.”
In the UK, key clients include Selfridges and Coco de Mer, both of which have achieved good sales for Bordelle. But Popa admits that her brand is yet to gain new stockists in Britain.
“It might be to do with the fact that we haven’t promoted it so much here,” she says.
However, all this could be about to change when Bordelle takes on a new wholesale manager this month.
“We haven’t had someone focus solely on wholesale and sales for quite a while, so given that there has been no intensive push in that area and we’ve grown so much, it’s sort of an indication that if we have someone doing it as a full-time job, we could be growing a lot more on the wholesale side,” Popa reveals.