MJM International: Michelle Mone
The owner of MJM International and inventor of the Ultimo bra on Eureka moments, Julia Roberts and dirty tricks
After leaving school at 15, I joined Labatts Brewery as an office junior and had made it to head of sales for Scotland by the time I was 20. I took redundancy though when I was 24, and was quite down for a while I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had always wanted to run my own business but just couldn’t think of an idea.
The Eureka moment came at a dinner dance with my husband. I was wearing an uncomfortable cleavage-enhancing bra and thought: ‘That’s it, I’ll invent a bra’. My husband actually said: ‘You can’t even sew a button on! What do you know about bras?’ I said, ‘Well, nothing,’ but I just knew I could change the way women were wearing padded bras. I wanted to make them more comfortable and feel more natural.
Firstly I just started cutting things up and trying things out, but I ended up working for three years to come up with the liquid silicone gel that’s in our bras today. To keep the company going we became the distributors for breast enhancers – the ‘chicken fillets’ people wear inside bras. I tried to create a bra with those inside it, but they were too expensive and too heavy. So I started to work with scientists who made them to develop a liquid silicone gel that would mimic breast tissue and that’s how it all came about.
We worked with a factory in Portugal to make the prototypes. We wanted to go to the Far East, but you need volume and credibility before you do that. Three years later, and £420,000 in debt, we launched the first Ultimo bra – the Miracle Solutions Plunge Bra, in Selfridges and Debenhams. Getting it to launch was a massive struggle but I was determined, I just knew we had a really good product, so I convinced the buyer to try the bra on. As soon as she did she was convinced as well.
After the launch, I started sending the bras to Hollywood stylists. It was a massive coup when Julia Roberts wore an Ultimo bra in the film Erin Brockovich; it got us known in the States and since then it’s just gone on and on and on.
A lot of dirty tricks went on in the beginning – a competitor took us to the High Court saying we were passing ourselves off as them, though our name was nothing like theirs. They knew we were going to win but they didn’t think we would be able to afford to go all the way with it.
We also had a lot of people ripping off our patents, but we just went right at them. Now I think they know not to touch us. We’re one of the big boys now and we do have the money and we will protect our patents and brands without question. It’s right for any company out there to act if someone else is ripping it off. I think they know now not to mess with us.
MJM International was found in 1996 and Ultimo, one of the nine brands it owns, is now one of the most well-known lingerie brands in the UK. Founder Michelle Mone has been awarded with a number of prestigious accolades, including an OBE for services to business in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List.
Michelle Mone was speaking to Kate Walters.