Ahead of Maison Lejaby’s 130th anniversary fashion show in May, Lingerie Insight’s Sarah Blackman visited the brand’s lingerie house in Lyon to get a glimpse of the luxury showpieces and discover first-hand how far the brand has come since being rescued from the brink of closure.
Two months ago, I was invited to visit Maison Lejaby’s lingerie house in Lyon, France.
There, the brand was in the midst of preparing to host a spectacular show at the Lido in Paris, and I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at the finishing touches being applied to the showpieces designed especially for the event.
One showpiece – a Swarovski-encrusted tutu designed by former Paris opera ballet dancer Agnès Letestu – required 150 hours of work.
It was important that the garments were perfect, not only because the show would mark Maison Lejaby’s 130th anniversary, but it would cement the brand’s savoir-faire and return to the spirit of French couture.
During my visit to Lyon, I discovered how Maison Lejaby had come full circle – re-establishing itself as a pioneer in luxury lingerie after five-year struggle.
Upon my arrival at Maison Lejaby, I was taken through to the vast workshop, where lingerie collections come to life over 18 months, from initial drawings to modelism, styling and production.
There, studio director Colette Candela was waiting to talk me through the evolution of the brand.
She proudly explained to me that Maison Lejaby, formerly Lejaby, is a company of firsts. Established in 1884, the brand started its journey by making underwear for men, women and children.
Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the label introduced the world’s first line of swimwear under the name Rasurel. “There was no other brand that had designed swimwear [at that time] because nobody went to the beach to the swim,” she said.
Later, in 1930, Lejaby designed its first bra. “This was very early because the bra was only invented at the end of the 1920s,” she said, as she handed me one of Lejaby’s first creations – a beautiful non-wired garment made with satin cups that sat under the breasts.
“The bra was made only to support the breasts and not to cover the breasts,” the French designer explained. “Also, it was important that nobody saw that the woman had something to cover – to be au naturel. It’s not a sexy bra.”
I point out that the open-cup garment could be viewed as a sexy bra in today’s society, to which she responded: “Yes, but at this time it was not. Before [women] only had a corset, which compressed the breasts, but this bra was created during the women’s rights movement so they didn’t want it to hide the breasts.”
Over the next three decades, the 1950’s bullet bra was launched to popular demand, Lejaby and other lingerie brands began to introduce elastic and latex into their bras, and the underwire was invented.
Then, in the 1972, Lejaby gained exclusive rights to use Lycra in its bras. “The owner negotiated it,” said Candela. “There were also more colours from this moment. The bra came in six colours – it was all very new.”
Fast forward to 1995 and the brand proved itself once again to be a lingerie pioneer, launching the world’s first seamless bra, the Nuage.
“This was a big success and afterwards everybody copied it,” enthused Candela. “Today it is always in our collection and I think it’s a very important range today. We have sold around 15 million pieces to date.”
A company veteran, Candela has been working for Maison Lejaby for more than 40 years. Directing the design team and working across all stages of production, she is in her element. But this wasn’t always the case.
The dark years
With the acquisition of Lejaby by Warnaco in 1996 and then Palmers in 2008, financial management took precedence over creativity and the dark years set in. The two entities became one, Lejaby lost its soul and loyal customers turned away.
“Warnaco is very big company and it was more difficult to have our place because in a very big company the creativity is not the most important thing and we were restricted in terms of lingerie design,” reflects Candela.
“In 2008 it became more difficult because there were financial people and it was impossible to design something interesting because the most important thing for them was the financial side.
“The product was not interesting to them and they decided to go to China to choose very simple fabric and produce everything in there. They also decided that I would no longer work on styling, only technical development. They gave the styling to the marketing people. So between 2008 and 2011 it was difficult for me.”
So why did Candela decide to continue working for a company that held her back from exploring her passions?
“[Lejaby] was my baby,” she explained, with a smile. “Today, I have been working for Lejaby for 44 years and it was difficult for me to let it go.”
When Lejaby was put into judicial administration by a Lyon court in October 2011, the brand had six months to look for a buyer and prepare a recovery plan.
During that period, staff at Lejaby’s Lyon factory staged a demonstration, urging the company not to shut down the operation or relocate their work to any future buyer of the business.
Commercial director Stephane Joannes told French media at the time: “We must keep these jobs in France, otherwise we will eventually see all manufacturing move to China and our skills will be lost forever.”
Lejaby workers were scared for their future, but, in January 2012, a consortium led by the former CEO of La Perla and general manager at Chantelle, Alain Prost, came to the rescue.
The consortium outbid French nightwear specialist Canat to the reins and was handed the business by the Court of Lyon.
But Lejaby’s troubles weren’t over yet; as soon as Prost stepped in as CEO, he had a race against time not only to revive the brand, but instil confidence back into its workers and convince buyers to give the label another chance at supplying the luxury lingerie it was once renowned for.
Road to recovery
After talking with his studio director, Prost took me on a tour around his factory, and I found it hard to believe that Lejaby – now renamed Maison Lejaby – ever produced garments in China.
