Lingerie Insight’s Sarah Blackman takes a trip to the village of Belper, Derbyshire to hear first-hand the captivating story behind heritage nightwear brand Slenderella and its connections with Brettles, one of the UK’s oldest textile companies.
Upon my arrival at Belper train station from London’s Kings Cross last month, I was greeted by two friendly faces that I’d come to know during my time in the intimate apparel industry, Slenderella’s Gary and Ashley Spendlove.
It was my first visit to the Derbyshire market town and the father and son duo were only too happy to be my tour guides during the short car journey to their offices in the heart of Derwent Valley.
They recounted the tale of how Belper became one of the world’s first mill towns during the textile revolution, described their proud association with Brettles – one of the UK’s
oldest textile companies – and shared Slenderella’s fascinating connections with the Royal Family and Hollywood legends including Elizabeth Taylor.
The Spendloves also explained that while they extremely proud of their roots, they are not clinging on to the past. Far from it – over the last few seasons, they have been planning to revamp Slenderella’s packaging materials and swing tickets, target a younger audience with its new sister label, Gaspé, and expand the brand with a new retail store.
Brettles of Belper
In the car, we drove by King Street, the main shopping area, which helped Belper win the title of Great British High Street of the Year in 2014 – a great achievement for Gary in particular, who, incidentally, is the Deputy Town Mayor.
We then passed De Bradelei Mill Shop on Chapel Street, once the home of Brettles.
Hosiery and knitwear were major industries in Belper in the late 18th century, the Spendloves tell me. It was about this time that a man named John Ward established a spinning business and was buying yarns from the family of Jedediah Strutt – who, together with Richard Arkwright, had built a water-powered cotton mill in Belper: only the second in the world at that time.
Early in the 19th century, John’s brother William was at the helm of the business and invited George Brettle to help grow the firm. By 1812 the company was employing more than 1,000 staff and even had a London address.
Upon William’s death in 1833, Brettle set up his own business, building a new warehouse on the site occupied since 1994, by the De Bradelei Mill Shop.
“There are a lot of Brettles artefacts in there,” says Gary, as he points to the old mill. “It used to make 1.4 million pairs of tights a week and was Marks & Spencer’s biggest manufacturer.”
Belper’s reputation for the manufacture of hosiery and other cotton goods was known throughout the country – stockings were even supplied to George III and his grand-daughter Queen Victoria.
In 1936, George Brettle & Co. employed 1,500 people in Belper, 500 in London and 60 travellers. However, in 1964, the mill was taken over by Courtaulds and closed 23 years later.
But the Brettles brand still exists today, thanks in part to Gary Spendlove, who first became acquainted with the hosiery giant as a 16-year-old trainee salesman in 1973.
Gary has such strong connections with Brettles that he’s written a book about it – Brettles of Belper – charting the history of the brand, which includes buying the firm off a company called Chilprufe in 2002, which had in turn bought it from Courtaulds six years earlier.
Brettles is now under the Slenderella banner, where Gary is managing director and Ashley is marketing manager.
We arrived on Queen Street, the home of Slenderella’s third wholesale premises since Gary acquired the business in 1997.
The firm was previously located in a small room at the back of the Belper retail shop on Chapel Street before moving onto King Street, allowing warehouse space for 12,000 items of stock. The move to Queen Street was later made to create office space, and by 2003, Slenderella was supplying over 700 customers in the UK with lingerie and nightwear.
Inside the building, the former premises of another historic Belper firm, Flanders Ltd, Gary explained how Slenderella’s history is as compelling as Brettles’.
The company was founded in the 1920’s by Henry Freedman, a successful businessman who overcame many challenges to reach the top. He rose from living in poverty in London’s East End among numerous Jews who had arrived as refugees.
Freedman became a borrow boy, dealing mainly with clothing and fabrics and by 1933, he and his brother Mick were able to set up in business when their brother-in-law Solomon Newman had a win on the Irish Sweepstake.
Newman lent them the money on condition that they traded under the name of S.Newman Ltd. Their first samples were cut out and made up on the kitchen table, which was too small for anything but underwear.
But the business wasn’t always associated with intimate apparel. “It boomed during the Second World War by making uniforms, parachutes and even rubber dingies for air men,” said Gary.
“It then progressed to become a big dressing gown manufacturer mainly based in the North East of England.”
As with Brettles, there are fascinating connections to the Royal Family and other renowned celebrities, according to Gary.
“Slenderella used to make garments for quite famous movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Hedy Lamarr, and garments made by Slenderella were actually worn in Hollywood films like Little Women and Samson and Delilah,” he said.
Sadly, Slenderella went into receivership in the late 1980s, but the Freedman family retained the rights to the brand.
“We spoke to Michael Freedman and he was happy for us to take it on, and we’ve built it up from the late 1990s to the present day,” Gary explained.
“We now export around the world, our site in Belper is nearly 40ft2 and we’re looking to progress.”
On acquisition of Slenderella, the brand had an almost limitless potential for development, which the Spendloves have maximised to great effect, without growing the business to the point where it’s out of their control.
“Our business is big enough to matter, but small enough to care,” said Gary, as we sat down in his office. “Our turnover is actually less than £2 million, while some companies’ are £30, £40 million.
