INTERVIEW: Ultimo boss Michelle Mone

The MJM boss, who says she never does anything unless she does it big, talks expansion, losing her OBE in a taxi and how a fraudster cheated her out of £1.5 million.

“I only get about four hours sleep a night, because I can’t sleep,” MJM founder and Ultimo designer Michelle Mone says. “I’m a bit like Maggie Thatcher.

“Every day I eat, sleep and breath Ultimo.”

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That commitment is something which has held the 38 year old, mother of three in very good stead. Mone now runs a business which manages eight separate brands: Ultimo, Miss Ultimo, Adoire Moi, Ultimo Swimwear, Ultimo Shapewear, Michelle for George, Diamond Boutique for Tesco, Ultimo Couture Evening Wear and – very soon – Ultimo Beauty.

Her future success must have seemed very unlikely when, at just 24 years old, she was made redundant from her job running beer label Labatt for Scotland.

“I left school at 15,” she says. “I ran Labatt for Scotland. When I got made redundant, I just came up with the idea of Ultimo and it took me three years to invent it – the gel filled bra. So, I never ever imagined I would be in the fashion world to be honest."

The concept for the company was formed when Mone attended a dinner dance, wearing what she describes as ‘a very, very uncomfortable Wonderbra.’

“I just thought, why should women have to go through all this pain for just a wee bit of gain?’ she reveals.
The concept of the gel filled bra was born. And, despite the fact that Mone had never been on even a single design course of fashion programme, this was the product on which her brand was founded.

“To be honest with you,” she says, proudly, “I could wipe the floor with any designer and I have never been to college or uni… I have got a real, I suppose, talent for it and I just love it.”

Mone has no intention of resting on her laurels. Her desire to be the biggest and the best is driving her to expand her range of offerings to eveningwear and lifestyle products, including candles, perfume and body products. The couture evening dresses will soon be launching in Debenhams, whereas the beauty items are set to be released in November. Retailers have not yet been confirmed but Mone considers it likely that they, also, will be stocked by the department store.

Mone’s relationship with Debenhams is obviously close and, as she seeks a retail partner for the launch of a new series of stand alone stores, it could be a strong contender for the role.

“I always imagined when I came up with the Ultimo first invention that I don’t ever do anything small. I wanted it to be big. I think we have only made it halfway just now for what is about to come in the next couple of years, which will be a chain of Ultimo shops.

“I hope to partner with someone I think in retail, because we are not retailers. I don’t claim to know absolutely everything. We should stick at what we are good at.

“It might well be Debennhams,” she adds. “I haven’t really gone into it yet – that is going to be the future.”

Despite her ambition, the Ultimo chief executive does not look to have a store on every high street and aims, instead, to create a chain more intimate and ‘special’ boutiques.

“It would certainly be covering the UK and Ireland,” she claims. “I think [La Senza] has got too many, to be honest, and there is a lot off rubbish in there as well. I mean in location and stores, I think they have got too many. [I want something that is] just small and special, and accessible.”

Eventually, Mone hopes that Ultimo will be known as a lifestyle brand, like ‘Jo Malone or the white company.’ But, while their diversity might be something that she hopes to emulate, she is determined that her brand remains unique. She intends this to be reflected not just in her product offerings but in the entire process of their production and prides herself on creating each item from scratch.

“I believe that no one can be as in fit,” she says, “no one can be as in quality… We don’t just open up a chain of lingerie shops and go to a supplier, pick from the showroom and say, ‘I will have a thousand of them, two thousand of them, put our label on it.’ We don’t do that. We invent and we fit, and we make our patterns right from scratch.”

This perspective is echoed even in the inspiration of Mone’s designs. She rarely studies other designer’s lingerie, instead gaining ideas from her environment – whether it be the couch she is currently sitting on or her favourite pair of Louis Vuitton shoes. This desire to be different appears a key drive in not just Mone’s business, but her personality. It even extends to her discernment of her sex.

“I think there are very, very few women that own lingerie brands,” she says. “Most of them men and I always think, what on earth does a guy know about a bra?’”

“Does he wear it? He heads it up. Can he wear it? Does he know what needs to change? Not unless he dresses up at weekends.”

There is a certain charming incongruity present in the way Mone perceives herself, from her innate need to be difference through to a strange lack of belief in her exceptional qualities. This is never more apparent than when she talks about her choice to model her own brand, a move she took after losing weight, which she claims was undertaken in order to launch Ultimo’s real woman campaign.

After all, ask most people on the street whether they would perceive Michelle Mone to fit under the term ‘real women’ and the majority would likely be astounded.

