DB Apparel UK general manager Paul Devin talks exclusively to Kat Slowe about the group’s latest innovations, those sale rumours and his plans to launch a new brand in the UK.
School was not easy for Paul Devin. “‘What does your dad do?’ ‘Well, he sells bras’,” mimics the general manager of DB Apparel UK, the umbrella company for well known lingerie brands Wonderbra, Shock Absorber and Playtex.
Devin comes from what could only be described as a unique family. His father worked in the intimate apparel industry for 42 years. He spent 20 of these working for Playtex and a further 22 at Gossard. One of Devin’s brothers is the UK sales manager for Lejaby and another, formerly an employee of Eveden, currently runs DBA’s Scottish territory.
“So, there are four of us in the industry," says Devin. “I was the last one to go into the industry and I have been in the industry for 16 years…. At one point, we all lived in the same village outside Edinburgh and we were all reps, covering different parts of Scotland with four different brands. So, I have got brilliant memories of bumping into each other on various calls or congregating back at my father’s house on a Friday evening and having a beer, and swapping a few tales. It was competitive, but we would never share or discuss anything. There was almost, like, an unwritten code.
“One of the funniest sights was when we all set off to Harrogate, to the trade show, one year, in four different cars from the same village. You used to have situation where the guys would all be in one room chatting about bras and the women would be in another room talking about football.”
Devin took over as general manger of DB Apparel just three years ago and, since he took the helm, the company’s transformation has been remarkable. Not only has the company seen high double digit growth year on year, a huge achievement in the current economic climate, but it has also posted some of the highest results of any European branch. In terms of product, the period has seen the launch of future classics such as Wonderbra’s Ultimate Strapless, Shock Absorber’s RUN bra and Playtex’s Tonique Contour.
“On Shock Absorber, we are by far the number one sports bra brand,” says Devin. “On Wonderbra, we are the most recognised and have the highest market share out of the cleavage brands. And, on Playtex, we have worked to really nail the consumer position and unashamedly go after the 45 to 50 year old woman plus, and to decide what she wants. We have worked to produce a product that she loves, to give her great prices, as well, and then spend a significant amount of media money shouting about it.”
So, how did he do it? According to Devin, the trick is to invest in people. “I was always a great believer in employing people who are better than you and I think that I have ticked that box,” reveals Devin.
One of Devin’s first actions after arriving in his new office was to galvanise DBA’s core team and to simplify the company’s strategy for the rest of its employees. This entailed painting out a vision of what he wanted the company to be and condensing it down to a sheet of A4.
“It is the hardest thing I have to do, each year,” asserts the GM.
Devin then ensured that every single DBA UK employee, whether they worked in one of the company’s outlet stores, on reception, in the warehouse, or in the customer services department, would receive a one to one briefing from the directors on an annual basis. The meetings lay out the company strategy, the goals it is trying to achieve and how the individual employee can play their part.
“I think that kind of buy in from the employees gave us some momentum,” says Devin. “And, that is what I really tried to set out to do, to change the culture of the organisation so that we could maximise the potential of the brands and the people. We are halfway there.”
This year is set to be one of the most busy periods for DB Apparel to date, with significant launches on all three of its lingerie brands.
Wonderbra will see the launch of a new Natural Cleavage product. It is designed as the first push up bra to give a ‘Wonderbra effect,’ without padding. Natural Cleavage will also provide Wonderbra with the opportunity to broaden its collection, adding another layer of innovation, as well as a series of fashion elements, such as additonal colours and, potentially, some prints.
The concept was born out of ‘hours and hours, and months and months’ of research into who Wonderbra’s target consumers are, who is buying the product, who could buy it and isn’t, and the reasons why. “The idea is that we can give the consumer choice,” explains Devin.
“It is not just the traditional three part cup, push together with a gate back that was the signature of the brand when it launched. I think that was great for the consumer at that time, but they want more.”
For SS13, sports underwear brand Shock Absorber also has an exciting new development, called the GYM bra. DB Apparel has recent put a lot of work into updating Shock Absorber, in terms of re-designing the brand logo, introducing new colours and expanding the product range. Most recently, it launched the Dry Advantage bra, which is currently available to purchase in stores. The new GYM bra, which will be available from next year acts as a ‘work out buddy’ to Shock Absorber’s popular RUN product.
It has all the design cues, innovation and technical specification of the RUN bra, but has been specifically designed and tested for those who attend multi-purpose workouts, the gym, bootcamps or any type of team sports.
DBA will be looking to support the new launches with a series of new media campaigns over the coming year. Devin considers it important to back new products heavily with media, a process that he is confident in thanks to the company’s rigorous research and testing procedures.
“It is a process that has worked well for us,” Devin says. “It worked well for us on Ultimate strapless. It worked very, very well for us on the RUN bra and also worked incredibly well for us on Tonique Contour.”
Out of all of DBA’s brands, Playtex has perhaps changed the most significantly since Devin took on the role of boss and, over the past three years, its somewhat out of date image has been transformed. Devin’s initial move was to use the media to speak to retailers and explain how the brand was relevant to them. The next step was to give them a product that could change a few more misconceptions and get more people buying into the brand. This was Tonique Contour.
“We started this journey saying we actually believe the biggest potential we have got is in Playtex," says Devin. “Bare in mind, this is at a time when we were delivering the RUN bra and we were delivering the Ultimate Strapless, which were two big innovations and two big blockbuster styles for the retailers. We started the conversation then and there were a few raised eyebrows.”
Playtex deliberately brought out Tonique Contour as a relatively ‘plain’ product. The intention was to ‘ease it into the lingerie draw’ of the 50 plus consumer, thereby introducing innovation into this demographic. With that goal having been achieved, Playtex has layered on some lace overlay and some ‘more interesting’ colours for SS13, with a number of fashion colours also planned for further down the line.
DB Apparel distributes just the three brands in the UK, but owns 15 brands across Europe in the segments of lingerie, hosiery and men’s underwear. With the UK branch’s current high performance, Devin is now considering expanding the national portfolio.
“Here, in the UK, we focus on three brands in one category and we are constantly thinking ‘okay, well what else can we bring to the market?’” he says. “Can we look at other brands that are the market leaders in Italy, France, Spain, Germany and would they translate to the UK market? If so, how do we do it?”
Devin is interested in entering both the hosiery and the men’s underwear markets, each of which – despite the challenges – he considers has a strong degree of potential. Yet, while he eventually aims to be present in all three segments, the first brand that he is looking to introduce lies within the sector he knows best, lingerie.
“We have the Lovable brand in Italy,” Devin says, “which is the branded market leader in Italy. And, we will be launching an exclusive trial in John Lewis, this month, to ascertain whether there is an appetite for this product in the UK market.
“If that works, then obviously we will look to role that out to selected points of distribution.”
These are not the only exciting new developments to be taking place at DB Apparel. The intimate industry was set abuzz, last month, after a series of rumours arose that the group was being put up for sale by private equity owner Sun Capital. Devin does not deny that there is an element of truth behind the claims, but says that a sale is only one of a series of options that are being considered.
“Our group’s shareholder, Sun Capital is considering a possible sale of the company, which is consistent with their long term strategy as a financial company,” he says.
While the sale of the company remains uncertain, one thing is transparently clear. With sales figures up, a series of exciting, new product innovations set to launch for the SS13 season and a new brand launch in the pipeline, it looks likely that the sun will be shining on DB Apparel UK’s future.