How British lingerie brands are cracking the American market
by Sarah Clarke, Editor, Lingerie Insight
It is notoriously difficult for British brands to break into America. Just ask Marks & Spencer and Tesco, both of which failed to crack the market.
But that hasn’t stopped a group of independent lingerie labels taking the risk.
When entering the US market, small UK firms face the challenge of managing their business from a distance, not to mention the differences in regulations, taxes and copyright licences they’ll need to contend with.
Nevertheless, the sheer scale of America is enticing enough for these British-born brands to make their way across the pond regardless.
On top of this, US retail giants well known for showcasing new talent, such as Anthropologie, Nordstrom and Revolve, are offering up opportunities that many UK retailers are afraid to.
Journelle, a luxury lingerie retailer with five stores dotted around New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, even has an emerging designers section on its website.
So which independent lingerie brands, established in the UK, are entering the US market and making the American dream a reality?
In a collaborative feature with The Lingerie Journal, Lingerie Insight editor Sarah Clarke spoke to five business owners about their strategies to make their break into the US market a success.
Launched in London in 2005, Bluebella is an award winning, fashion-led lingerie and nightwear brand, with collections designed to redefine sensuality. Founder Emily Bendell believes the Bluebella woman does not see lingerie as a functional or traditionally sexy purchase. Rather, she sees it as a fashion crossover style and a personal self-indulgence.
After exceeding its crowdfunding target by 100% and raising £1 million to finance a big expansion in the United States, Bluebella has taken a two pronged approach to growing its business in the market – working in both wholesale, with a fast-growing roster of key retail partners such as Nordstrom and Journelle, and in direct retail.
The brand launched a US-facing website six months ago and has hired two sales agencies – Easton International on the East Coast and Wells Apparel on the West Coast. PR firm Bollare, known for its success connecting brands with Hollywood celebrities, has also been hired.
Explaining Bluebella’s attraction to the US market, founder and CEO Emily Bendell says: “It’s a huge market and it’s one we feel is ripe for the Bluebella aesthetic. Impressive US retailers had started to approach us directly and so we started to look at the market and felt the time was right.”
The biggest challenge that Bluebella is facing in its quest to crack the US market is managing the business from a distance.
“The advantages of being ‘on the ground’ to understand the market and meet key partners face to face is considerable,” explains Bendell. “We are managing this by working with trusted on-the-ground agencies and making sure we visit regularly. I have just returned from a New York trip to meet retailers and press.”
Violet & Wren
Luxury sleepwear brand Violet & Wren creates elegant, feminine designs featuring botanical prints and delicate lace detailing. Founded in 2015 by Helen Pollington and Louise Barnard, each collection is designed in England. Essential pieces include kimonos, slips, pyjamas, shorts and camis, all complemented by sleep accessories and soft lingerie styles.
The opportunity to launch independent loungewear brand Violet & Wren in the US market came about when fashion retailer Anthropologie approached the label directly and placed its first wholesale order in January 2016.
The success of this first collaboration led to Violet & Wren being picked up by Journelle NYC, Fred Segal LAX and Revolve.
“We were actively sourced, which has been a key factor in Violet and Wren’s growth. We can’t complain; it was serendipitous!” says co-founder and creative director Helen Pollington.
The US has now taken over the UK as Violet & Wren’s biggest market, but there’s plenty of room for expansion.
“We are in conversation with several exciting new stores and retailers, which is promising for the future, and in order to really maximize the potential in this market we are looking to show at Curve in NY in February,” explains Pollington.
From Violet & Wren’s experience, the US market is more open to showcasing new talent than the UK market.
“They want something new, fresh and different to offer their customers, whereas here in the UK, retailers seem to want to stick with brands which they know will sell well, rather than taking a risk and investing in emerging labels. Perhaps the sheer scale of the market allows for this experimentation,” ponders Pollington.
Violet & Wren’s biggest challenge in launching in the US has been the lack of representation in the market in the way of PR or sales.
“The distance means we cannot always maximise all press and sales opportunities that come our way,” Pollington explains. “But as we grow, we are looking to invest in the US market. We are contemplating securing sales agents and PR representation in order to take the brand to the next level.”
Violet & Wren’s dream stockists include New York department stores Barneys, Bergdorf and Neiman Marcus.
“We would also love to grow on the West Coast, and in Texas – we have so many online customers from these locations, so it would be great to have a physical representation there,” says Pollington.
Coco de Mer
Founded in London in 2001, Coco de Mer is luxury lingerie and erotica fashion house that curates premium product to inspire exploration, excitement and enjoyment. The business currently operates online and from its London boutique in Covent Garden. Since FW16, Coco de Mer has developed a strong UK wholesale business, with Selfridges, Harrods and Matchesfashion.com carrying its own-brand collections.
