Leanne Cahill, managing director of lingerie retailer Bravissimo, proudly shows Drapers a stockroom at the retailer’s Westfield London store in White City, in the west of the capital. It is crammed with lingerie in every colour imaginable.
This plethora of choice, she explains, is vital to the business. Customers come from far and wide to browse Bravissimo’s unique offer of underwear, swimwear and clothing designed specially for bigger-busted women. Often overlooked by other retailers, Bravissimo’s mission is simple: to make this under-served demographic of the lingerie and clothing market feel good. Or, as it says on its website, “Inspiring big-boobed women to feel amazing”.
Warm, friendly and dressed in a smart Bravissimo shift dress, it is difficult to imagine a better ambassador for the business than Cahill. A customer herself long before she joined the retailer, she laughs that, even in her spare time, you will find her chatting to her shoppers to learn more about their experience.
Change of direction
Cahill joined Bravissimo in October 2017 as finance director from foreign exchange specialist Travelex, before becoming managing director last October. Her role involves working closely alongside Bravissimo’s founding team, which includes founder and CEO Sarah Tremellen, her husband, Mike, and director Elly Corney.
We’ve relaunched and redesigned the UK website, and have refurbished the majority of our store estate
Cahill’s retail career began on the shop floor as part of Marks Spencer’s management training scheme. Her CV includes stints at Boots and financial services company Legal General. But retail, she says, keeps drawing her in because of the immediacy of customer feedback and the ability to enact change quickly.
“After I joined as finance director, Sarah [Tremellen] could see that I could do more, and I wanted to do more,” she explains “Naturally, the business had been very reliant on her and the founding team. She wanted to recruit a more scalable leadership team who could help take the business to the next level.”
Tremellen set up Bravissimo in 1995, selling third-party brands offering pretty, well-fitting underwear in larger cup sizes. The business is privately owned by her and Mike. Bravissimo introduced its first own-brand bra in 2009, and there is now a 50:50 split between third-party brands and own label.
“The past couple of years have been about saying: ‘we’ve got lots to shout about – we’re experts in what we do’,” Cahill explains. “We know what a difference Bravissimo can make to women, so let’s aim for some more ambitious growth.
“We’re not reaching all the customers we could. To help change that, we’ve relaunched and redesigned the UK website, and have refurbished the majority of our store estate [19 out of 29 UK stores]. We’ve always been about the welcome and the service, so not a lot of investment had gone into the store environment. It was a case of getting more of our personality across.”
This investment in Bravissimo’s store estate helped revenue rise to £57m for the year to 31 October 2018, up from £51m in the same period the year before. Pre-tax profit also grew, from £52,000 the previous year to £1.3m. Cahill says that, as the brand only makes a modest profit, it has to be careful where it invests.
Bravissimo’s 29 stores are dotted around the UK in cities such as Bristol, Bath and Cardiff, and its headquarters are in Royal Leamington Spa. It employs around 850 people in the UK, 95% of whom are women. Sales are split roughly half and half between bricks-and-mortar stores and ecommerce.
Bravissimo offers lingerie in cup sizes D to L. Lingerie retail prices range from £28 to briefs and £36 for bras. Clothing retails at between £25 for leggings and £120 for coats. The brand does not wholesale, as Cahill believes it would be difficult to replicate its service through other retailers.
“We’ve worked with Bravissimo for nearly 10 years,” says Curvy Kate founder and managing director Steve Hudson. “They are very well respected in the industry, and considered experts in the fuller-bust market, with an excellent reputation for bra fitting and selling quality garments.”
Trip to New York
Cahill believes there is plenty of room for growth at Bravissimo. Having established itself as a key player in the UK lingerie market over the past two decades, the business now has international expansion firmly in its sights.
Earlier this year, Bravissimo unveiled its first store in the US: a 4,000 sq ft, two-storey unit in the heart of New York’s SoHo. The store is a pilot project to learn more about the US customer. Bravissimo has not ruled out further openings in the market.
We weren’t sure if we could say ‘boobs’ at first, because in the US you just don’t know what might be considered inappropriate
“We opened in SoHo, Manhattan, because it’s right there in the thick of it,” Cahill explains. “We’ve had a US website since 2016 and we thought our customers might be concentrated around the coasts, but we’ve learnt they’re actually all over the US. People work in New York and they travel to New York, so a lot of people can reach us in that location.”
