June Kenton, the venerable director of upmarket lingerie retailer Rigby & Peller and corsetiere to the Queen, looks back on her career and talks to Sarah Blackman about her hopes for the company now that it has a new investment partner.
When Belgian brand Van de Velde bought a majority stake in royal corset maker Rigby & Peller in 2011, the queen of lingerie, June Kenton, wasn’t about to step down from her throne.
After 51 years in the industry with her husband Harold by her side, Mrs Kenton wanted to make sure the company she purchased for £20,000 in 1982 stayed true to her values.
But she isn’t clinging on to the past, far from it. June Kenton is welcoming the idea of Rigby & Peller, a company steeped in English heritage, becoming a world-wide destination retailer thanks to its new international partner, and is embracing the “Aladdin’s cave”, as she describes it, that the lingerie industry has become in recent years.
Mr and Mrs Kenton were engaged to be married when they first stepped into the retail business, selling blouses, skirts and knitwear in London’s Brixton market.
“We froze to death, we were so cold,” Mrs Kenton reminisces, now a million miles away from those days as she sits comfortably in Rigby & Peller’s Guildford store as it celebrates its 1st year anniversary.
“It was the winter of 62 or 63 and the snow didn’t leave the streets until you got to March. But the Jamaicans were coming over and they wanted all our knitwear and it was brilliant.”
The Kentons opened a second store in Croydon, but it wasn’t long before they sold up shop. “We weren’t doing what we wanted to do and that was to own a shop where we did proper fittings,” explains Mrs Kenton.
“And so in 1970 the Whiteley centre opened in Croydon. My mother was furious when she heard we were opening in a centre because high streets were the main thing, but of course, we know from hindsight how brilliant centres are,” Mrs Kenton explains.
“We did extremely well and we called ourselves Contour because we couldn’t think of anything else!”
In 1977, June and her husband decided to take their fitting services to central London. “We were in Knightsbridge and we saw a little lingerie shop alongside Harrods. We asked the owners of the shop if they wanted to retire. How cheeky is that? I thought they were old because I was young,” she laughs. “And they just said: ‘Of course we want to retire.’”
The shop on Hans Road became the Kentons’ second Contour shop. Then, in 1982, they bought Rigby & Peller on South Molton Street. “And we haven’t looked back since,” says Mrs Kenton, adding, “It’s been brilliant because we haven’t deviated.”
Indeed, Mrs Kenton, now 77, and her husband have always stuck to what they know, and what they know is good customer service and proper fittings. Since the couple bought the store, Rigby & Peller has fitted everybody from Margaret Thatcher and Cherie Blair to Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow, but Mrs Kenton’s most treasured customer is the Queen.
Rigby & Peller began providing bespoke undergarments to the Queen in 1960, but the Royal Warrant didn’t automatically pass to the Kentons on buying the company; Mrs Kenton had to earn it.
In 1982, she was summoned to Buckingham Palace and was ordered to demonstrate her bra-fitting skills.
“It was very nerve wracking,” recalls Mrs Kenton. “Can you imagine my first visit? I had nothing more to say except ‘hello Your Majesty’.”
“You wouldn’t be normal if you weren’t nervous visiting the Queen. She’s wonderful. I mean, don’t you think she’s amazing? And she’s got George now,” she says with a smile.
Asked if she still visits the Royal Family she adds: “I still have the Royal Warrant, put it that way.”
But it’s not just down to working with a celebrity clientele that drives Mrs Kenton’s passion for fitting and the lingerie industry as a whole, but her ambition to change lives.
“If you’re not wearing the right bra then you’re not making the most of yourself. Also, it can cause health problems,” says Mrs Kenton.
“We’ve had women come in with neck problems, back problems…we’ve even cured headaches.”
“But how good is it to be in a business where somebody is giving you some money and they say ‘you’ve changed my life’? Where else in the retail business would you hear that?”
Mrs Kenton admits that over the years she has developed a habit of looking at women’s breasts to check for ill-fitting underwear. “I’m always looking at somebody’s bosoms. It gets on my wick because I’ve got her bosoms here [actual bosoms], bosoms here [above the bosom] and two more under her arms!” she explains. “This really isn’t necessary and it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
She believes that women’s minds were programmed to get a fitting when they bought their bras 50 to 60 years ago. Now, however, it is estimated that 85% of women are wearing the wrong bra.
“When bras became more plentiful, Marks & Spencer opened a department where there were acres of bras. Suddenly, women were seeing all the different styles and colours,” Mrs Kenton says.
“So the other stores thought ‘why do I need to have 17 fitting rooms and 16 fitters? People are just picking up bras and buying them’. Then Selfridges started to sell acres of bras too. That’s when fitting went pear-shaped.”
Mrs Kenton believes that the mistake most women make is buying a bra that is too big around the back and too small in the cup.
“When you start to develop your mum puts you in a 32 back and when you say your bra doesn’t fit you anymore, she puts you in a 34. She doesn’t go up in cups, she goes up in sizes,” she explains.
Fitting women with swimwear is also highly important to the Kentons.
“I don’t care who you are, buying swimwear is very difficult. There is all sorts of swimwear. How are you supposed to know what fits you?”
“Also [when you wear a swimsuit] you are exposing yourself to the pool, which can be mighty disgusting because most women are exhibiting themselves in something they can’t even begin to think fits them,” a straight-talking Mrs Kenton says, with a disgusted look on her face.
It’s clear to see why Mrs Kenton and her husband wanted to stay close to Rigby & Peller, even after accepting £8 million for the company from PrimaDonna bra designer Van de Velde.
“Even though we no longer own it – although we still own a little part of it – it’s important to me to be doing a good job.”
For the Kentons, it’s business as usual. They are still directors of the business and Mrs Kenton even flies around the world to open new Rigby & Peller stores. “I opened two Rigby & Peller stores in Hong Kong in April. They belong to Van de Velde, but they are expanding the brand, which is brilliant,” she says.
Looking at the lingerie industry as it stands today, Mrs Kenton is content. Even with all its faults as far as fitting is concerned, she says it’s never been more “magical”.
“I remember when there was hardly anything to choose from and now it’s like an Aladdin’s cave. Look at the colours!,” she says, pointing to the collection of bras on sale in the Guildford boutique.
“We used to have white, maybe black and maybe skin tone. That was it. Now, you can get every colour under the sun and if your strap shows, how gorgeous is that?”