It was the first company to show lingerie on the catwalk, and in its 127th year Triumph has come full circle, supplying London Fashion Week for the second season running and launching the Maison Triumph pop-up shop.
When, last month, Triumph for the second time became the official supplier of lingerie to London Fashion Week, it might have seemed a real coup for the 127-year-old international brand: to have a name associated with one of the top four fashion weeks, working with the British Fashion Council, is exposure most lingerie companies could only dream of.
Yet catwalks and fashion are nothing new for this extraordinary old brand. Indeed, its product’s reputation is built on a combination of technological excellence and an unerring instinct for the fashion-led requirements of its customers.
Triumph held catwalk shows all through the 20th century, was the first to show lingerie on models without flesh-coloured leotards to protect the modesty of their bare skin, and in 1970 took 23 models on a runway tour around Europe and Aisa, called Triumph 70.
That fashion link is even stronger in its products. From the very first corsets made in 1886, in a barn in Germany, to this season’s collaborations at Maison Triumph with the likes of Matthew Williamson and Louise Gray (of which more later), Triumph has both worked with fashion brands and within fashion trends to keep its customers returning.
And return they have. Johann Gottfried Spiesshofer, corsetiere, and Michael Braun, industrialist, certainly had great ambitions when they used 2,000 gold marks to set up six seamstresses and six machines in a barn in Heubach, Southern Germany, but even they can’t have imagined that more than a century and a quarter on their descendents would be running a family firm of nearly 40,000 workers making lingerie and swimwear that is sold in more than 120 countries.
The story starts with corsets – the sort of whalebone contraptions that blighted women’s lives for centuries but kept their all-important figures in line with the ideals of the time – but it leads right up to many of the innovations that have freed women from the constraints of corsetry that limited the scope of their lives.
“Triumph is about fashion and innovation, and I think fashion has always probably dictated what we do,” says Monica Harrington, product and training manager and Triumph veteran of 21 years. “I think that’s probably the great thing about working for such a successful brand,” she continues. “I suppose now, even with Essence [the line created with the supermodel Helena Christensen], the theme for AW13 is Magic Couture, and the magic is when you wear it: it’s the angel wire, it’s the soft-feel hooks at the back of the bra, the microfibre, so everything is really soft when you put it on, so there’s no pinching. It feels beautiful.
Back in the 1950s, in fact, Triumph created the first stretch straps for bras, ending pinching in one stroke. They’d come up with a similarly visionary idea when they made the first strapless corset, in the 1930s – ideas that we would take for granted now, but were revolutionary at the time. The first girdle in the 1920s, for example, allowed women to take full advantage of the freedom offered by the flapper dress; and the first moulded bra, created in the 1970s, paved the way for the T-shirt bra that would dominate in the 1990s.
More recently, technical fabric innovations mean that Triumph can offer lingerie that is multifunctional: moisturising, fat-busting and, of course, brilliantly comfortable. “We’ve got a new collection at the moment, Light Sensations, that’s infused with aloe vera,” says Harrington. “It is like wearing a second skin. You’ll put it on and it’s so, so nice. It’s actually medium-level shaping, but it’s almost invisible when you put it on, and it’s moisturising as well.
“For AW13,” she continues, “we’re using an anti-cellulite in our shapewear, and another first for AW13 is a collection called Second Skin Sensation, which is the lightest circular-knit fabric you can get. So we’ve now got an exclusive on the fabric for a year.”
Of course, while everyone loves a comfortable bra or a cellulite-beating technology, the task of marketing those innovations to the general public is no easy one. Even with appealing, tactile names like “Light Sensations”, science and technology don’t always play so well in a lingerie boutique, where the predominant concern is, quite naturally, how good the product looks and feels.
For Anu Menon, head of UK marketing at Triumph, the brand’s heritage is what will keep it in the public’s mind, associating it with crafsmanship and creativity as much as superb technological innovation. “Our consumer is a style seeker; she knows what’s happening in terms of trends. She’s very modern,” says Menon. “So the way of engaging her is very different. It’s not a passive push communication – it’s really about getting her involved in the story and bringing the brand to life through a contemporary lens.”
