They all said it couldn’t be done, but Mary Portas did it. She made a garment entirely in the UK. Now, somebody else achieved the same feat. BoPeeps co-founder Bo Macdonald tells the heart warming story of how she manufactured her own limited edition collection – called Frilly – in the UK, using Nottingham lace.
My name is Bo Macdonald and this is the story of how I sourced and manufactured my own lingerie collection in the United Kingdom.
To tell this story properly, I have to start from the beginning. I am not from the UK. I grew up in Chapel Hill, a large town in North Carolina. After university, I moved to Los Angeles and started a career in the record business. It was to be my first career. I began as an intern at the label Elton John was signed to, starting in the sales and marketing department. I was totally psyched. Quickly, I found my way across the label to the music video department. From there, over a period of 11 years, I rose to become an executive producer and director’s representative to some of the best known music video directors in Hollywood.
I’ve sung with Liza Minnelli, ridden an elephant through a jungle (for an Enigma video), sat atop an erupting volcano, worked with Madonna, been frisked by bouncers at Death Row studios – as I visited Tu Pac Shakur in one of his last studio sessions – done a ladylike cartwheel in a floor length ball gown for Carlos Santana…. and had the slowest launch in history of a lingerie brand from my London living room.
The eleven-year record biz career succeeded in teaching me about the hard knocks. So much of what I know about how to do business, including navigating through complex egos and keeping everyone happy, was learned in the record business. So, when I set up bopeeps, in 2006, I knew how to make a living room launch of a brand happen…even if at the slowest, most frustrating pace.
That was, until I joined forces with Monique Van Steenkiste.
Monique Van Steenkiste is my business partner. She bought out my co-founding partner a little over a year ago and has helped catapult the bopeeps brand to the next level.
Growing up, Monique was a very well know stunt water skier in Michigan. She has held the hand of a baby gorilla in the misty mountains of Rwanda. The jungle guides were so surprised that a baby gorilla climbed down a tree and went to Monique, and held her hand. They had never seen this before. So, she’s special, it’s confirmed. And, that’s why we went into business together. We are a great team. If this brand is ever going to work (and I think it is), it’s going to be because of us both as a team.
Monique was responsible for originally launching Yummie Tummie into the UK and the brand’s subsequent stratospheric rise at retail and e-tail, so she already had experience in the industry. However, the first big press we got made me crossed-eyed filling orders. I was so thrilled about the tidal wave of sales that would result from press in Daily Candy London and, most of all, making the ‘Hot List’ in the UK’s top circulating The Sunday Times’ Style magazine. That’s when bopeeps really started rolling. The ripples of sales that followed those particular pieces of press were very encouraging, as it meant ‘word of mouth’ was selling the brand. We got a huge percentage of re-orders and very few returns. I knew we were on to something.
Bopeeps makes comfortable and pretty stretch lace lingerie. We have sophisticated silhouettes for everyday wear and we go the extra few centimetres with the fabric cuts to ensure that our gals are covered. We do, however, like to make the occasional limited edition high design garment, like our new Made in London ‘Frilly,’ which has around 22 metres of Nottingham lace on each garment.
It took so long to make the Frilly. We could not have done it without each other. Monique is the detail oriented protagonist and I am the one who would moonwalk when necessary and, on one occasion, actually authentically cry whilst practically begging our seamstress to make up the products. I sat at her feet, as she did serious machine work late into the evening, after business hours, in her studio. We’ll get back to her (Lucy), as she originally passed on our project after it took her first assistant a frustrating eleven hours to make the first Frilly.
She passed. One of Vivienne Westwood’s London production houses passed. Many more, too, would pass on this time-consuming, very difficult project. However, we carried on looking for better materials and a better way to construct the garment. All signs lead to Nottingham, so off we went.
One of our first stops was Douglass Gill in Nottingham, a huge warehouse of laces. We were like two little girls in a doll shop. The colours, the end of runs, the pretty designs and, my, oh my, the history lesson we would get. Jonathan was our guide for the lace sourcing aspect of the search. We had the run of the place for an entire day, with Jonathan’s full attention. We called him Professor, but he seemed unsure if he liked the title – that was, until we told him, ‘professors are cool’, like Indiana Jones, who was a professor babe, wasn’t he? So, from then on, it’s been Professor Indie.
