Nichole de Carle is a woman with focus. From her degree to her jobs to her company to her membership at a swish London club, she travels through life with purpose.
When she graduated with first class honours in contour fashion from De Montfort University, for instance, she was already thinking about couture: pattern-cutting to the body, technical design, fit and sizing, and a distinct sense of drama too. Looking at her designs today, all strong, elastic lines strapped fearlessly across the body, it comes as little surprise to learn that she spent some time working for that paragon of dramatic design, the late Alexander McQueen.
“I loved his work, I really wanted to get an insight into the couture and the fashion industry, and it was where I really built up my skill in terms of couture,” she tells me as we sit in a nook at the St James Club, off Piccadilly. She hesitates slightly: “It’s a very cut-throat industry, particularly in the fashion sector.”
It’s the only time she stalls during the interview: de Carle is confident, beautiful and thoughtful, and it’s hard to imagine that she was ever any other way, especially with a career start helping to create spectacular runway pieces for a recognised design genius.
But, clearsighted from the start, she saw her future in lingerie: she learned what she could and left for New York, to work at Donna Karan New York, where she honed her commercial acumen on DKNY and Donna Karan Intimates, with Wacoal just upstairs.
“I had the opportunity to see how the whole structure worked, but my focus was predominantly on DKNY, which was a younger, fresher tier. It gave me an insight into the commercial sector, because it’s something I wasn’t exposed to at university. But because it was quite a corporate structure I found it difficult to absorb that business side.”
Time to move on then: she went to Pleasure State, a young company but a fast-growing business that allowed her to study every level of the business, from fittings upwards. More lessons learned, she decided it was time to hit the industry alone.
This is where it gets really interesting, a tale that other hopeful designers would do well to heed. Instead of getting out there with a collection, a name, a mass-market idea and a manufacturing base, de Carle went bespoke, making lingerie and corsetry to measure for customers that she discreetly declines to name: “Opinion leaders, high-net worths and celebrities,” she says.
She’d found a key to future success: celebrities. “That’s where I really started to focus and build on the PR side of the business: working with the celebrities was a good opportunity to then start building the profile of the brand. It has a domino effect… But it’s important to make sure it’s the right celebrity.”
With clients in the UK, Dubai, Russia and the US, she was building a network of contacts from just the one or two clients she’d started with. And while schmoozing and networking are important, there are only two things that can really make that happen: quality and service.
“It’s very about word of mouth,” she says. “If you offer a good service, that business tends to come back to you.”
De Carle is nothing if not ambitious, though, and at some point she was going to want expansion. A year after she started her bespoke label, she began to develop ecommerce, and met an obstacle that causes consternation to so many young lingerie companies, even with a strong online sector: a lack of bricks-and-mortar exposure.
“It’s very difficult to be able to reach the customers and build that critical level of customers online if you’re not visible in the right stores,” she points out. She developed a 12-piece collection and showcased it at Salon International, securing some independent boutiques and department store accounts, which generated a spiral of other stores.
Four seasons on, de Carle’s wholesale lingerie line is a 40-piece collection and last May she launched an eight-piece swimwear collection at the Monaco Grand Prix, with the Team GB Synchronised Swimming team.
Of course, while swimmers and sports people possess honed and athletic bodies, they tend to be a far cry from the willowy models more commonly employed to display luxury swimwear, and de Carle’s decision to create a 2012 calendar with Olympic athletes was a real test of her product’s versatility.
“We selected athletes from different sports,” she explains, “and it was very interesting to see how the athlete felt when putting them in that environment. They were training so hard, and this was their year to be selected for the Olympics and to gain the credibility they’d been training for for years. We chose a pentathlete, a water polo player, rowers, a gymnast, a sprinter…”
The calendar raised money for a women’s charity but it also made this most intimidating of brands seem just a little bit more accessible, says de Carle.
“It was really interesting to see it on a very different body and I think it did raise awareness,” she argues. “I think with lingerie, you have customers that say: “Can I wear this? Where do I wear this? How do I wear this? And do you have it in my size?” So those questions were highlighted by doing the calendar.”
In fact, in spite of those svelte models, de Carle’s collections have always ranged from XS to XL, going up to an E cup, and she has now increased the cup size further and offers larger sizes. Those dramatic elastics that hold the pieces together are, she adds, super-soft, with adjusters, so “you feel comfortable when you’re wearing it whether you’re having a good month or a bad month.”
This diversification of sizing and customer will be reflected for 2013 in a new set of brand ambassadors that don’t necessarily conform to the hot popstar ideal. Celebrities that wear Nichole de Carle already include Nicole Scherzinger, Cheryl Cole and Jennifer Lopez, but, says de Carle, “We’ve been building ambassadors around the brand that we feel that our customer would associate with.” She won’t name anyone yet but says, “We’ve been looking at classical music; we’ve been looking at female poker, obviously key editors that maybe are conservative in their choice. In general you look at the pop industry but we wanted to flip it on its head, so this is why we looked at classical.”
Things aren’t stopping at lingerie and swimwear: de Carle is keen to develop Onyx – her premium, celebrity-driven line – almost into ready-to-wear.
“What we’re trying to do is take it that little bit further,” she says. “So creating lingerie that is outerwear and you wouldn’t think to wear as underwear. The only way we can achieve that is because of the signature, so you can see that signature, you’re aware it is related or is strong in this particular brand, but it’s showing it in a very different way.”
There is also, de Carle admits, a luxe onesie in development: perhaps an indication of just how “different” she’s prepared to go in taking Onyx beyond the lingerie retail points into hybrid stores. “The lingerie market is very capped in terms of luxury lingerie,”
she says. “But if you look at the hybrid stores and the spas and the ready-to-wear stores, if you fit into that gap you could double it, if not triple it.
“Obviously lingerie is the core for the brand, but it’s almost like changing that perception of lingerie, to capture that market segment we don’t have.”
The one ambition de Carle is resisting for now is going bricks-and-mortar. While she admits there would be benefits, she is using less conventional methods to sell her pieces.
“In terms of building the brand, our main associations are really the F1, the Cannes Film Festival, and luxury yachts and hotels – we’re doing a collaboration next year in this area. But we’ve also been holding almost Tupperware parties, with fizz and cakes. We did one a couple of weeks ago with 25 Russian women. We basically host them at their house. We’ve done similar presentations in Paris, but a lot smaller.”
It seems that de Carle is all about opportunity and innovation, but there is one aspect upon which she will not compromise: British manufacturing.
“The key for the business is that it’s continually made in the UK,” she says. “It’s not easy at all, but it’s worth it for the fact that your customers are receiving the quality and the fit.”
And, for all the stars and the yachts and the parties, this is what it comes down to. You can be as glamorous as you like, but if your product is shoddy value it simply won’t succeed. That doesn’t look like a problem de Carle will have to tackle any time soon.
This article first appeared in the January issue of Lingerie Insight.