That’s why this season’s fashion week collaboration was accompanied by a pop-up boutique in Covent Garden’s chic Seven Dials district, on Monmouth Street, called Maison Triumph. The ground floor was filled with an exhibition, called 1886, curated by the British Fashion Council’s head of marketing Clara Mercer. The installation featured archive pieces from Triumph’s history – from corsetry to swimwear – surrounded by the accoutrements of the respective eras, creating room sets.
“It showcased not just the history and the heritage of the brand through all the archive pieces,” says Menon. “It did so in an interesting way so each archive piece brought to life an era; so somebody could come and touch and feel the props and items and show the link between now and that era, how corsetry and lingerie has changed over time and Triumph’s role in that journey.”
Downstairs, meanwhile, after a buzzing launch the night before London Fashion Week kicked off, was an art installation by David Longshaw; and “The Makers”: six sets of lingerie reworked, embellished and almost unrecognisably transformed by designers ranging from the iconic, such as Matthew Williamson, to the excitingly young – De Montfort University’s multi-award-winning alumna Sian Whitefoot took part, thanks to her win of the Triumph Inspiration award this year. The company also ran a series of talks with the likes of Ruby Hammer, Cat Callendar and Caryn Franklin.
So far, so fashion – but does this sort of initiative really draw in the Triumph customer? Menon says that it’s not about making a quick sale: this is about building on a longstanding reputation to maintain a level of awareness and engagement among customers that plain old billboards just won’t do alone.
“It’s a gradual process,” she argues. “First step is, if you’re not top of their mind then they will never buy the product. So our tasks are a few. One is to really raise awareness among the style seekers and our target consumer, and then the hope is that they come in and start interacting with the brand, and engaging with the brand, and then they see us in a magazine.
“It’s not a matter of hitting them at one touchpoint and then going silent but engaging them in a way that is memorable, and then they remember your brand as interacting through their journey, and then eventually you hopefully get a loyal consumer.”
Certainly the press and all-important blog coverage that pieces like Matthew Williamson’s astounding red sequinned bodysuit, created for the shop, gained the brand was extensive and wide-ranging, and significantly it seemed to reach that younger demographic that has grown up with far less concept of brand loyalty than its parents’ generation.
“Within Maison Triumph we had a few different ways to get the word out,” says Menon. “We had media partners we worked with, we worked with some key bloggers that were talking about it, blogging about it, creating social media chatter beyond what our reach is. Our media partner was Elle and we had as well The Daily, Stylist, editorial from Time Out. We even had some promotional staff in and around Covent Garden directing consumers.”
Funnily enough, though, fashion itself is not a huge priority for the brand’s marketing. It’s something that naturally occurs, rather than being pursued by the marketing team, says Menon – not least because the brand has no desire to be labelled simply a fashion brand. (That, incidentally, makes its collaboration with Helena Christensen a perfect match: she, too, has transcended the fashion that made her famous to become a well-respected photographer, yet her Essence line has become ever more exquisite over its short existence.)
“Fashion Week is not for us a direct link for fashion, but we wanted to use it very much as a platform to tell our story, because there could easily be a crisis of identity where people start thinking Triumph is a fashion brand, and that’s very much not the message,” insists Menon. “It’s connecting with the interested fashion style seeker, and still very much telling the story of how we’d been underpinning style since 1886.”
“Underpinning style” is a phrase Harrington emphasises as well – a new touchpoints for the brand. At
a House of Fraser event during London Fashion Week, the brand showed its customers how wearing the correct foundations could transform an outfit. “We’re telling people not to be afraid
of challenging fashions, because there’s a solution available,” she says.
That event, incidentally, offers an inkling of the success of the current heritage- and functionality-led marketing: while there are no figures available from the non-selling pop-up shop, the Oxford St House of Fraser event saw Triumph sales up a very impressive 204% year on year, and 122% on the previous week’s results.
“Consumers don’t want to engage in a one-dimensional way as passive listeners to advertising messages,” says Menon. “They want to be involved, be taken on a journey. There’s credibility behind it; there’s emotional connection. More than anything else a brand needs to be authentic, and we have a very authentic story to tell. The future will definitely involve telling the making-of-the-brand story, the craftsmanship, innovation and so on. But how we do it? You’ll have to watch this space.”