Cracking the US and establishing how best to work in international markets will be a key focus over the next 12 months, she adds: “We’re discovering how we work with customers in the US. We need to establish what they need, what they like, what language they use, what they respond to. We weren’t sure if we could say ‘boobs’ at first, because you just don’t know what might be considered inappropriate. We’ll spend this year working out what the US ne from us.
“We’ve always had international shoppers, but they shop through the UK website. The US is the first international market with a dedicated website. It feels like the US could easily be as big as our UK business, as we’ve barely scraped the surface.”
The sheer size of the US offers huge potential for UK retailers that can successfully make the leap across the pond. However, Cahill admits the market is not without its challenges. In particular, Bravissimo has to educate US shoppers in buying the right sizes.
“It’s frustrating for women in the US as there is a real lack of availability of bras in bigger cup sizes. As a result, women are used to buying smaller cup sizes and bigger back sizes, so there are a lot of women wearing the wrong bra size. We know that because online in the US we sell lots of bras in larger back and smaller cup sizes, but in our New York store [with the help of informed sales assistants] where we can fit people, we are selling similar sizes to the UK. We need to educate women in the US if we’re to make them feel amazing. If they don’t get the right fit, why would they come back to us?”
Ray Gaul, senior vice-president of research and analytics at Kantar Consulting, tells Drapers there are several factors British retailers need to consider when making the jump across the pond: “The biggest mistakes UK businesses can make when expanding into the US include underestimating the local companies. The reaction to success can be swift: if you come in and are quickly successful, the local competitors can learn quickly, and they have big budgets to spend to fight back. You also need to balance the management time you spend on the US. Often, the US division will grow bigger than the others and require management to spend lots of time on flights.”
Another challenge is the competitiveness of the UK lingerie market and a more freely available selection of larger sizes than when Tremellen first launched Bravissimo. Big players such as Marks Spencer also offer bras in sizes up to a K cup and newer entrants such as Savage x Fenty offer customers on-trend styles in an inclusive size range.
Nevertheless, Bravissimo prides itself on building an emotional connection with shoppers through hands-on customer service from trained bra fitters in stores. Shops are decorated with feedback from previous customers to help build a sense of community and changing rooms are named after shoppers who have previously given views on their experience.
The business seeks to replicate the service experience of its bricks-and-mortar stores online by offering a live chat fitting service and encouraging as many product reviews – good or bad – as possible.
“The nature of what we do is really intimate – customers are literally baring themselves to us when they come to try on lingerie,” Cahill explains. “Customers also come to us at really key times of life. They come to us because perhaps they’ve got a big event or are getting married and think they can’t wear a strapless bra because they’ve got big boobs.
“When I first came to Bravissimo as a customer, I’d just had my first child and was wearing the most awful maternity bra. Our aim is to make you feel like you’ve found your place through amazing service from someone who understands.”
She adds, though, that this comes with a burden of responsibility: “The flipside is that we really have to deliver. If retail is purely transactional – if you’re popping into Tesco and they don’t have what you want – it’s a minor inconvenience. If you’re coming to Bravissimo and you had an amazing experience last time, but feel let down when you come to us again, that is massive. It is absolutely a responsibility and something I feel all the time.”
Despite the many challenges facing bricks-and-mortar retail – including rents and business rates – Cahill stresses that stores remain important: “We are not going to move away from having shops. Nothing beats getting face to face with our customers.”
She explains that Bravissimo will never have “100 UK stores”, but wants its customers to be able to visit a branch easily. Exeter is one location earmarked for a store, but the retailer’s unusual requirements mean it has to ensure it gets “the right units”. Its shop floor tends to be smaller, and more space is dedicated to the stockroom and as many as 20 fitting rooms.
“Landlords have a lot of catching up to do,” says Cahill. “Rents and rates are a real challenge. A lot of retailers are really thinking about new reasons they can give customers to come into shops and about how to build that emotional connection. We already do that: it is our bread and butter, but even our sales mix is moving increasingly online rather than stores. People choose how they want to shop with us and that’s fine, we need to be there for them across all our channels. It does mean there’s a reality to face about what that costs and we need to be innovative about how we make that work.
Retail may not be easy right now, but Cahill is typically upbeat: “Yes, things are changing quickly, but you’ve got to find your new normal. Whichever way the customer wants to shop with you, you have to be there. It is about knowing what your customer wants and what makes you special.”