The last 21 years have been a “steep learning curve”, says Sarah Tremellen. Bearing in mind her line of business, the words ‘curvy’ or even ‘super curvy’ would be more apt. For Tremellen owns Bravissimo, the lingerie retailer for bigger-busted women. The company recently opened its first shop in Birmingham, selling bras in D to L cup sizes, as well as swimwear, nightwear and strappy tops. But it’s been based in the West Midlands since 2001.
Bravissimo – the name is the superlative of ‘bravo’ in Italian – is an uplifting (sorry about that!) success story. It has grown from a tiny mail order company that Tremellen started in her living room into a company with a £50m turnover, 26 shops, 750 employees and customers across the world. And it’s all been achieved without the help of venture capitalists or shareholders: Bravissimo has grown steadily but organically and remains wholly owned by Tremellen and her husband, Mike.
In the meantime, the couple have also raised three children, now aged between nine and 21, juggling the baby duties and school runs between them. In fact, it was while she was pregnant with their first child that Tremellen came up with the idea for Bravissimo. Almost overnight, she recalls, her boobs went up from a C to a DD cup – but she couldn’t find a pretty, fashionable bra to fit her. After her son, Will, was born, they blossomed again, to a G cup.
Back then, in 1995, well-endowed girls weren’t well catered for in the bra department. An E cup was considered huge, and most manufacturers didn’t make bras bigger than a D cup. Those that did gave scant attention to how they looked. Functional, yes; sexy, most definitely not.
So Tremellen, an Oxford-born Cambridge graduate who was working as a BBC researcher and living in Twickenham, sat down with a friend, Hannah Griffiths, who was also struggling to find the right bra for her curvier figure, and decided to do something about it.
They put themselves on an eight-week business course before making a successful pitch to a high street bank for a £10,000 loan. “We’d done some research, which included speaking to manufacturers, and we decided to get every make of bra in a large size we could find and put them under one roof, so that people could see what they liked best,” Tremellen recalls.
The two women designed a catalogue and set up a database, with most of the 75 names on it being friends and family. Yet it soon became clear that bra-makers had boobed (that’s the last pun, honest!) by failing to make lacy, feminine lingerie for the larger-chested lady.
After a slow start, the friends managed to get an article in a national newspaper, and the phone started ringing off the hook. “Over the next three days, we had about 1,300 phone calls from women who were desperate to buy our bras.”
Two years after Bravissimo started, Tremellen bought Griffiths out of the business. Three years after that the company went online and opened its first store – in Ealing – and in 2000, husband Mike left his job at tea giant Tetley to become business operations director. In 2001 the company moved its headquarters to Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, where it’s been ever since. From here, staff run a phone and online fitting service, allowing customers to buy direct from the website.
Although it hasn’t been all plain sailing, the company has weathered the storms of recession and grown steadily to become the household name it is today. “We have been quite fortunate that we’ve been able to grow the business by financing it ourselves,” says Tremellen. “Maybe we could have grown faster if we’d had more investment, but we were happy with the way we chose to do it, which was focusing on the long-term without the pressure to deliver short-term profits.”
In the UK, there is now a clothing range in standard 8-18 sizes, but with different boob size options: ‘curvy’, ‘really curvy’ and ‘super curvy’. And Tremellen says there are plans to expand overseas. “We would really like to take it international. At the moment we sell in sterling, so although we can ship all over the world, customers have to buy from the UK website. What we want to do now is to have international websites.”
So what’s the secret of the company’s continued success, especially now there is stiffer competition out there?
“It’s partly the relationship we have with our customers,” says 50-year-old Tremellen. “We are absolutely customer-centred; it’s something I am passionate about. Right from the start we have asked our customers what they want – and we’ve listened to what they’ve said. So we can really say that we know what customers want.
“Also, we offer women a really good choice – we stock bras in about 90 different sizes. Although there are other retailers that now offer big sizes, their range is limited.
“One of the things we’ve always tried to do is to ensure that customers leave our stores with a smile on their face and want to come back. That is much more of a focus for me than worrying about jumping through hoops to stay ahead of the competition.”
Another reason for Bravissimo’s success is that because it started out as a mail order company, it naturally morphed into an online operation that has remained an integral part of the business.
The Birmingham store, which has 18 fitting consultants, opened in Cannon Street in August, and there are other West Midlands shops in Leamington and Solihull. But why did it take so long to open an outlet in Britain’s second city?
“It’s really hard for us to find shops that are the right size and shape,” says Tremellen. “We need more fitting and stockroom space than shop floor – and in the right location. But we’re really pleased with the Birmingham store.”
On the walls of the shop – as in the other stores – there are printed messages from satisfied customers. One reads: “I found an oasis in a barren desert.” Outside the fitting rooms there’s a comfy waiting area with cushions and magazines. It’s these sorts of touches that make Bravissimo feel different – more like a private members’ club than a shop. One can imagine that women who hitherto have felt uncomfortable about their bigger boobs feel not only accepted but very much at home.
“From the beginning, Bravissimo was all about celebrating its customers,” says Tremellen, who stresses the company is about big bra sizes, not plus-size clothes. “We wanted it to be a positive thing, and that’s why we called it Bravissimo. A lot of our customers have felt very isolated, although it’s not as bad as it used to be because having big boobs is really normal now. But by coming into one of our shops or buying online they are part of a shared experience.
“Not everyone who comes to us feels positive about their figures – but that’s how we want them to feel when they leave. So while we are a retailer that sells bras, it’s a bit more than that – it’s about inspiring our customers to feel amazing and special. It’s a business, of course, but for me – and everyone who works here – it’s about being proud of the fact we are making a difference to people’s lives and the way they feel about themselves.”
Tremellen, who was awarded an MBE for her services to entrepreneurship and is an enterprise fellow for the Prince’s Trust, has as much drive and spirit now as she did 21 years ago – and that’s because she loves what she does.
“Growing up I was always a bit of a non-conformist; I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. After university I did two or three different jobs, including waitressing, but I felt frustrated – nothing I did felt right. It was only when I was sitting in my front room selling bras that I felt ‘this is me’. It was like suddenly being a round peg in a round hole.
“That said, it’s been a steep learning curve: I’ve had to learn as I’ve gone along, and there was a lot to learn. But I just grew in confidence. And of course my husband has helped a lot with certain aspects of the business. But I feel very lucky that I found something I am passionate about and that I really enjoy.
“At the beginning, I didn’t of course know the end of the story – and this isn’t the end now; we’re only halfway on the journey.”