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.
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”.