A decade on from launching British brand Pour Moi?, founder Michael Thomson explains why his thriving lingerie and swimwear business is still unknown to many retailers and consumers
How is it that Pour Moi? is the best-kept secret in the lingerie and swimwear?
Quietly dominating the lingerie and swimwear market online, the British brand has grown its turnover to £10 million in as little as 10 years, with big players like Figleaves and ASOS selling its product to high demand.
Pour Moi? has been worn by the likes of Monica Cruz and Samantha Cameron, who triggered a media frenzy when she sported the Azure bikini on holiday in Ibiza in June, causing sales on Pourmoi.com to rise 150% in just two days.
Yet ask the average consumer, and unless they’re internet-savvy shoppers or regular customers at their local independent lingerie stores, they probably won’t have heard of the label.
“People think we’re quite a small brand and are amazed that we’ve got a £10 million pound turnover. I quite like that,” said Pour Moi? founder Michael Thomson.
“Customers find the brand and they think it’s their little secret. They tell each other on social media ‘oh my god I’ve got this new brand’ and ‘you can’t get it
Explaining why Pour Moi? is little known amongst many consumers, despite having more than 28,000 Facebook followers, Thomson says: “I think it’s because we’re not in the biggies i.e. Debenhams and House of Fraser. People are used to department stores running the brand and doing the fittings.
“But the world of the internet is changing everything,” adds Thomson. “Debenhams saw a 16% growth in online sales this year, for example, which is massive when you think that its sales are flat in store.”
In an age when e-tail sales are continuingly growing – year-on-year revenues rose by 7% in Q1 2015, and that growth doubled to 14% in the second quarter, according to the latest IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index – Thomson is more than happy to continue to focus on online and independent retail.
“A major department store wanted to buy from us last autumn so we went and had a chat with them, but we weren’t very happy with the discounts they were offering [the end consumer],” he says.
“I don’t think you can run a brand with that going on; it puts pressure on my other customers. It’s got to be all about full price. So we just don’t supply [department stores].”
Pour Moi? blazed the trail for lingerie and swimwear wholesalers selling their products online when Figleaves became its first stockist 10 years ago.
“We did things very differently when we first started,” says Thomson. “We were very focused on the internet, so we photographed everything so that our customers had quality images. Figleaves were using our photos because they didn’t shoot their own at the time. Independents didn’t have websites so we were quite at the forefront [of internet retailing].”
Pour Moi? was launched at the Harrogate Lingerie & Swimwear Exhibition in 2005. Thomson was working as the sourcing director for Next at the time and had developed his brand on the side.
“I remember the buyer from Next turned up to the show! I didn’t get caught – I just hid in my booth,” says Thomson, laughing.
“It was mad. I’d never been to Harrogate before or seen the other brands. I remember setting up in my 3×3 stand and I was thinking, ‘how do I make this special?’.
“At that point, when chocolate was in, Pour Moi? had a chocolate and pink logo, so we lined the whole thing in chocolate silk,” Thomson reminisces with a smile.
“I got Figleaves and Littlewoods to stock the brand in my first season, so it was a great start for us.”
Thomson had started on a whole new career path, but he had all the relevant experience on his side.
“I’m actually a trained accountant, but when I was at university I decided that accountancy wasn’t really me, so I applied for a merchandising job at Marks & Spencer. I liked figures, I liked fashion, so I went there,” he explains.
“They eventually moved me into the lingerie department and that’s how it all began. I was 19 years old and it was a dream come true, I loved it.
“I worked on all the different departments in lingerie, so I was a merchandiser and a buying manager, and then I moved onto men’s underwear, socks and nightwear.”
Thomson worked for 10 years at M&S before moving onto the Sherwood group, which is now known as LF Intimates, in 2003.
“I was commercial director there for all the own-label supply. I dealt with people like Philip Green at BHS and got an idea of what the branded world was all about,” Thomson reflects.
Eleven months later, Thomson joined Next under Neal and Mark Lindsey, the rag trade brothers who came out of retirement last year to turn around the fortunes of Marks & Spencer’s clothing business and helped contribute to the retailer’s first rise in profits in four years.
