In her first interview as Ultimo managing director, Petra Drali reflects on 12 months in the role and explains how she has helped grow the brand’s wholesale and retail arms by conducting in-depth consumer research.

One year into her role as managing director of Ultimo, Petra Drali seems confident and content.

It’s been a rollercoaster 12 months for the business, what with the departure of founder Michelle Mone, the takeover from Sri Lanka-based lingerie group MAS Holdings, which now owns an 80% stake in the business, and the launch of its retail arm, complete with concessions in House of Fraser and Debenhams.

But Drali has led Ultimo through its twists and turns and is now hoping for a smooth ride ahead as the company celebrates its 20th anniversary.

Story continues below

Industry experience

Petra Drali joined Ultimo as commercial director in October 2014, one month before the MAS Holdings takeover, and was promoted to managing director in
May 2015.

She brings with her 18 years of retail and wholesale experience, having previously held management positions at Kurt Geiger, Godiva Chocolatier, Crabtree & Evelyn, Molton Brown and Christian Dior in the UK, and French cosmetics house Guerlain in the US.

Born in Finland, Drali moved to the states in the early 90s, where she studied fashion, merchandising and marketing at Florida’s Palm Beach State College, before gaining an internship at Saks Fifth Avenue.

“That was my first exposure to luxury and fashion,” Drali reflects. “I got the opportunity to meet Oscar de la Renta and all these wonderful designers.”

From there, she joined Guerlain, which was just about to be bought by LVMH, and managed its Palm Beach boutique at the Breakers Hotel before transferring with the brand to London in 2000.

After working for a number of fashion, food and beauty brands in the UK, Drali decided to expand her horizons.

“I looked back and thought, ‘I have all this experience from all these fabulous brands and different countries, but how can I bring this all together and what should I be doing next?’ That’s when the opportunity came up to work with Ultimo,” says Drali.

“If you look at my background you’ll find that I have worked with all the girls’ favourite things; make-up, body products, handbags, shoes and chocolate, and lingerie was the final thing that I wanted to get experience on.

“I have a passion for lingerie, but also a passion for products that are bought by women.”

Scrapping the celebrity

Over the last 12 months, Drali has been getting to know the Ultimo customer, and is currently setting the strategy for long-term business growth based on their needs.

She commissioned Laws of Attraction to carry out a study in conjunction with Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a leading consumer psychologist at University College London. They undertook in-depth research that included traditional and psychological analysis.

“I wanted to get under the skin of our customer to really understand who she is and what drives her to buy Ultimo. I also wanted an in-depth analysis into the UK lingerie market, to look at current buying behaviours and uncover opportunities and threats for the Ultimo brand,” says Drali.

One of the key findings from the research was that the use of celebrity model was no longer helping to promote the brand’s products. Ultimo has previously enlisted Melanie Sykes, Abbey Clancy and Petra Němcová to front the label.

“People were remembering the celebrity but not what she was wearing – and the Ultimo brand has so much more depth and innovation within it that was being lost behind the focus of the celebrity,” Drali explains.

“Our change of strategy and the subsequent use of an unknown model now gives the products centre stage and allows them, and the brand messages of Ultimo, to shine through.”

Story continues below

Product development

Consumer research has also helped with product development, resulting in new ranges, sizes and an improved fit.

“We always had a good fit and that’s what we heard from the feedback, but in the times we live in, people are looking to feel more comfortable,” says Drali.

“Also, the average size of a woman in the UK has changed in the past 20 years. So we started expanding into DD+ sizes in the last 18 months, most recently with our bridal collection,” she adds.

Ultimo is still known for its cleavage-enhancing lingerie and Drali is keen to continue down this route in order to keep existing customers happy, but she’s also recruited new customers by focusing the brand’s attention on everyday solutions.

“In terms of the core DNA of the brand, it’s always been about solutions – solutions for everyday, not just for special occasions,” says Drali.

In October, Ultimo launched what it called a market first for the lingerie industry: a bra that fastens on the side to create a perfectly seamless back.

The company said the new invention represents a “lingerie solution with a fashion twist” as it means women no longer have to worry about fastening the back and leaving a bra hook showing.

The ‘Jasmine Side Hook’ bra is aimed at those looking for a clean line and smoother silhouette, with the hidden side-hook fastening set in delicate scalloped lace.

Ultimo has also added two new shapewear collections to its SS16 offering.

