Emily Bendell, founder of boudoir lingerie wholesaler Bluebella, the official licence holder of Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie in the UK and Ireland, shares her inspiring brand and business story.
In the build-up to the release of the movie adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey next year, boudoir lingerie brands are looking forward to a healthy growth in sales, but no more so than Bluebella, the official licence holder for Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie in the UK and Ireland, a range that launched exclusively into Tesco stores in September.
But why did this brand in particular gain such a lucrative deal? And what benefits can other lingerie retailers stand to gain from stocking Bluebella?
In the beginning
Emily Bendell founded Bluebella in 2005 whilst working as a legal journalist in London, after graduating with a degree politics, philosophy and economics from the University of Oxford.
“It’s a bit random,” says Bendell. “My dad is still wondering why I’m not a lawyer,” she adds, laughing. “But I just thought I’d like to do it and, God, I didn’t know anything about the business, I made loads of mistakes, so it was very much a learn-as-you-go kind of thing.”
It’s an industry cliché, but the idea for Bluebella was hatched when Bendell saw a gap in the market – and she really did – for a provocative brand with a luxury style and an affordable price.
“I’ve always loved lingerie – as we all do in this game – and I loved all the high-end provocative brands, but I couldn’t afford them as they were inaccessible,” she explains.
In order to turn her exciting business idea into a start-up, Bendell moved away from the big smoke and returned to Nottingham to live with her father.
“I started really small and, actually, we didn’t produce our own product initially; I bought in small boutique brands that you couldn’t find on the high street because I wanted to test it out and understand the market.
“I decided to start by direct selling, partly because it’s a good way to start with low overheads – you don’t have to buy a shop or a website – and it’s a good way to understand your customer face to face because you’re in someone’s home.”
“I was out every night, just me, doing parties and listening to people, and they’d go ‘I love that, but why isn’t it in my size?’, or ‘that colour doesn’t suit anybody?’, or whatever. It was fun as well because it didn’t feel like I was going to work. I’d go and meet a group of girls, have a good night and it meant that I could do it around another job – I was still working as a freelance journalist at the time.”
Bendell later recruited a small, local team of sales consultants who began to host back-to-back lingerie parties.
“It got to the point where we thought there’s definitely something in this. We started to grow very quickly and then I had the classic experience that most brands have, which was that I was selling, but I didn’t have the infrastructure behind me to support the sales, so at that point, I thought, right, I need to get some investment in,” Bendell recalls.
Initial investment came from online sex shop Lovehoney, and an all-female investment network called Addidi Business Angels.
“It was very important to me to have some female backing, partly because women understood my brand, and partly because what I was finding was that the investment community is generally middle-aged men – I think 95% of investors in the UK are male, which is ridiculous.”
From there, Bluebella grew very quickly through direct selling and began to develop its own product ranges as it learned more and more about its customers’ likes and dislikes.
“It was quick growth because the way it works with direct selling is that if you’ve got the product right and people are enjoying the parties, the people who come to the parties might join as sellers, so the more people you have doing parties, the more people join, so you have this sort of snowball effect,” explains Bendell.
Bluebella was primarily focused on direct selling until 2011, when Bendell and her team decided to make the move to become a multi-channel business.
“I think a lot of people are realising that the world is changing and people want to access your product in all different kinds of ways, and you have to offer all those ways,” she resolves.
“For us, for example, we couldn’t sell to men at all because they are not allowed to the parties, so already 50% of the population couldn’t wear our product, which was crazy. So we had to look at what we could do to make the product more accessible.
“We had a website, but it wasn’t very good, so we worked hard to relaunch our online business.”
Before long, Bluebella had found a marketing budget, expanded into wholesale and gained the official licence to develop Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie line for the UK, Ireland, and some central European countries, in 2013.
Fifty Shades of Grey
So how did the collaboration with E L James, the author of the bestselling erotic romance novels trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey first come about?
“We heard about the book probably a bit ahead of a lot of people because of our network of women. People were telling their friends about it and it was becoming this ‘thing’.
“Then, we read it and we felt really strongly that we were well-placed to develop a Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie and nightwear collection because the book is all about the billionaire lifestyle and it’s got that luxe element to it, but, equally, everyone has read that book, so the product had to be accessible,” explains Bendell.
“I think we thought were really well positioned to do it, so we pitched to E L James and, happily, we shared the same vision, and so we went forward.”
Bluebella launched the Fifty Shades collection to trade at Moda in August 2013 and later signed a deal to sell the line exclusively in Tesco stores.
The collection, which consists of 35 pieces for women and eight for men, launched in September within Tesco’s F&F clothing area. But why did Bluebella opt to sell the collection within one supermarket chain, instead of trading through multiple retailers?
“For a number of reasons,” says Bendell. “But predominantly because one in four Fifty Shades of Grey books were sold at Tesco, which is extraordinary, isn’t it?”
“And once we learned of that figure, they seemed a really obvious partner, as well as the fact that F&F has really transformed itself in recent years, so there are a lot of shared values there.
“Plus, the fact that the line would be accessible to the Fifty Shades of Grey readership really appealed to us, and to E L James.”
Away from the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, Bluebella has also refined its wholesale collection, much to the delight of buyers, who, as Lingerie Insight has witnessed, have been buzzing around the brand’s stand over the last couple of seasons.
“I think in the last two years of going into wholesale we’ve really honed in on who we are and what we’re about,” says Bendell, with a smile. “This has happened over time – you learn as you go, and I’m really excited about our SS15 collection; I think it’s our most coherent yet, and I think that’s been reflected in the accounts we are growing with.”
Bluebella is launching into Debenhams this month, Lingerie Insight has learned, and the brand will return to Selfridges for Christmas and the Valentine’s Day trading period. Urban Outfitters and Fenwick has also taken stock of Bluebella in recent months.
And Bendell believes the success of the wholesale business comes down to what Bluebella has always been known for: accessibility.
“What’s great is that at the trade show you say ‘this is £30’ and people go ‘wholesale or retail?’, which is exactly the reaction we want,” she explains.
“I mean, look, at that price it’s not silk, it’s not Chantilly Lace and it’s not made in the UK because that’s not feasible, but the design is great and the feel is great. I think a lot of people do that very well on the high street with clothing, whether it’s Zara or a store where a garment is not expensive but it looks it when you see it on somebody, and that’s the reaction that we’re looking for.”
The label’s wholesale arm has been so successful that, in September, it made the decision to focus on this side of the company and merge its direct selling business with fellow lingerie and sex toy brand Soft Paris, which was launched in France but is headquartered in Ireland and has an office in London. Bluebella and Soft Paris party plan advisors will now trade under the Soft Paris name.
But Bluebella hasn’t forgotten about the people that helped make the brand a success almost ten years ago.
“The direct sellers have been so inspiring to me,” Bendell clarifies. “We have women in the business who have been with us for years, who have brought so much to the company.
“Some of the girls don’t have the easiest lives, through personal circumstances, but they are hard working, they come up with brilliant ideas. They are incredibly entrepreneurial and that is really motivating for me and my team.”