Brief encounter

Brief encounter

So how does one go about clothing the world’s elegant bottoms and bosoms in exquisite frippery conceived here in the North East? Jane Pikett talks pants with lingerie designer Michelle Taylor

It’s not every interviewee who brings me a gift of frilly knickers in a pretty heart-shaped box. In fact, Michelle Taylor is the first, and I’m thrilled.

Clearly, this is not the place to be waxing too lyrically about my smalls, but these are particularly pretty knickers; frou-frou and fun in pretty shades of mint green, pink and plum with cheeky heart motifs embroidered on the bottom.

Michelle, creator of these pretty knickers, has made a name for herself in upmarket lingerie design, having until relatively recently relished the role of creative director of Playboy Intimates UK.

But two years ago she gave it all up to come home to the North East and go it alone. Now, after painstaking months sourcing exquisite silks and trims and launching her debut collection in Paris to critical acclaim, she is making a new name for herself with

Tallulah Love Luxury Lingerie, launched in January this year and already moving into international markets.

The opportunity to take time out for lunch at the excellent Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle is more than welcome. “Lunch? I would love to!” she enthuses when I ring one wet Monday morning. “You’ve made my day!”

And that is so very Michelle; an enthusiast, she is genuinely delighted and flattered to be asked, and she provides such good company that it is gone 4pm by the time we emerge from what has turned out to be a lingering midday meal.

Made in Portugal and the UK, Michelle’s vintage-inspired collection is romantic and just a little bit cheeky. Detail is her signature and the finest silk and French lace combine in elegant designs charmingly named Garden of Delights, Vintage Blush, Bluebirds, and Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly.

A graduate of fashion marketing from Northumbria University, Michelle knows only too well the value of celebrity endorsement, and she’s already supplied members of Girls Aloud – including Cheryl Cole – with her designs, and has been endorsed by broadcaster and former star of TV’s Gladiators Diane Youdale (the glamorous ‘Jet’).

Burlesque performers are as likely to wear Michelle’s striking, figure-enhancing designs
as well-groomed businesswomen, and her collection is quickly gaining kudos in France – home of the world’s most discerning lingerie clientele.

Michelle eats, breathes and lives her work, declaring that if she could no longer design, she wouldn’t know what to do. For her, the pursuit of money is a necessity of business, but the real joy is in the appreciation of her clients.

“A lovely lady emailed to say that she had been so excited after placing her order for the bridal collection that she couldn’t sleep,” she says “I thought that was so lovely, and it’s that sort of enthusiasm that really drives me.”

She is inspired creatively by the fashions of the 1930s and 1940s, by architecture and interior design, sumptuous fabrics and exquisite trims and, perhaps most of all, her love of colour.

Talulalove“I love and adore colour,” says Michelle, who revels in the textiles of her trade. “Beautiful turquoise, blues and greens, deep purple and plum, pretty peach and shades of blush; I love them all.”

Like most designers, she is happiest when creating, but she is rapidly developing entrepreneurial acumen and has gathered a team around her to support the growth of the business.

Her autumn winter 2011 collection goes to bed in November 2010, and she is now actively seeking investment to take the brand to the next level supported by a brand marketing campaign.

She is closely guided by her business mentors, Owen Stevens from Brand Orienteering, Matthew Rippon of BHP Law, and Stephen Slater of RMT accountants.

By the end of this season, Tallulah Love will be exported to selected boutiques in Japan, Dubai, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the USA and Russia in addition to outlets across the UK, including Fenwick of Newcastle.

So is it time to swap her Jesmond base for New York, Paris or Milan? Michelle says not yet – if ever.

“It’s working for me, being in the North East,” says Michelle, who is Hartlepool born and bred. “People are happy to fly here for meetings and I value the support of my family here. I think when you’re building a business, it’s important to be surrounded by a network of people closest to you.”

After graduating from Northumbria University in 1998, Michelle moved to Nottingham to take up her first job with a lingerie supplier to Marks & Spencer, following that with a role in a design house supplying high street names such as Topshop and Miss Selfridge. She then moved to Playboy Intimates UK and progressed to design director, which unavoidably brings to mind bunny girls and Hugh Heffner.