But, despite her claim to be unique, Mone still considers the title to fit. Sitting there in the bar of The Dorchester, make-up free and, quite frankly, gorgeous, it is difficult not to argue and so the question is put to her.

“I’m not a supermodel,” she responds. “I’m not a model. I’m a real woman, I have got boobs. I’ve got hips.

“I don’t see myself as [a celebrity]. I suppose it is because I am kinda, I suppose, unique. I am not a typical business woman that wears the typical pinstripe suits. I am, I suppose, for a businesswoman, more fashionable, glamorous and all the rest of it, so I’m not the typical what there is out there. And I love to be that way. I love to be different.”

She adds: “I did [the shoot] and, you know, it has never been done by a boss before, but I am passionate about our stuff, so why not?
“It was really nerve racking, but it went all over the world, the front cover of stockbroking magazines and it was everywhere. It was good. I am glad I did it, something I will tell my grandkids about when I’m older.”

The real women photo shoot will take place this month and will feature 24 people, discovered via a Facebook and Twitter campaign. Twitter has become an increasingly important part of the brand’s marketing in recent months. In fact, tweets by Mone, covering everything from the ‘rescue’ of a Celtic footballer’s baby, her possible appearance on Dragon’s Den and the loss of her OBE in a taxi, have made headlines in the tabloid papers.

While the Twitter account was set up by Mone’s marketing team over a year ago, she has only become heavily involved in recent months and seems amazed by the level of response.

“I just started off tweeting to talk about bras and the business, and I didn’t realise how many people out there wanted actually to talk to me,” she says.” I have now, I think, got about 30,000 people and I only really started getting into it a few months ago… They are interested in what I am doing, which I found bizarre, but they are.

“I do spend time getting back to them all and I think that is important. I think there are a lot of celebrities that are on it that only get back to celebrities.”

It is not really that much of a surprise that Mone is fond of Twitter when it was arguable the social medium which that responsible for the recovery of her OBE – and a large stash of jewellery. Just two days after she received the award from the Queen, it was abandoned in a taxi, when the driver drove of before Mone had time to remove her luggage.

“The only reason for [the tweet],” she explains, “was that I shared a taxi that day, because of the tube strike and the guy in the taxi said, ‘I follow you on twitter’. I went, ‘oh, really?’

“My bag was in the front of the taxi and I got out the cab, and he drove off with my bag. Then, I just thought, this guy… So then I kind of sent him a message, saying, ‘are you still in the taxi? He’s gone away my bag.’

“Luckily, 24 hours later, he handed it into the police station.”

While, for most people, leaving their recently received OBE in a taxi would probably rank at the top of their list of life’s biggest errors,

Mone is not most people. Her success may be big but, apparently, so are her mistakes. While an OBE is arguably priceless, her worst mistake led to the loss of £1.5 million. The case of fraud occurred almost a decade ago, when Mone was seeking a distributor for her brand in the US.

“It was, probably, nine years ago when I gave the distributorship to a company in America for Canada, America and Australia,” she says, “and they were serial fraudsters that I didn’t know about.

“There was the editor of an industrial magazine… and she highly recommended them. She said, ‘they are my best friends’. She stayed at their flat in Canada and she knew they were serial fraudsters, so she must have been getting a cut of the money or something.

“They ran away with £1.5 million of our money and we are still suing them in the courts of Canada to this day. The Canadian courts, if you are not Canadian, are so slow. But it was actually the best mistake I have ever made, as well, because it made me grow up very fast and I will never ever make that mistake again.”

And Mone is also willing to help other people from making her mistakes, whether it be through Twitter or in an interview. However, budding lingerie entrepreneurs beware – while her advice might be helpful, it isn’t particular encouraging.

“It’s a highly, highly competitive market and I think it is getting worse," she says. “I think for the next number of years retailers are looking to cut back on brands and do a lot more on their own. It would be tough to start, not unless you are doing something different. Because anyone can make a brand at the price of a prawn sandwich now.

“It wasn’t as competitive when I started out. I would hate to be starting out now. I just think the whole clothing/lingerie market for the next number of years is going to find it really tough, unless you have got inventions, unless you have got a point of difference and you are different from everyone else.”

With wholesale profits in excess of a million pounds last year, a point of difference is certainly what Ultimo owns to have and its success is a topic on which Mone appears to feel keenly.

“I think a lot of people should watch out,” she says. “We are actually the hottest brand in lingerie. I can’t think of any other brand that is hotter than us, to be honest. Can you?”

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