“We had an opportunity a couple of years ago to buy a business with a turnover of £50-something million and we could have taken it over very, very easily, but we were actually a more profitable business.”
The family business, decided to focus on developing classic, quality garments aimed at women aged from 30 to 35 years and upwards.
“So we focused on quality, value for money and developing the brand through independent retailers and small chains,” explained Gary.
Ashley agreed and added: “We’ve kept those core values right through to the present day. We don’t really deal with big high street names – we’re solely based through the independents. We think we are quite loyal customers and we hope our customers will continue to be loyal to us.”
“I think we are very approachable as well,” Ashley continued. “If anyone has a problem, we deal with it personally. It’s about having pride in a personal service and we genuinely like to feel that we’re supporting people, but we very
much appreciate the way people have supported us.”
Changes in the high street
Like many other intimate apparel brands, Slenderella has faced the challenges that came with changes in the high street, including the rise of multiple retailers, the explosion of ecommerce and the growth of supermarkets selling low-cost garments.
“Many independents have closed and they’ve been replaced by multiples and brands that we didn’t see 30 to 40 years ago,” said Gary. “And the way that supermarkets now sell clothing, it must have affected the independents. You can buy a school uniform for less than you could have bought it perhaps 40 years ago, which is crazy.”
But as independents closed, said Gary, Slenderella found new customers.
“We’re quite fortunate in that we keep opening new accounts and even this year we’ve been opening new accounts,” he said.
So how does the Belper business attract such a loyal customer following?
Gary is quick to respond to my question: “It’s a family business with family values,” he said. “My wife, Ashley’s mother [Gaynor] is the financial director so we work very closely together and Ashley’s younger sister has been working in the business for the last few weeks, so she may join the business after university.”
But it’s not just the company directors who are a part of the family, according to Ashley.
“As cliché as it sounds, everyone here feels like family,” he said. “A few members of the team have known me since I was born. There’s over 300 years of knowledge of this industry in this company between
“I think we have that longevity as well,” Ashley added. “People know we have been here for a while and, touch wood, we are planning on being here for a bit longer. [Customers] don’t want to go for a brand that’s been here six months and may not be around in six months’ time.”
“We’ve also seen, particularly since I joined, that people are looking for more than just a product – they want to get involved with the brand. That extra 2% that you can supply your customers with helps them sell garments, like quality images, for example,” Ashley continued.
“On our website buyers can look at our full range and buy it online and that’s something they have access to. People are savvy these days and they are more aware of the things they can do to increase sales.”
In order to reach out to new retailers, Slenderella has developed a new nightwear range aimed at younger consumers, which is growing rapidly.
The range, named Gaspé, features a range of sophisticated silk, satin and lace garments in pastel shades and seasonal prints with soft jacquard effects.
“The slips have been very popular over the last six months and we’re getting repeat orders,” Gary said with a smile.
“We’ve moving more into satin and silk and that’s really paid off. When you start selling silk garments that retail at £150 to £200, we only have to sell a few hundred to make it a very useful addition to the turnover.”
“People are looking for younger, contemporary styles and we’ve had to react to that. People want to dress younger and we’ve got some exciting things coming through for spring,” said Ashley.
“You’ve got to keep trying to provide something new and different and stay one step ahead if you can.”
As part of Slenderella’s evolution, the business is also set to undergo a rebrand in January 2016.
All garment labels, swing tickets and packaging have been redesigned with a fresh, modern look and will match new business cards and exhibition signs.
The brand will now offer luxury gift boxes for special purchases and all customers will receive a booklet describing the fabrics used to make their garments.
“We believe by doing the rebranding that we are letting our customers know that we are dedicated to giving them exactly what they need from a nightwear and lingerie supplier,” explained Ashley.
“We wish them to feel that we are working with them to grow together and we feel that this is one of the ways that we can do just that.”
Slenderella also has plans to expand its site in Belper this year.
Moving to the Queen Street premises around 18 months ago meant that Slenderella could allow for more office and warehouse space. Unfortunately, the move meant the closure of the brand’s retail shop on King’s Street. However, the firm has recently acquired a building located directly opposite its new site, and plans to turn it into a new 2,500ft2 retail space in the coming months.
“Locally, we have very few retailers that we can deal with and there is a very big demand for our product,” said Gary.
“People come to knock our door to ask for nightwear. Our old retail space was doing quite well, but the factory needed more space, which we thought was more important. Since it’s been gone, people have been a bit up in arms about it, so we’re going to reopen it.”
Ashley added: “ This is the first step we have taken to deal directly with the public, but we think of it more as a service because we get many people coming to the door saying ‘my Nan needs this, can I buy that?’”
Looking further ahead, the Spendlove family hopes to grow the export side of their business.
“The plan is that in three years’ time our exports will be bigger than imports. We’re looking at different agents and distribution networks in different parts of the world,” Gary revealed.
“We were a finalist for an export award last year and since then it’s kicked us on a bit to increase our exports,” said Ashley. “We came in the top six businesses of any industry, of any size, in the Midlands.”
“Also, the internet is going to play a big part. We’d like our customers to develop their internet businesses and we’ll be there to really support them.”
Information obtained from the following books: ‘The Earl of Petticoat Lane’ by Andrew Miller and ‘Brettles of Belper’ by Rod Hawgood and Gary Spendlove.