Available in sleek black, the Signature collection is designed to offer smoothing and light control. It features a body, super high brief and skort in a lightweight, breathable fabric.

The Contour collection, made up of a slip, half slip and super high Brazilian brief in soft pink, gives the wearer medium control and features soft fabrics that combine flat seaming techniques for comfort and invisibility under clothes.

Also under Drali’s leadership, the brand has branched out into fashion accessories. These include lace cover-ups that are designed to be worn over a bra, camisoles, garters, crop tops and bralettes, some of which were featured under three key looks at the AW16 House of Holland catwalk show during London Fashion Week in February.

Designer Henry Holland selected Ultimo lingerie as its catwalk show partner after noticing a synergy between new Ultimo bralettes and his forecasted trends for AW16.

“It was amazing to support a fellow British brand at London Fashion Week, especially one that is so firmly established on the international fashion circuit and who shares a similar interest in producing fashion-forward designs that women can wear with confidence,” says Drali.

“Lingerie is going through a very exciting trend where it is worn to be seen, so this has played nicely into our hands,” she adds.

Ultimo plans to showcase these new products at The Lingerie Edit in July, with the aim of attracting new stockists.

“We have a great bunch of wholesale customers, including ASOS, Shop Direct and Next. We’ve had these relationships for many years and they’re going from strength to strength,” says Drali.

“So we don’t have a hit list as such, but it would be great for the retailers that we don’t work with to see how Ultimo has moved on and what we’ve been up to in the last 18 months,” she explains.

“For us, I think it is an opportunity to showcase how the product and the new categories have come along.”

Ultimo concessions

Retail has been a huge growth area for Ultimo in the last two years.

Before MAS Holdings acquired a majority share in the company in November 2014, Ultimo was very much a wholesale and private label business.

Now, private label has been scrapped and Ultimo has a retail arm that makes up 60% of the business.

The brand’s first shop-in-shop concept opened at House of Fraser in Glasgow in October 2014 and today, Ultimo has 11 concessions dotted around Britain, both in House of Fraser and Debenhams stores, with plans to roll out four more by the end of 2016.

The concessions are staffed with Ultimo consultants and showcase the brand’s full product offering, including lingerie, bridal, swimwear, solutions and accessories.

The aim is to reinvent lingerie shopping as an enjoyable experience.

“Coming from outside of the industry, shopping for lingerie wasn’t on the top of my list of things to do on a Saturday and I think most consumers feel the same way,” Drali says.

“So we want to make sure that all women, when they do make the effort to look for new lingerie, feel excited when they visit one of our stores.

“We have fantastic brand ambassadors who provide a personal experience to each customer in each of our locations,” Drali continues.

“They offer lingerie styling rather than lingerie fitting, so they ask them what outfits they wear during the week and what their needs are, rather than selling them the latest product.”

Based on Ultimo’s consumer research, the brand has also tailored its product offering to suit different demographics.

“We’ve been trading for a while now, so we pretty much know our customer in each location,” says Drali. “So what sells at Debenhams in Liverpool doesn’t necessarily sell at House of Fraser on Oxford Street.”
Ultimo has promoted these concessions through various activities and events.

In April, the brand teamed up with a yoga studio in Glasgow to attract customers to its House of Fraser shop-in-shop.

“As this year’s theme is Shape Your World, women wearing Ultimo lingerie and T-shirts were making different shapes with their bodies on Buchanan Street. It was fantastic. Women of all ages got involved.”

Growing ecommerce

In terms of ecommerce, Ultimo has been working hard to meet customer expectations over the last 12 months and continues to do so.

“It’s all about constantly improving our service and keeping up with today’s customer demands,” explains Drali.

“They want things now – quickly and perfectly. So that’s what we need to keep in mind.”

Drali admits that the two major challenges that Ultimo, and indeed any lingerie brand, will face going forward are fulfilling customer demands and innovating with new technologies.

“Those are the factors that will determine the success of any brand or retailer,” she says.

“Retail Week recently reported that ASOS is leading the way in customer service and satisfaction. ASOS has a policy whereby if you send them an email enquiry then they will respond to you within one hour, and if you send them an enquiry through social media, they will respond to you in 15 minutes. If you leave a message over the phone, they will call you back in 30 seconds,” explains Drali.

“So, if that’s the new standard, I think we all need to raise our game a bit. You can’t get away from that kind of technology; you have to embrace it, but that’s the challenge.”