Bravissimo: Sarah Tremellen

Discover how the success of Bravissimo caught its founder, Sarah Tremellen, unprepared

When Sarah Tremellen set out for Cambridge to study biology the furthest thing from her mind was the mail order lingerie business. But now some 10 years later she’s the director of Bravissimo, a company which provides lingerie for larger women.

The company – which started in a living room in 1994 – expects to turn over something in the region of £7 million this year and has 35 employees – the majority of them women. The company now offers a range of lingerie, including over 50 different bras in a whole host of different styles and a range of swimwear.

After a short flirtation with academia, Tremellen travelled the world before settling in a marketing career. But it was while on maternity leave – she had married and got pregnant earlier than anticipated – that her career really took off.

It is rare that getting pregnant is the stepping stone to an entrepreneurial career, but for Sarah Tremellen it prompted the realisation that it was practically impossible for the larger busted woman to get her hands on a stylish and comfortable bra. There simply wasn’t anyone out there catering to this market.

Her lack of business experience didn’t put her off. From the outset, Tremellen always had big ambitions for the business, largely due to the fact that, as she readily admits, she was incredibly naïve and inexperienced in business matters. She carried out some initial research by attending lingerie fairs and talking to the editors of women’s magazines. A common complaint was the lack of styles catering to the larger woman. “In a whole sea of different styles and colours there might be perhaps two which suited the bigger busted woman.”

Tremellen and a friend decided to take an eight-week small business course run over consecutive weekends. At the end of the course participants were required to produce a business plan and present it to a panel, which happened to comprise the local bank manager. Her presentation won her a £10,000 bank loan and with the £3000 each that she and her partner put into the business, Bravissimo was born. Since then the business has been entirely self financing – and while it took three and a half years to make a profit – it never incurred huge losses.

Tremellen admits that the business has always taken second place in her priorities to looking after her children. Perhaps in many respects this unflustered approach has been her biggest asset. “I never saw a ceiling for it, I just thought it would be fun, setting up from scratch and making something from nothing,” she says, explaining why she has no fears for the business. But this belies a very serious attitude to it, “I’ve set it up, it’s mine and I’m going to make it work.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Even before the business got started Sarah faced a huge obstacle in the form of another mail order company which was based nearby. This company, at the time a relatively well established outfit, got in touch with all the major suppliers and threatened to withdraw their support if they supplied Bravissimo.

Inspired compromise

Initially Tremellen was bemused by the whole incident; “It didn’t’ matter whether we were based in John o’Groats or Land’s End, there is no specific catchment area so we weren’t really treading on their toes”. Never one to give up in the face of adversity, Tremellen resolved to speak with one of the manufacturers who’d been especially helpful. She decided to adopt a rather diplomatic tack, approaching them “to ask their advice”.

The solution was an inspired compromise. “We decided to start up in Oxford, where my parents live.” However the company was in Oxford on paper only. “We set up a PO box there and asked them to deliver to Twickenham [in Middlesex], we also had a phone service on permanent divert”. After four or five months Bravissimo had become established and the whole problem had been neatly circumvented.

As for their competitor, it is now bankrupt and Bravissimo bought out their mailing list. The experience taught Tremellen that no problem was insurmountable. “After that, I thought ‘we can do anything’. And while arrogance is too strong a word and we will make mistakes, we can do this better than anyone else”.

Once they managed to get off the ground, nothing quite prepared them for their early success. “Initially we had 5000 catalogues printed, and had one phone line in a front room”. The company caught the imagination of the news media and within three weeks the Daily Mail ran a two-page spread on Bravisssimo as a pioneering “woman to woman” UK based company. The article came out on a Wednesday edition and they haven’t looked back since. The phone began ringing at 8.00am that morning and Bravissimo received over 1000 calls in three days.

It was also a lesson in the power of the media – particularly the women’s specialist press. The company always exhibited a sensitive, media friendly touch. “In many ways we wanted to create a forum for women to feel good about themselves”. This ethos was reflected in the companies catalogue which exhibited a glossy magazine style aesthetic and contained what Sarah describes as “celebratory features”.

Moment of truth

However they were hamstrung in the early days by their lack of business acumen. Sarah admits that the initial surge of interest in the company caught them completely unawares, so much so that they didn’t even have a mailing list up and running to cater to their customers. ” A mail order company without a mail order list, this illustrates the steepness of the learning curve we were on.”

The company managed to overcome the problem when Sarah’s husband, (then working for Tetley) taught himself some basic programming skills and came up with a tailor made database programme. This proved to be one of the companies most important and indispensable assets.

Bravissimo has adapted well to the internet despite an initial dip in to the market 12 months before fully taking the plunge. Its website, www.bravissimo.com, went into operation in 1999. It was never expected to be a big money maker but now brings in 10% of mail orders and helps with brand awareness.

The most daunting and perhaps difficult move for Bravissimo came in the form of its move into high street retailing. In 1999 the company took a tentative step in this direction by opening a retail store in Ealing, West London, close to the company’s headquarters. “We decided it would be a good idea to keep it as close to our central office as possible so that we could cut our teeth and make our mistakes”.

This was in many respects a moment of truth for Bravissimo. “One of the major drawbacks of our mail order operation is that we cannot effectively fit people, we believed that the addition of a retail element would allow us to better serve our customers.” With no prior experience of a retail environment, and a staff culled largely from existing Bravissimo employees, it was a gamble and one that caused Sarah more than a few sleepless nights.

The shop has, however, proved a success. With 1000 square feet and six fitting rooms it has struggled to cope with demand. In fact, the shop gets very crowded at the weekends. “On an average weekend we get people coming from Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK, we’ve even had people from the US and sometimes they simply can’t get in.” The success of the Ealing shop has pointed the way forward into retailing for the company by confirming that there is indeed a market for them on the high street. There are plans for 10 more shops across the UK.

The first of these will be in Manchester. Sarah chose Manchester because “It’s sufficiently far away from London to cater for a new target audience”. Initially Bravissimo looked at Glasgow or Edinburgh but it was decided that, for the moment, they were too far away to be manageable. The site in Manchester, based in The Royal Exchange will be open within the next few weeks and will boast some 20 fitting rooms. Bravissimo is also actively searching for more high profile a site in London for the next shop. It is also planning more regional outlets.

Cautious expansion

The company is also planning to diversify its product range with the latest innovation coming in the form of what Sarah describes as “the strappy top” a vest top with a complete underwired bra built inside, something which Bravissimo’s customer base had been clamouring for for some time. They’ll be available in a range of styles and colours. But as always, the watchword will be cautious expansion. This year’s hot Christmas item promises to be the “sparkly” strappy top.

From its first beginnings, Bravissimo has been an unconventional route to success. Who would consider getting pregnant a path to business success? It can also lay claim to its share of luck along the way. But as Sarah Tremellen will admit herself, success if quite often down to a relaxed attitude, building solid foundations and a cautious approach to expansion.

The future certainly seems rosy. “The company registered 300% growth in year one and 200% in its second year of operation, and since then it’s grown by 70% year on year.” With the retail arm set to take off, it looks like Bravissimo will become a high street name in a big way.I’ve set it up, it’s mine and I’m going to make it work.

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