“Neal and Mark Lindsey were my bosses. If you messed up they would definitely tell you about it, but they taught me loads,” says Thomson.
“They knew I was setting up Pour Moi? while I was working at Next, but they were supportive.”
Thomson’s knowledge of the industry stood him good stead for setting up his own brand, but he insists it wasn’t easy going it alone.
“It was just me, picking and packing. When you’re in a big company and you’re all set up, you don’t realise how little you know, from how to get something booked into a warehouse or how to package it into a box – just stuff like that,” he explains.
“I had a junior, who’s now my head of design,” he says. “I did a lot of the designing as well. My factory, bless them, really looked after me in creating the designs from not very good sketches.”
Pour Moi? sold its first bra on December 23, 2005 at independent boutique Elle Lingerie in Rugby after showing at Harrogate in the summer.
The brand then set up its first independent retail store in Macclesfield, Cheshire.
“I stocked all different lingerie brands, as well as our own, so we could learn all about what goes on in the branded world, so who’s good and who’d bad in terms of our competitors, and how our fit compared to theirs.
“We had drinks evenings and invited consumers to look at the collections. We even had some customers come and be fit models for us. Those days were mad,” says Thomson, laughing.
Pour Moi? now has two more shops selling solely own-brand lingerie and swimwear.
“We’ve got one in Chester, which does really well for us, and one down in Coalville, which is run by an old customer who went into administration. We changed to being Pour Moi? about a year and a half ago and it’s been brilliant, actually,” says Thomson.
“In Chester, we put a Pour Moi? sign above the door – our shops used to be called Caché – and we noticed a 40% uplift that week,” he adds.
“I think people suddenly thought ‘oh, I’ve seen that on the internet, I’ll pop down to the shop’. From that little shop in Chester, we probably have a £500,000 turnover.”
Pour Moi? set up its ecommerce site around two years ago to a roaring success, but not to the detriment of his retail customers, insists Thomson.
“All brands are terrified of competing with customers, but you have to bear in mind that we never discount on the website, or if we do, it’s completely old stock,” he explains.
“When we sold the bikini worn by Sam Cam, if we didn’t have the website we would never have got the level of sales that we did. Figleaves didn’t have enough stock and neither did ASOS. They had sold out within one day, so everyone came to our website, which is great for us.”
FULLER BUST FOCUS
A decade on from the Harrogate show, Pour Moi? has 48 members of staff and has seen its sales revenue grow at a rate of 30% to 40% per annum for the last four years, but like all intimate apparel brands, it’s had its ups and downs.
“It went really big to start with, and then it dipped. We never had a decrease year-on-year , but it just plateaued and I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere,” says Thomson.
“You have to understand what your brand is good at and what you have to discard, so we’ve stopped doing nightwear – we just sell chemises now – so we can concentrate on lingerie and swimwear,” he explains.
“Our swimwear grew massively and then we went to J Cups in lingerie two and a half years ago, so that was our big focus. Obviously, going up to J cups requires a lot of energy and effort. You’ve got to get it right.
“If you ever speak to a customer about Amour in a J cup they’ll call it a boob job in a bra because it’s not padded, but it’s tripled-lined, so it’s really supportive.”
Another Pour Moi? range that sold particularly well is Addicted, inspired by a caged bra Madonna wore on her 2012 album, Girl Gone Wild.
“We developed and delivered the product within 12 weeks, which meant we had a good six months of sales before everyone else started selling a similar product,” says Thomson.
“ASOS sold over 12,000 of those bras, which was just phenomenal. It was in every paper, every magazine,” he adds, beaming.
Last year, it was Pour Moi’s nautical-inspired Ahoy bikini that really took off.
“It was number one for Figleaves and ASOS. I don’t completely understand it because it’s just navy spot bikini, but people love it. People are still talking about it in the press or requesting samples. We didn’t make any this year, but people are still searching for Ahoy.”
