When the venerable but wilting shapewear brand Scandale was bought by a Hong Kong firm, it took four years to relaunch. Gemma Champ explores how this retro label became utterly modern.
There’s no shortage of vintage-style lingerie on the market at the moment. High-waisted knickers, long-line bras, suck-you-in bodies and an embarrassment of shapewear riches have filled boutiques and department stores, partly fuelled by the craze for mid-century fashions such as Mad Men-style wiggle frocks and body-hugging gowns. It’s a trend that shows little sign of fading over the next few seasons, and for Scandale it couldn’t be more timely.
“I think the heritage is really important [in selling the brand],” says Maria Ryan, UK sales manager for Scandale. “Obviously there are a few brands around with heritage. For buyers it’s partly about confidence in a brand that’s been around a long time, but also there’s so much retro fashion on trend at the moment that I think the fact we’ve tried to remain true to our heritage, but bring some retro styling in a modern fashion, has really
played to what’s around in the market at the moment.”
When the brand relaunched in January 2012, it was with the concise, edited Sirène collection and striking campaign images, pneumatically vampish in a Lana Turner-meets-Lana Del Rey sort of way – and, indeed, the latter’s concurrent rise to fame, with her hit album Born To Die released in the same month, offered another boost to the burgeoning retro trend.
But it had taken four years from the brand’s purchase by the Hong Kong firm Hop Lun for the brand to be ready for market, and for much of that time brand manager Stephanie Chan was digging around on the internet to research Scandale’s long history.
“When we bought the brand, we really got nothing, not even a logo,” she says. “So obviously one of the first things I went out to do was to see what I could find and what was out in the market, and I’ve basically spent the last few years buying whatever I can to try and build up our archive – and I’ve got over 400 of the old ads now.”
There are few companies, in this impatient age of the quick buck, who would be willing to sit on a dormant brand for several years, paying someone to research and buy an entire archive of material. But that decision shows a laudable understanding of the importance of heritage and narrative to today’s shopper. If you’ve got a legacy of French design going back to the 1930s, you might as well use it – and Scandale as a company was virtually over when it was bought.
“The company was pretty much bankrupt, so we bought the name, and then it was out of the market for a few years while we decided what we wanted to do with it,” says Chan. “I’ve found out so much more about the brand. The more I look into it, the more of this kind of stuff I buy, I just keep learning more and more about its history.”
The brand is not ruled by its history, however – more inspired by it, though strongly inspired, within the parameters of modern lingerie. And it seems that the balance is just right.
“In reality, we can do what we want with the brand,” asserts Chan. “It was really up to us to decide which direction to take it in and how we wanted to treat it in the future. The important angle was really to look at its history, think about what it was known for, why people liked the brand, really try and treat it with a bit of respect, for its long years, and just do something really beautiful with it. And I think that’s what people have responded to when they’ve seen it.
“We get a lot of design inspiration from the archive in terms of styling, and overall shape,” she adds, “but in terms of how we then put that garment together it’s absolutely modern. In terms of the sewing techniques, the finishing details, the fabrics, all very modern.”
Part of that inspiration comes from the inherent contradiction in this brand: that a shapewear firm (not traditionally one of the more glamorous areas of lingerie) should have a name as sizzlingly, Gallically sexy as Scandale. The story of the name has been widely repeated since the relaunch: the founder Robert Perrier in 1932 responded to technical advances and changes in fashion to create a soft stretch-tulle girdle that was a leap forward from the constraining foundations worn at the time. His assistant, it is said, saw the girdle and cried, “C’est une scandale!” It’s an ironic story: though the brand is now so synonymous with those hourglass shapes of the 50s and 60s, the 30s were a decade marked by the fluid, bias-cut drapes of Else Schiaparelli and Madeleine Vionnet – for which a soft tulle girdle was just the necessary thing.
“This is not what it was in the 50s or 60s,” says Chan. “This is a modern brand. The fact that it’s shapewear pieces? Well the brand revolved around shapewear and girdles. But a lot of people hear the name Scandale and assume it has to be some kind of overly sexy boudoir brand, and for me that was the opposite of what I felt it was and where we should go with it. You have to be very careful with a name like that.”
It wasn’t just the silhouette and style of the lingerie that was important to the brand: it was also the visuals that did the selling in its heyday. With illustrators such as the legendary René Gruau creating the adverts, and a strong regular colourway of black, white and red, the new brand had a lot to live up to, particularly in a climate in which so much lingerie advertising is safe and rather anodyne.
“The buyers have really loved seeing the old adverts,” says Ryan. “They’re very evocative, and I think that whole package is offering something that’s slightly different. We’re also getting a lot of press coverage, and it’s been styled in a retro way as lingerie. The fact that it’s got shaping benefit is obviously a plus for them, but they’re actually featuring it as beautiful lingerie product, so we’ve had a double win there.”
Chan agrees, saying: “It was really well known in its day and now for very strong imagery, with very strong advertising, and that was really important to us, to have very strong, iconic imagery. Even in terms of the colour scheme, black and white are key, with red running through it but never over the top. Red’s a really important colour for the brand.
“And we actually had to start again with the logo. When you go through and look at the history, there are very few logos that look the same. They evolved from the beginning,
and you don’t really notice at first but when we started deciding what to do, we actually ended up redrawing the logo and making it a little bit more modern.”
Starting from scratch, though, has allowed Scandale to tightly focus its collections right from the beginning, rather than having to edit down from a sprawling history. The size of the first collection, the Sirène, was simply what it needed to be to make an emphatic statement about the brand’s identity. That approach has continued throughout subsequent collections.
“We really wanted to launch with a shapewear collection,” says Chan, “and our feeling at the time was, well, how big a collection should we launch? What do you really need? If you’re looking at the essentials of shapewear, actually it doesn’t really need to be a big collection. It just seemed perfect to make something very small, very capsule and very targeted in some key colours. Then when we looked at Harmonie, these really small collections seemed to be working for us. People actually buy into the range, because it’s a small collection, they don’t necessarily only buy one or two pieces, they actually buy more throughout the collection.”
The big sellers in the UK, she says, are The Dress (“it’s a total solution: it’s one piece, it has hidden pants inside, it looks lovely on and it’s a very easy wear,” she explains) and the smooth-back bra, the skirt and the front cami. And, naturally, across the collections, the high-waisted pant is doing brilliantly.
The Encore collection, at a higher price point and very directly inspired by garments from the new archive, is even smaller, with just six pieces in one colourway.
That does not, though, reflect a lack of ambition. Sirène is starting to expand into new pieces, and Chan is also considering developing another higher-priced range, following on
from Encore and its more luxurious feel and creative styling.
“The fabrics are very important for us,” she explains. “We need to use performance fabrics; they have to have a function and they need to be able to hold you in. But for us it’s not just about the functionality: it’s also about how they look and feel. When you look at the new Encore collection, it was really important to have something that felt more luxurious. When you touch it, it’s very light, it’s very soft, and against the body it feels really nice to wear, and it has all the shaping functionality but it’s still very lightweight. We really enjoyed developing the higher-priced range and there’s a demand for it in the market, so it’s something we might want to continue.”
The project of the moment, though, is the imminent launch of a complete swimwear collection, a development from the single, lonely ‘Mirage’ one-piece that was launched last year in just four colours.
“We’re planning for the first time ever to show at the Paris fair in July,” says Chan.
It’s a good position that Scandale has found itself in: all the history of a heritage brand with none of the unwieldiness of custom: just nimble, reactive, creative growth.
In this often traditional industry, that really is a scandal.