Jonathan described the ways in which their different laces were knitted or woven and how the stretch worked. He talked about how this old mill down the road, or that mill down there, used to make this lace or that lace, and how they had all slowly, one by one, closed. He let us roam free to find the laces we liked. At one point, Monique and I were on opposite ends of the warehouse, the size of two football fields, and we crossed the floor to meet in the middle (excited to show one another what the other had found). We howled with laughter when we discovered that, in all of that huge choice, we had come up with the exact same lace flutters, the only two alike on either side. It sort of confirmed that we were on the same creative wavelength when that happened.
We put in our first order with Douglass Gill, said farewell to Professor Indie and made our way across town to meet pattern makers. We found a wonderful woman in Nottingham to make some patterns for us. She lived in a house that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. I somewhat hoped a fairy would pop out from somewhere, or a gnome. We continue to work with Jill. We are also working on a secret project with the respected CMT in Nottingham. Liz Mant is another patient teacher and talker of the trade. And, I don’t think she’ll mind me saying, is a huge fan of bopeeps.
Back in London, armed with our new lace, we needed a few trimmings. Off we went to every trimming store in Greater London. Someone had told us to go to Dalston market and to look for the fat guy. We were both getting a bit punchy from the exhausting search, so we giggled that we were looking for ‘the fat guy’. He turned out to be ‘Fat Eddy’ and we liked him a lot. He never had enough of what we needed, though, as his lace from GB was greatly limited (sign of the times). His fabric store is beautiful, however, and he is a character on our Alice in Wonderland journey to make the Frilly. The scavenger hunt was long and a bit upsetting. So many of the stories we were hearing were of how it ‘used to be’…. before Marks and Spencer went to the Far Fast… before the machinists faded out.
All of those we met were big hearted, generous people, who were honestly gifted in their trades. Their towns were smaller and more desolate from the loss of business. Later, I would see some of these characters on Mary’s Bottom Line, Mary Portas’ outstanding multi segment documentary on Made in the UK.
We at last found our trimmings from the infamous Howard Frankle in Bethnal Green, London. He was a hoot. He’s been in the family business of trimmings for his entire career. He had a very optimistic outlook and a wicked sense of humor, and was the one who let me moonwalk across his shop floor for ten pence off of each metre we bought from him. Howard’s wife’s name is also Monique, which was just one of the many co-incidences Monique and I encountered on our journey. I would later meet the beautiful Monique Frankle on a boat party at the World’s End for HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. She was absolutely covered in Union Jacks and made me laugh so hard and, somehow, we made the connection that she was Howard’s Monique. Small business, indeed.
Now that we had all of our components, we just had to have the help of a production house. The leads for manufacturers had slowly been crossed off, one by one, for being out of business or passing on our difficult project.
We wanted to make a garment that was fluttery and flattering, and had the hint of a bygone era. Making it flattering was down to the ruching on the waist and the length of the garment. It had to cover just a little bit more than what was common.
We wanted to make a treasure that, if taken care of properly, would be a piece for the lingerie trousseau forever. It was meant to be seen. It was meant to look good in front of your boyfriend or husband, as you lounged around the house, and it was meant to get the attention of the fashion editors.
One night, when I was exhausted and near defeated, I went back to the original production house that had made our eleven hour counter-sample. Lucy, the once stern woman (who had passed on bopeeps and our complicated Frilly garment), was sewing on a specialized machine. I sat at her feet and played with her tiny little dog. I had tears in my eyes as I told her how hurting the industry was and how all of the business had moved away. I was also, personally, in a little bit of a broken down place. I just went ahead and told her that no one else but her could actually make the Frilly. She did, after all, have the special chain stitching machine that we needed.
She stopped sewing, looked down at me and suddenly (I think) decided she sort of loved me a little. She said to me, ‘no one has [the machine] and I will tell you why. You don’t use them much, as they sit in the corner covered and don’t work for long periods. But, when you need them, you need them.’
She told me the truth. She agreed to make the Frilly, to try it again and price it out and make it work. She was fair, honest, direct, and like the fairy Godmother at the end of the road.
We love all the people that we met in our journey through the textiles and manufacturing industry of England. After this year, when the making of our Made in London, bopeeps take on a modern bloomer garment was finalized, we decided that we would always have an element of ‘Made in the UK’ to our brand. Always.