So why has Pour Moi? been so popular among retailers and consumers alike in recent years?
“I think it may be because of my background as a retailer – I understand all the pressures of what needs to be bought and I know all about ratio management – we’ve got 84 sizes for one bra, for example,” says Thomson.
“Also, the other thing we do – which is a slight nightmare for me – is we hold stock of everything. We don’t consider a black and a pink bra as fashion, whereas all the other brands do. Their continuity is more white, nude and plain black, while ours is white with colour,” he explains.
Pour Moi? is also on hand to help struggling independent retailers when they need support and has set up 35 concessions in local stores.
“From running my shop, I understand how hard it is to make any money whatsoever because margins on lingerie aren’t brilliant and size ranges are just huge. You can’t stock 70 sizes in one bra, and if you do, you could be waiting a year and a half for a 30G person to walk in your store,” says Thomson.
“With our concessions, our independents can trade our collections through the season and give back what they don’t sell at the end. They only pay us for what they sell and they don’t even need to give us any cash up front.”
Explaining how the service works in more detail, Thomson adds: “Say ‘Perfect Fit’ in Keynsham, for instance, we agree with them on the ranges they think they will sell and, depending on how busy they are, they’ll get a visit from a sales rep every two weeks, who’ll invoice them on what they sell.
“It saves them a lot of cash and it means they can stock every single size in store and they’ll never miss a sale.”
Thomson admits that offering this service is hard work, but it’s worth it in the long run.
“As you can imagine, we get a lot of stuff sent back to the warehouse, which needs to be processed, but if we want to keep independents going then that’s what we’ll do. Retailers have thanked us for it by stocking us more.
“Some brands offer sale or return, but that’s a different service. Sale or return still doesn’t address the fact that retailers have to pay cash up front at the beginning of the season to get that stock in.”
Pour Moi? also offers a flexible service for its bigger, online retailers.
“JD Williams and Littlewoods now do direct despatch, where we send out all the orders from the warehouse to their customers directly. They don’t even get involved in the deliveries,” says Thomson.
“Every customer is slightly different – Littlewoods collects its returns and then sends the reorders out from their warehouse, while JD Williams returns the products to us and we literally run their business for them. It means they don’t sell out of sizes.”
Explaining how this service helps Pour Moi? as a business, Thomson refers back to when Samantha Cameron wore the Azure bikini.
“For ASOS and Figleaves, they literally sold what they had in the warehouse and they couldn’t get more stock in quick enough to respond to the demand. It was such a quick story that was over in two weeks.
“But JD Williams and Littlewoods did really well out of it because people reserved orders and they were sent from our warehouse.”
“It’s great because it means we’re the number one swimwear brand at JD Williams and I think we’re number one in lingerie too now. At ASOS, I think we’re in the top two in swimwear and at Figleaves we’re in the top three in both categories.”
Going forward, Thomson has a burning ambition to buy another intimates brand with a different target customer to Pour Moi?’s.
“It’s definitely on our radar,” he says. “I’ve always thought it would be lovely to own a premium swimwear brand because there is so much you can do with a £70 bikini. We have approached a few people but we haven’t had anyone agree just yet.”
In the meantime, Thomson has his mind set on this season’s trade shows. At the time of interviewing, he was preparing to head to Paris, New York and London. And Thomson being Thomson, he wasn’t about to make light work for himself.
“We’re doing it slightly differently as we’re not taking on any distributors in other countries because we feel the important thing is to keep the price consistent around the world,” says Thomson.
“It’s challenging though, with the cost of posting etc.”
“Then we’re heading to the London Swimwear Show for the first time. I’m quite looking forward to that as it attracts a different type of buyer. Then we’re potentially heading to Curve to set up a small stand and say hi to people,” he adds.
Pour Moi? will also exhibit at Moda in Birmingham this month, where Thomson plans to finally unveil the hidden gem to retailers still unaware of its secret services.
“We don’t normally do trade shows, but we feel we’re a bit quiet and need to start shouting a bit more i.e. talking to people and seeing their reactions.”