Sensing change: The La Senza comeback

Just over a year after going into administration, La Senza is making a comeback. Gemma Champ talks to the brand’s new managing director David Pidgeon about the new direction.

It’s been a tough year-and-a-bit for La Senza. Once the high-street’s most visible lingerie store, with 146 branches and 18 concessions around the country and 13 international franchises, it was sold to Lion Capital by its former owner Theo Paphitis in 2006 for £100million, two years before things got really nasty in the economy. By the end of 2011, the recession was doing its worst and the chain was on a decline that ended, in December of that year, in administration.

Just over a year on, and the brand is barely recognisable – and that’s the way its new MD, David Pidgeon, wants to keep it. A couple of months into the job and he is very keen indeed to shout about La Senza’s new image.

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“ I think people still remember us as the old La Senza,” he says. “The business was brought out of administration about a year ago, and I suppose we want to raise our head above the parapet a bit now and say it has fundamentally changed. The customer we’re targeting now is so very, very different from the one at the old La Senza, and I’m not sure anyone recognises that at the moment.”

It’s certainly something that would be clear to anyone entering the Marble Arch branch, one of only two to have received a full shopfit since the change of direction – what Pidgeon terms the “pin-up fascia”. And pin-up is right: where a sort of girlish, aspirational sophistication characterised the La Senza of old – all brightly coloured satin push-ups and satin nighties – the new style is sassy, sexy and very fashionable.

While the UK franchise of La Senza is owned by Alshaya UK, the brand’s parent company and strongest influence is Limited Brands, which also owns Victoria’s Secret and Pink, and the influence is clear in both the product and the branding.

“If you imagine it in terms of a three-brand strategy for the host brand, you’ve got Victoria’s Secret at one end, us in the middle, then Pink, which is a collegiate, younger, fashion type of brand,” explains Pidgeon.

Besides the pizzazz of the new store, with its neon-on-black signage and bold imagery, the target customer herself has changed significantly, and the lingerie to go with it.

“Our core now customer is 18-25, young, sassy, funky, sexy,” says Pidgeon. “The bull’s eye is 23, probably left university, a little bit more confident in herself, in life and sexually. Although it’s all about state of mind, isn’t it, not age.”

It’s also about size, it seems, with, in what is now an industry-bucking trend, La Senza cutting the range of sizes, presumably thinking of a body-conscious, fashionable young customer.

“I think the old La Senza was all things to all people,” says Pidgeon. “It covered a much wider range of sizes, so they’d go up to GG sizes in 40 backs, and we won’t be doing that. We kind of stop at an E cup. The product, in terms of its level of fashionability and difference and quality, is a different league from the old La Senza. By virtue of the fact we’re manufactured in the Victoria’s Secret factories, you have the same manufacturing processes you would get in a more expensive brand.”

So just what went wrong at La Senza? Paphitis had left the board in 2009, but had offered to help the brand when KPMG were brought in to administrate. “This used to be my baby. We don’t know what the issues are yet, but it was a very profitable chain at one time. If we can help, we would love to,” he told the Evening Standard at the time. His overtures were, it seems, rebuffed. “We offered our help but have had very little interest back from them,” he was reported as saying.

Pidgeon, who arrived at La Senza just months ago, says he can only speculate. “The old La Senza, I think, it lost its way,” he says. “Theo made a few bob when he sold it, I think it lost a bit of direction, Lion Capital came in and tried to be all things to all people – athough I wasn’t there – but I think the product fundamentally went off the boil.”

The post-administration developments involved tightening the property into the 60 most profitable stores and then simply changing the brand completely – a risky move in a tough climate.

“There’s been a period of pain, where customers haven’t quite got us, or understood us,” admits Pidgeon. “We’ve lost some, those that want the GG cups, and we’ve done a lot of market research to understand who we should be targeting, and we’re obviously passing that onto our colleagues in the States. I’d say by late spring or early autumn, we’ll have the ranges highly tuned to what we believe is our new UK customer.”

A British customer has, of course, some points of difference from a European, American or Canadian customer, and that is a difficult path to navigate, particularly in areas such as sizing, in which, for example, La Senza has found the briefs in the US sizes coming up a size smaller than the British lingerie shopper is used to – suddenly telling your customer she’s a Large rather than a Medium does not make for good business, whether true or otherwise. These are in the process of alignment.

But for Pidgeon, whose background is in fashion, it is colour palettes that are most likely to be different. “The key trends are the same, so if neons are in or pastels are in there, they’ll be in here,” he says.

“But there are some subtleties. So, for example, the onesie thing that was huge in the UK? They haven’t got it over there, and probably, if we were – and we’re not – pursuing nightwear in the depths of the old brand, we’d have had rails and rails full of onesies and made a few bob out of them, but the Americans would never been on the pulse with that one.”

It’s not just in palettes that fashion will be important: for the new La Senza, keeping up with the customer will take many forms, whether it’s making sure the latest social media fads are at the core of PR and ad campaigns, or keeping the store replenished with new stock.

“It’s kind of fast fashion but it’s not, because lingerie typically has longer stock covers than somewhere like Topshop,” explains Pidgeon. “Topshop will have typically two or three themes per drop and it’ll have 10 drops throughout the year. We’ll have one per month, so you’re going to get 12 fundamental changes through the year, but they’ll overlap, so the simple answer is you’ll get one every four weeks or so. It demands a skill in merchandising and stock control that is something we’re working on.”

Ecommerce, too, will be a fundamental part of the business. The recently launched site is already, after two months, turning over the equivalent of three of the medium or large stores, says Pidgeon, and even when there was just a holding page and a dead site, La Senza was getting 70,000 hits a week.

And that shows one thing: that, in spite of the high-street’s much-vaunted demise, the web-based democratisation of fashion and the poor economy, a strong brand name still has remarkable resilience, and as Pidgeon says: “As a brand name it still is very strong.”

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