INTERVIEW: Rigby & Peller owner June Kenton

There is only one person who can say that she has fitted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher. Rigby & Peller owner June Kenton talks over the past fifty years of her company and reveals what it takes to provide a royal service.

In person, Rigby & Peller owner June Kenton (affectionately known by staff as ‘Mrs. K’) appears sweet and kindly, everybody’s favourite auntie. Appearances can be deceptive.

The first words Kenton cheekily utters are: “Your name is Kat? Kat, as in Eastenders?”

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The alternative moniker ‘Katie’ is quickly agreed upon and a half hour fitting quickly commences. A member of staff undertakes the task, as Kenton has recently hurt her arm, but she remains on hand during every stage of the process.

“Pretend for a moment that I am your mother,” she says. “I would say that this plunge bra is perhaps more suitable for evening wear.”

Duly noted. The fitting is efficiently carried out and conducted with panache by the girl, under circumstances that can by no means be ideal (aforementioned hovering employer, whose credentials include regularly fitting royalty).

Fitting over, Kenton sits down in the intimate space of the dressing room, prepared to talk, and she has a lot to talk about. The daughter of big businessman, John Collier (advertising slogan ‘the window to watch’), she has experienced a unique career in the lingerie and swimwear industry.

Kenton first discovered an interest in the intimate apparels sector after entering into her father’s business at the tender age of sixteen. She had just left Lillesdon School in Hawkhurst, not far from the better known Benedon (she had wanted to attend Benedon, but her mother had refused due to its lack of a head of nutrition).

“It was a disgrace, because I was only really interested in sport and not really an academic,” she says. “I was absolutely determined to get my O Levels, but, of course, my father was sure I wouldn’t get anything” (Kenton ended up getting them all).

“He never handed over any responsibilities whatsoever, which was really horrific. He did everything himself, which is usual with parents; they think you’re not capable.”

Collier stocked lingerie in his stores and Kenton quickly developed an idea to specialise in the sector. Yet, despite buying a Brixton clothes store with fiancee Harold in 1961, and another, in Croydon, in 1970, it wasn’t until 1971 that the pair opened their first lingerie and swimwear outlet. Kenton and husband Harold called their store Contour, a name which she now also regards with horror.

“We thought that was the most amazing name,” she says. “Contour. It’s awful. When you look back, it’s horrible.”

This disgust could be what led her to take over the Rigby & Peller business in 1982, four years later amalgamating the two companies under the Rigby & Peller brand. When Kenton first bought Rigby & Peller, which was situated in South Molton Street, it only sold made to measure pieces.

“They were losing money hand over fist,” Kenton says.

The brand’s biggest asset was possibly that it held the royal warrant to the Queen. But this belonged to the owner Mrs. Seiden, as opposed to the company itself, and was therefore not directly transferred with the sale.

“I could have bought Rigby & Peller and the royal warrant wouldn’t have come to me,” Kenton says. “The royal warrant is given to a person and that person belongs to a company.

“[Seiden] said ‘the only way we can transfer the royal warrant to your name is if you go meet the Queen…’ It was very, very scary. But I went to Buckingham Palace and I met the Queen, and she said ‘that’s fine’, and I have had the royal warrant since 1982.

Kenton also gained the royal warrant for the Queen Mother in 1993. Yet, the monarch and her mother are not the only people of note that she has fitted over the years, with multiple celebrities, Princess Diana, Princess Margaret and even Margaret Thatcher numbered amongst her past client list.

She puts to rest rumours, however, that she has fitted Lady Gaga, saying: “No, Lady Gaga borrowed some stuff. Can you imagine fitting Lady Gaga?”

Once she took over the company, Kenton also made a series of changes to the store, seeking to provide proper fittings, for both lingerie and swimwear, alongside exemplary service.

Rigby & Peller was the first company to ask for 30’s round the back, which Kenton claims were originally a huge ‘struggle’ to get. It also led the market in obtaining larger cup fittings, which it was forced to import from the US. Proper fitting is a topic on which Kenton has a very strong opinion.

“People just don’t realise that we are all women and nobody knows what size to buy,” she says. “It’s not like some women have them, some women don’t, some women fancy them, some women don’t want them. We all have two and they are our responsibility.”

In 1993, ITV launched a film called ‘Giving the Empire a Lift.’ The half hour special which took watchers behind the fitting room curtains for the first time (‘what is your home address? I will send you a copy’), made business boom for Rigby & Peller. Two and a half hour queues were soon to be seen outside its Knightsbridge shop and Kenton was forced to open the store in Conduit Street two years later due to the depth of demand.

“After this film, Marks & Spencer put up at cash desks ‘we will measure you,’” she says. “They measured people over their clothes. Measuring somebody without their clothes on is not very successful, let alone over their clothes.

According to Kenton, this lack of effective fitting on the high street was not a recent occurrence, but a phenomenon that built up over a series of years.

“Marks & Spencer started it with the acres and acres of bras,” she says. “The customers flowed into Marks, they wandered round, and round, and round. They were picking up bras, they were buying them – nobody knew if they fitted them… They would take them in the fitting room and they would either buy one out of sheer frustration or they would just think ‘I am just a mess, I don’t want anything.’

“And all the other stores, in Oxford Street, say, thought, ‘why am I paying money to do fittings? Let’s us do acres and acres of bras and we will have two or three people on the floor, and we will have somebody who counts how many in and how many out, and that’s it’, and they didn’t have the expensive fitters anymore.”

In recent years, retailers appear to once again be recognising the importance of providing a fitting service. Bravissimo prides itself on this facility and it is now difficult to find a store on the high street where there is not some sort of provision available, though standards may vary.

“I don’t know if I can say people copied us,” Kenton says. “It is very flattering, really, to be copied. I don’t believe anyone does it quite as well as we do and I don’t believe anyone has got quite the selection that we have got. I feel that as a person and as a company, we have led the way.”

Though, she technically retired last year, publically handing over the reigns to her son David, Kenton and her husband Harold are still very much involved in the business. The pair will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary just after the fifty year anniversary of their business.

“We will never retire, ever, until we are six foot under,” she says. “We just come in, we go to meetings, we make decisions, we visit the shops. We are still very much involved, but not so much in the day to day serving the customer and worrying about who is going to dress the window. . . [Me and Harold] do everything together. We are joined at the hip.”

With fifty years in business behind her this November 13th, Kenton has a lot to look back on and it is doubtful she will be looking back with regret.

When asked what she feels she has achieved, she says: “Hopefully, darling, we are the leaders in lingerie. I feel very proud that I have made Rigby & Peller… quite famous and a brand that really is England, Britain, British, and an honourable brand.”

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