She tells a hilarious story of being invited to the opening of a Hugh Heffner casino in Las Vegas and blagging her way into the VIP area, declaring herself “Playboy Playmate of the Month July 2004” as she wafted past the security men.

“There I was, in a £20 Topshop dress, in this VIP party full of bunny girls, glamorous women and Hugh Heffner,” she says, laughing heartily at the memory. “It was amazing and a lot of fun.”

Michelle laughs a lot. In fact, I am met by her throaty laughter floating out of the bar at Jesmond Dene House as I walk in the door. I arrive to find she has our photographer and the staff thoroughly charmed.

She has an easy, open manner and a genuine love of people. A natural rapport builder, it’s easy to appreciate why people take to her, as she takes to them. Her professional relationships are nurtured, and she is now supporting three ladies in Nottingham – machinists who have set up their own small business.

“It’s important to me to have my designs made in the UK and I’ve found these three lovely ladies who are wonderful at what they do,” she enthuses. “I’m so pleased to be working with them now.”

A lover of detail in design (every knicker has pretty embroidery and frills, every bra is embellished with little ribbons and lace), she has a detailed head for business, too.
“Which means I have to remember to look up and take in the bigger picture sometimes,” she says, “and I’m learning to do that.”

The comedy value of sitting in the elegant surroundings of Jesmond Dene House discussing undies is lost on neither of us, though what most people might not appreciate are the technicalities of lingerie design. “Ah yes, the issue of ‘hoistage’,” Michelle says, that throaty laugh to the fore again.

“Fortunately, I have a very strong grounding in the technical aspects and my designs are glamorous but also very flattering. They are designed to make the most of the figure, to look beautiful and, most importantly, to be comfortable. There is nothing worse than a badly fitting bra or a pair of scratchy knickers.”

She acknowledges the tension between her creative instinct and the restraints of commerciality. The best fabric and trims come at a price, after all.

“My style is very detail orientated, yet there are commercial confines I have to acknowledge,” she says. “I like to combine unusual colours and fabrics, though I have to remember that being commercial and marketable is just as important.”

Whatever the commercial constraints, her designs are truly exquisite – their vintage style mingling with a contemporary, confident sophistication which is all the more alluring because it is not overtly sexual.

Meanwhile, the Tallulah Love website is a beautiful powder pink confection populated by pretty girls in pretty boudoir poses which leaves one with the feeling that no-one should have to endure an unforgiving, ill-fitting harness ever again.

If Michelle’s collection were a woman, she would be Cheryl Cole; beautiful, sweetly beguiling, and elegantly seductive in the manner of the film stars of the 1940s and 50s. Ingrid Bergman, yes. Katie Price – never.

“Experience has taught me what women want from lingerie,” says Michelle. “It’s taken months of sourcing, designing, planning and soul searching to get to this point and I’m so proud that my vision has become a reality.”

One of the reasons Michelle came home to launch Tallulah Love was because she craved the proximity of her family, and when she launched her debut collection at the prestigious Salon International de la Lingerie show in Paris this year, she was accompanied by her parents, her best friend and her best friend’s mother. They all know her fondly as ‘Mich’ (pron: ‘Meesh’).

She is also supported by her partner Kev, who works for the Construction Industry Training Board. He’s a down-to-earth chap who, she says, helps to keep her grounded.

Growing up in a working class home in Hartlepool, she was brought up to believe in hard work and tenacity; attributes which stand her in good stead.

“I’m very tenacious and a natural enthusiast,” she says. “We all get knock-backs, and the fashion industry can be very hard, but I just keep going. I’m very open and very honest and that might mean I’m a bit vulnerable, but I believe strongly and passionately in those values and can only stay true to that.”

She says she has managed to negotiate the intricacies of export and the vagaries of international customs without too much trouble and she won a Passport to Export award earlier this year, having been part of the Passport to Export workshop with UKTI.

There were effusive reviews for her debut collection, with which Michelle achieved that very rare thing – something genuinely different. Most lingerie designs are either very vintage, very staid, very contemprorary or overtly sexual. Michelle’s designs defy one swift sound-bite – their colour, vibrancy and confidence, and their vintage elegance embodying something genuinely new and exciting.

And now, I have new knickers, and they are the loveliest knickers I have ever had the privilege to wear. It seems the world is about to love Tallulah Love. n