Coco de Mer is preparing for the 2018 launch of its wholesale business in the US and other international markets.
“Twenty per cent of our online customer base and Instagram followers are from the US, therefore the US is an obvious choice for our international expansion,” says Coco de Mer CEO Lucy Litwack.
The news follows the recent sale of Coco de Mer in an MBO led by Litwack. She was backed by unnamed international institutional investors to buy the business from owner Lovehoney, an online lingerie and sex toy retailer based in Bath.
“The MBO this year provides us with a strong platform and supports our strategy to grow the business internationally at the luxury end of the market, where Coco de Mer is already well positioned and has a very strong customer base,” adds Litwack.
“We want to grow it organically to ensure that we provide the best customer service both to our new wholesale customers and to the end user.”
Coco de Mer intends to target stockists that offer a luxury customer service and are forward-thinking about how to stay relevant in today’s market.
“The retailers who are winning are delivering technologies for the best customer experience in and outside the store, and are using advanced analytics to optimise operations,” says Litwack.
But the CEO is well aware of the challenges she will face when attempting to crack the US market.
“Cost and margin are always hard to manage and it can be challenging to convince foreign buyers to take a risk with a new brand,” she explains.
“Hopefully, as we have 16 years of trade in UK, buyers will feel more comfortable with testing our brand in their market.”
Harlow & Fox
Above: Jennny Rieu wearing Harlow & Fox for her column, Pin Me Up. Photo by Jason Kamimura Photography.
Founded in 2011, Harlow & Fox creates luxurious lingerie to accommodate women with cup sizes DD-G. Founder and creative director Leanna Williams began developing the brand from her own desire for elegant, captivating garments without compromising on fit. Using opulent silks, Leavers lace and intricate details sourced from all over Europe, the entire collection is designed in Britain.
Luxury fuller bust brand Harlow & Fox has previously struggled to gain stockists in the US market due to its high price point, but with the dollar strengthening, creative director Leanna Williams is hoping that now will be a good time to seek out new partnerships.
There’s certainly a demand for Harlow & Fox collections among American consumers, with the majority the brand’s online sales going to the US market.
But Williams believes her label needs to be present in physical stores across the pond in order to boost brand awareness.
“We recently did some customer research on members of our mailing list who had never placed an order with us, and the main reason they gave was they wanted to able to go to a store location and touch and try on the products, even though we allow customers 21 days to return their items from the US,” says Williams.
“This definitely shows the desire for brick and mortar stores and that personal, physical experience they offer, though US-based ecommerce stores also have that edge with being able to offer faster shipping and returns, being based in the same country as those customers.”
The Harlow & Fox team would like to work with more fuller-bust specialist stores looking to expand their offering with a premium range, as well as luxury boutiques looking to expand their size range and offer something complementary to their existing high-end brands.
“We were held back before by our price point being higher, which was made a lot worse by weak dollar, but hopefully with the dollar rates being better than they were, and the growing awareness of fuller busted customers looking for more options and choices, we’ll be able to continue expanding our US partnerships,” says Williams.
Gilda & Pearl
Diane Houston founded Gilda & Pearl in 2009 out of a desire to revive British manufacturing after seeing many of Scotland’s garment factories close down as a young girl. Since then, her business has gone from strength to strength, thanks to its elegant vintage-inspired design ethos and dedication to UK manufacturing. Two rounds of investment have aided Gilda & Pearl’s expansion; funding the launch of the Gilda & Pearl bespoke atelier in Mayfair London in 2015 and a new ecommerce website.
Luxury lingerie and sleepwear brand Gilda & Pearl is already stocked in major US retailers including Nancy Meyer and Barneys, but now the label is looking to expand its presence further, through the launch of its affordable diffusion line.
The diffusion line, named after Gilda and Pearl founder and designer, Diane Houston, will offer customers the opportunity to indulge in the brand’s glamorous aesthetic at a more accessible price point, with pieces starting from £40 ($53).
“We’re excited for consumers to be able to access our brands at multiple price points. Both brands offer beautiful aesthetics to consumers, whom we hope will shop across both brands,” says Houston.
“As always, we will be placing the brand with key retailers and are in negotiations on that now.”
Gilda & Pearl will promote the launch of its diffusion line through digital campaigns on social media and by working closely with its retail partners.
“We frequently run in-store training sessions with Barneys for example,” explains Houston.
It’s Houston’s hope that her brand will set up its own direct-to-consumer business in the US one day, but that will take determination and perseverance.
“Getting to know the US consumer is something you need to do over time. It’s about presenting the brand to the consumer and understanding what’s right for them, yet still right for us,” she says.