INTERVIEW: Bravissimo managing director Jo Lee

It’s hard to find a high street success story these days, after the recession and the growth of ecommerce forced the closure of some of Britain’s best-known brands. But Bravissimo is one of the few businesses that has come through the struggle relatively unscathed, not through fighting the changes on the high street, but by embracing them, writes LI editor Sarah Blackman.

The high street isn’t dead; it just has a new facade. Bravissimo is living proof of that.

The multiple retailer – just like hundreds of other businesses – faced the wrath of the recession and the explosion of ecommerce in one fell swoop; but it survived and is now stronger than ever, with a new management team retaining and renewing its customer focus, and four new stores opened in the last 18 months.

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“Business is going well,” says Bravissimo managing director Jo Lee. “We are continuing to grow and it’s been a positive start to the financial year.

“Some of that growth obviously isn’t like-for-like; we do have the full year effects of a number of new stores coming on board and one of the ways we are growing is by introducing new stores.”

Bravissimo had only opened one new store between 2008 and the beginning of 2014, but it finally started to look for new sites last year, eventually finding ideal locations in Leicester, Cheltenham, Belfast and Guildford.

“The timing is better for us now,” explains Lee. “Finding the right retail site for Bravissimo is quite challenging – we’d been looking for the right location in Guildford for years,” she recalls, laughing at the thought of it.

“I noticed that [in the March issue of Lingerie Insight] you had a big focus on bigger cup sizes and that alludes to the challenges of stocking those sizes. Finding the right size and shape of store is challenging because you do need a lot of stockroom space when you stock the number of SKUs that we do, as a DD+ specialist.”

Bravissimo opened 21 stores between 1999 – its first being a shop in Ealing, West London – and 2008. It was at that point when the company shifted its focus, concentrating on building its clothing brand.

“We pulled the clothing out of the Bravissimo brand and built the new Pepperberry clothing brand,” says Lee.

“We trialled a number of store formats and we wanted some time to see how they performed.”

At the same time, the recession hit and the rise of online shopping – driven largely by the launch of the first smart phones and tablets – allowed customers to make a purchase at a swipe or a press of a button.

“Coincidently, the recession happened at the same time as the high street was changing constantly and we decided just to have a wait-and-see policy for a while,” explains Lee.

Bravissimo used this time wisely, riding the wave of ecommerce success, instead of fighting against it in desperation by offering absurd in-store discounts.

“Discounting in all channels, not just ecommerce, is far more just a standard part of trading. We really do not discount; we are a quality retailer and we sell to customers based on the experience they get and, actually, a lot of very successful retailers have done that in the last few years,” says Lee.

In 2011, Bravissimo opened one new store with the new Pepperberry brand in Reading, and three years later, the retailer decided the time was right to open more bricks and mortar stores.

Despite improved conditions, the high street will never return to its pre-recession state, warns Lee.

“Customers shop the channels together now,” she adds. “We’ve always given our customers a choice of where they shop and I think most retailers are finding that that’s the way to go.”

In some ways, Bravissimo has always taken an omni-channel approach to retailing – long before it was fashionable – and has recognised that some customers
prefer to browse on one channel and buy on another.

The retailer started its journey as a mail order business back in 1995, shortly after founder Sarah Tremellen quit her job as a freelance TV and radio researcher for the BBC to have a baby.

Whilst pregnant, she found it difficult to find a good choice of bras that fit her when she went up to a G Cup. So, after giving birth, Sarah and her friend Hannah Griggiths tried to do something about it.

They decided to take an eight-week business course which culminated in presenting a business plan to their local bank manager. Their presentation won them a £10,000 bank loan to help them start Bravissimo.

Working in the living room of Sarah’s Twickenham flat, they made a catalogue to sell by mail order with all the best bras they could find and started a mailing list of around 75 people – mostly friends and family.

Sarah then telephoned several women’s magazines and newspapers, and within a month got coverage in the Daily Mail, bringing in 1,000 requests for a catalogue.

In 1996, they were able to move out of the Twickenham flat and 12 months later Sarah and her husband Mike bought Hannah out of the business.

In November 1999, Bravissimo opened its first shop and a year later Mike left his job at Tetley to become the business operations director.

“We started as a mail order company and so stores have always been the second addition to ecommerce,” says Lee. “We’re now roughly 50/50 ecommerce and high street retail, but our customers definitely want stores because they want the whole Bravissimo experience; it’s not just about buying a bra.”

Mike and Sarah have now taken a step back from the business and the day-to-day running of the company is now taken care of by a new management team.

Lee has worked in several senior positions at Bravissimo since 2002, before being appointed as managing director in October 2013.

In the same year, the company hired Laura Martino as the new product director and Louise Homer as commercial director.

“Since then, we’ve retained and renewed our customer focus,” says Lee.

“We as a team have quite a strong focus for Bravissimo now in terms of really broadening the appeal, particularly to the younger end of our target market, by which I’m talking women in their 20s. We’re really making sure that we’re taking on those current trends, expanding the choice and really focusing on the overall experience.

“We don’t really see ourselves as a lingerie brand, interestingly. We are a service brand first and foremost. Lingerie is one of the tools of our trade.”

As part of its strategy to appeal to the younger customer, Bravissimo will introduce Lepel lingerie to its product offering for the first time this summer.

The retailer has taken stock of the brand’s SS15 collection, which is built on two key trends; Summer Haze and Floral Fade. The collection features bright and vibrant floral prints, alongside bold colour combinations and graphic lace.

“We’ve stocked Lepel swimwear in the past, so we are quite excited to see what that might do,” Lee explains.

“We feel that is something different for younger customers in the DD-G market; it offers something unlike what’s already out there.”

The news comes as Bravissimo looks to expand its product range and take on more brands over the next few seasons. In AW15, for example, it will reintroduce Wonderbra to its stores.

The business will also be increasing the number of styles taken from the likes of Freya, Curvy Kate and Cleo by Panache.

“We’ll be stocking Curvy Kate swimwear, I believe, for the first time this year,” Lee reveals.

“We’re taking it fairly gradually, but I would anticipate more brands being added to our offering over the next 12 to 24 months,” adds Lee.

So how has Bravissimo seen the lingerie market evolved since the company launched 20 years ago?

“In the DD+ market, there has obviously been quite a development in terms of moulded styles. I think there is a bigger choice and people want more in terms of plunge and half cups. They want to wear the same as their smaller-boobed friends,” says Lee.

“When I started working here 13 years ago, DD was a real barrier – it was seen as big and it was the biggest size that anybody stocked. Now, everybody stocks DD and a lot of people stock E cups.

“So the face of the market in terms of size availability has changed enormously in the last decade and I think that in the UK we forget how fortunate we are that we have such amazing lingerie brands.
We have such great choice across the size range, but the world over, that’s not the case.”

But the making of Bravissimo hasn’t been solely based on following industry trends, says Lee.

“I think our success has been and will continue to be founded on delivering a fantastic experience for our customers, listening to what they want and really trying to develop our offering based on what those customers want.”

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