After a breast enhancement that took her from a C-cup to an F-cup, Alexis Smith found buying bras to fit her small back an unexpected chore, and launched a collection to plug the gap. Gemma Champ speaks to her about her meteoric success and the challenges of winning over the industry.
It was guaranteed coverage for Alexis Smith: the moment the images of her AW13 lingerie collection came out in late November, they were plastered across the British press and the internet. That’s what happens if you get a particularly buxom star from The Only Way Is Essex to model your collection and then give the Daily Mail an exclusive set.
Jessica Wright, TOWIE veteran and lingerie boutique owner, has had a strong association with Alexis Smith from early in the collection’s existence, sharing, as she does, a tale of breast augmentation writ large. Larger than expected, in Smith’s case.
“I didn’t actually expect to go quite as big after the breast augmentation,” she says. “I only wanted to go up one cup size, but it tends to be the case for a lot of girls they end up being bigger than they’ve asked for.”
The unexpected result was that Smith – young, bubbly, fashion-conscious – was left with a choice of expensive specialist bras or boring, matronly numbers for a more mature customer. She simply hadn’t thought this would be a problem.
“I’d gone from a C cup to an F cup and I was used to being able to just go into any shop and pick up a bra from anywhere,” she says. “You can get a bra easily when you’re that size, but now I couldn’t just walk into a shop and pick up a nice style that I liked. It wasn’t that there were no bras for fuller-breasted women, but that it was hard to find large-cup bras in a small back size. “They were more based around heavy support,” she explains, “which is maybe ideal for someone who’s a bigger lady with a larger back size and a larger cup size, but it just took away the feminine and sexy side of a bra. I started to struggle with what dresses I could wear in the summer, because the straps were quite thick and the bras were very, very high on my chest. All of a sudden I felt like I had a really big, heavy bra on and couldn’t really wear the clothes I was used to wearing.”
Breast augmentation is the second most popular cosmetic surgical procedure worldwide (1.5million operations were performed in 2010), and that was enough for Smith: she spent 18 months working with a team in Nottingham developing patterns before launching the brand in 2010.
It was a leap of faith for a woman with no experience in lingerie, and she says there may have been some scepticism from the established parts of the industry: “I don’t come from the industry or from a design background. And I suppose you’re always going to get people who think you’re not going to be able to do it,” she points out. “But it took a year and a half before I even started designing. It was all about fit – I changed the pattern about four times before I approved the final pattern.”
Those early stages were fraught with complications. How low could the bra be cut without the breasts spilling over? How thin could the bra straps be without losing support? And how could the underwire be made lighter and more comfortable without compromising on fit and security?
Then there was the manufacturing to consider, and its perennial balancing act of cost, location and quality.
“When I first started the brand I was manufacturing in the UK, which was extremely costly, so it took longer than I would have liked to move into wholesale,” she says. “At that point I was only selling online on my website. Then I manufactured a small amount in China, and it had huge margins, but I wanted to be more in control of the quality. So I’ve now since moved the manufacturing to Latvia, and I’ve got an amazing relationship with them.”
The effort was worth it, though: just two years on, the Alexis Smith label already feels like an established brand. That’s partly down to a product that taps into a previously barely touched market for small-back, full-cup bras, and not only for those who’ve had breast augmentations – a market that numerous companies established and new are starting to look at.
Smith’s success, though, is also down to some very canny marketing, in particular the collaboration with TOWIE’s Jessica Wright.
“I met up with Jess and I explained to her what I was doing,” says Smith. “She said that actually she really, really loved the brand, and we met up and had discussions and agreed a contract for her to become the face of the brand. About six months after that she opened her lingerie shop, and I helped her take other brands for the shop, and get on her feet, and explain a little bit about the industry to her and her mom and her cousin. We just became very close, very good friends.”
The thing about Wright is that while she’s very attractive, she’s attainable, too. She’s a friendly face, she’s a strong character, and those images work: they don’t look tacky, they don’t look tan-tastic and they’re full of light and fun.
That was Smith’s thinking, anyway: “She’s not too stick-thin, she’s got quite a nice shapely figure, and she’s a very down-to-earth girl – and I think more than anything she appeals to both men and women, so she has a huge male following, but girls like her too.”
Smith’s done well, then, but she’s not about to stop. Swimwear is next, and she wants to try nightwear and sportswear too. More surprisingly, she’s adding a C cup to the range, as well as a 36in back. Why? Because her customers have asked for it.
“I’ve had so many emails from girls asking about bikinis, and we’ve been inundated with people requesting a C cup. I think that it’s just that the brand is becoming quite a desirable brand that people want to purchase.”
Perhaps this is as much at the heart of Smith’s success as the celebrities and the statistics: new to the industry, with a fresh eye, she’s not weighed down with the “way things have always been done”.
“I’ve created the brand for a desire for the product that I wanted, so in a sense I am the consumer,” she says. “It’s not some guy saying, ‘I wanna makesome money.’ It’s been through my passion and my desire to make it a success – and a lot of hard work.”
This interview first appeared in the January issue of Lingerie Insight.