On one side of the workshop, an modelist was breaking down original drawings into 50 bra components on a computer. These pieces were then used as a template for cutting fabrics sourced entirely from Europe, including Calais lace and silk, at the other end of the workshop.
“The fabrics are high quality and nothing comes from Asia and, at the end, that is what is building our French couture spirit,” said Prost.
After taking the reins of Maison Lejaby, Prost immediately pulled back production from China, and today, all prototypes are designed and made in Lyon. The brand also has a factory in Tunisia, owned by company shareholder of 30 years, Isalys.
Maison Lejaby now has three collections; Maison Lejaby Premium, the brand’s main collection of affordable corsetry and swimwear; the Couture collection, consisting of high-end lingerie, swimwear and ready-to-wear; and Elixir, a seductive large-cup collection that was relaunched in February 2012, four years after Palmers shut it down. Today, the Elixir range contributes to 30% of Maison Lejaby’s turnover, while Couture contributes to 10% of the brand’s earnings, with huge growth expected in the coming years.
“What makes us stand out from our competitors is that we have a Couture collection like Dior and YSL, prêt a porter and a premium collection.
“Other brands just have haute couture and prêt a porter. Then we have our very selective bespoke garments, which are our PS Unique [unique selling points]. We will present these at Lido,” said Prost, as he showed me a jewel-encrusted body.
Before Prost and his fellow shareholders took over, Lejaby was making €18 million and now the brand is earning €28 million and breaking even. But it took a lot of hard work to achieve this result, the CEO told me as we sat down in his office.
“It was a huge, huge challenge also because the people here were very injured by the difficulties here. They had lost confidence totally and did not believe in a new project, so it was about a long-term engagement from me personally to go to them one on one and give them a little hope and a little more confidence.
“Now, I must say, after two years and a half, mostly all the company is on board so it’s something of which I am really happy.”
But with Lejaby in such an apparent state of disrepair back in 2011, I wondered why Prost decided to take it on. After all, he was the CEO of La Perla at the time and he would have to give that title up. I asked him to divulge.
“It was a combination of personal and professional things,” said Prost. “I have always had the wish to be my own boss and to be a real entrepreneur. So after 20 years [in the cosmetics industry] I went to Chantelle as number two, which was a medium-sized company, but much bigger than Maison Lejaby is today.
“I asked to be a shareholder, but my boss said it wasn’t possible. Then I went to La Perla as CEO, but as a shareholder this time. After three years, the business was not fantastic and so we decided to separate. Then the opportunity came up to take over Lejaby and I said to myself, ‘I’m 50 – it’s now or never’.”
It seemed to onlookers that Prost was taking a huge risk, but the tycoon had every faith that he could turn Lejaby around.
“I knew that the know-how had not left the company, so I could revive it,” explained Prost.
“Also, Lejaby had a good loyalty in Europe and you need a lot of time and investment to create loyalty, so that was a material asset and a positive thing beyond the difficulties known by everybody. I saw that the glass was half full.”
So, with his foot in the door, how did Prost convince retailers to buy back into Maison Lejaby?
“Being a brilliant sales rep!,” he joked. “No, I explained my project and I explained what I wanted to do for the company, so to launch the first French lingerie couture company worldwide and to develop a luxury business.”
“What was really challenging was that we had to deal with Palmers products for 18 months because we needed time to develop a collection, so we had to show very fast that we could do things differently.”
Finally, designers and creators at Lejaby had something to work towards – something to motivate them, and they developed their first Couture collection in just 10 months, before presenting their work at a catwalk show in Paris.
“We wanted to say ‘we’re here and we want to do something differently’. So we have done two catwalks – one in July and one in January – to show the direction,” said Prost.
“Then, we launched the Elixir collection in 10 months and people started to understand where we wanted to go with the beautiful fabrics, French couture spirit and so on. Then in September 2013, the first Maison Lejaby Premium collection went on the market.”
Reasons to celebrate
On the evening of May 27, one week after my visit to Lyon, hundreds of buyers and members of the press flew in from all over Europe to attend Maison Lejaby’ s fashion show at the Lido.
The show took guests through the decades of the brand’s history, crafting each section around key moments including Art Deco, Art Nouveau and the pin up era of the 1950s.
Dancers wore pieces from all three Maison Lejaby collections, as well as the immaculately-finished showpieces created for the event.
Prost said after the show: “Maison Lejaby is at the dawn of a new era and our 130-year anniversary show was the perfect illustration of where we want to go in the future: more fashion, more modernity, more creativity and more sensuality…but, as always, with our French couture spirit.
Looking ahead, Maison Lejaby hopes to expand its collections, launch in new regions like the Middle East and North America, and even open Maison Lejaby shops around the world.
“It will be fantastic to have a partner in London. There are also discussions going on in France, Spain, the Middle East, Russia and other places,” Prost told Lingerie Insight.
“The foundations of Maison Lejaby are stable now and we’re ready to expand on new products in areas like our Couture Collection, which is 100% hand-made, 100% Made in France and includes a bespoke service for the luxury market.”