Michelle Mone: Bra wars

It's a billion-pound business in which the men do the talking, innovation is king and industrial sabotage is not unheard of. Josh Sims meets Michelle Mone, the Glaswegian lingerie entrepreneur who's got the whole world after her cleavage
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The bra may seem a humble enough garment, kept undercover and appreciated for its contents rather than its structural qualities. And yet, on St Valentine's Day next month, when lingerie sales reach fever pitch, consider this: it is a world of industrial espionage and cut-throat takeover bids, full of white-coated teams in expensive labs trying to create the next conical, push-up, Cross Your Heart, Wonderbra, Ultrabra, or some other device named like a cartoon superhero...

Michelle Mone is the exception. Just six years ago, as a 25-year-old mother in Glasgow, Mone dreamt up a bra in which moulded silicone of the kind usually used in breast-enhancement operations would provide the holy grail of the bra world - lift, support and cleavage without the sometimes painful underwiring typically required to achieve such impressive effect. Mone's device had the added advantage of mimicking natural tissue, so the illusion was convincing.

Two years of research and development later, the result was a deceptively simple and now heavily patented concept called the Ultimo. Its launch in New York's prestigious Saks department store racked up a six-week waiting-list, no doubt boosted by Julia Roberts having worn an Ultimo in the film Erin Brockovich (rather than Camilla Parker Bowles, also a fan). Now, with sales expected to break the £10m barrier this year, Ultimo products are on the verge of going global. Last week, the company dropped Penny Lancaster, Rod Stewart's partner and the "face" of Ultimo, in order to turn some other, yet-to-be-announced buoyant hopeful into a household name.

Not surprisingly, Mone has been offered multimillion-pound deals for her high-tech business. Not surprisingly, she has declined, even launching an academy to train other women would-be entrepreneurs. Declining has not stopped the intrigue: last year, Mone was attacked and her car stolen, complete with her new prototypes.

It is easy to see why Mone may be being closely watched by her competitors. She has not been short on ideas: prior to entering the bra market, she designed luminous wire and a new take on the milk carton, but, as she puts it, "taking on Tetra Pak seemed just too much - taking on Wonderbra is bad enough". She also created the first Backless Body, last year's biggest-selling lingerie item in the UK. "And then people started asking us for a bra that you can wear with a backless dress that also has a very low cleavage," she says. "The technical boys said that it was impossible: you can't have a bra with no back and no front. And you know what? We've done it. We've engineered silicone elastic to support and cling to the body. It was very difficult to make because if you get it a centimetre out, the whole garment falls apart. But we managed it."

She has also been decidedly headstrong and independent in what is a ferociously competitive industry dominated by just four giant corporations (Sara Lee, Vanity Fair, Warnaco and Maidenform), which grew by around 40 per cent over the Nineties - during which, worldwide bra sales nearly doubled, from $2.2bn in 1989, to $3.8bn by 1997. According to the market-research agency Mintel, £647m was spent on bras last year in the UK alone, with 80 per cent of all women buying at least one bra.

Creating the ultimate bra - the only type of lingerie not easily imitated - would, for any of these companies, be a dream come true. Inevitably, Ultimo's launch was, as many revolutionary innovations are, followed by claims that the idea was stolen. Indeed, the last 10 years have seen the bra world go supernova with business shenanigans. Gossard - part of Courtaulds Textiles, a leading supplier to Marks & Spencer and also owners of the Berlei brand - held the licence for the famed Wonderbra until 1994, when Playtex took it back. Gossard had developed its own Super-Uplift and then Ultrabra, and had sold $8m- worth in the US and was expecting to sell $20m-worth by the end of that year when the Wonderbra was relaunched - and the bra wars began. The year that the Ultimo appeared, the Sara Lee Corporation launched a successful $240m bid to take over Courtaulds Textiles, and now owns well over half of the UK's bra market.

"When Ultimo launched, certainly I was naive," says Mone, who will front a TV series on business start-ups later this year. "The lingerie market is very tough, with tens of millions spent on advertising. Lingerie is probably the most competitive part of the clothing industry to be in. But I'm also very determined. It occurred to me that all the big bra companies are run by men - and what does a man know about what a woman really wants? He can't say whether a certain bra's wiring or fit really feels right, not unless he wears it at the weekend.

"Nor do men generally know what women like. Funnily enough, most women don't like impractical lingerie with furry bits on or stuff that's held together by chains. People still tell me that a certain pair of briefs won't sell because the statistics say so. I still say 'make it anyway', because I know it will."

Mone's instinctive approach, and the benefit of personal experience, have made her a new leader in a business closer to engineering than soft-focus images of peachy frills might suggest. Whether it will keep her there is another question. Those with the biggest labs may win out. Even the most basic of bras requires a dozen different sizes (and still 80 per cent of women wear the wrong one) and extensive development: hooks, straps, at least two parts to each cup, precision fitting, heavy sewing - more recently replaced with new hot-melt technology that allows the parts to be fused together - dye techniques and fabric technology, such as the industry's pioneering use of nylon, Spandex, Lycra and, recently, CoolMax. Old in bra-science terms it may be, but even the Wonderbra assembles 54 different design elements to give what the scientists call "natural projection" with minimum padding.

Certainly, Mone's giant competitors also have new products, impressive both in their technology and results. With a market now including the Natural Liquid Miracle Bra (with liquid-filled inner pockets) from Victoria's Secret - which has announced its intention to launch a new kind of bra every year; Vanity Fair's wittily named It Must Be Magic (and not the padding) bra; the Frederick's of Hollywood H2O Waterbra, and so on, the science of bra design is more futuristic than ever. Recent developments have included Berlei's Berlei One, an ultrasonically bonded, virtually stitch-free bra that was two years in development, and the Ultrabra Airotica, a cleavage-enhancer with crescent-shaped airbags stitched into each cup and inflated using a miniature pump - for which 100,000 women placed orders before it was even launched. Playtex's latest, Magic Feeling, uses "differentiated elasticity", whatever that is, and patented bonding for a super-light bra.

Creativity in bras may not be new. While Luman Chapman patented a breast support in 1863; and the first boneless bra is credited to a debutante called Mary Phelps Jacob in 1914, it is Maidenform that is credited with inventing the modern bra back in 1922. That got the ball rolling: in 1943 the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes employed his aircraft engineers to design the first cantilevered bra, to bring forth the considerable twin talents of Jane Russell in The Outlaw, and five years later, the intimate- apparel retailer Frederick's of Hollywood introduced the first push-up bra, using wire and fabric filling, and named the Rising Sun. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, when the rise of feminism resulted in bra-burning as a statement of protest and solidarity, science came to the rescue: the discreet Invisible Bra, by Warner, of 1969, allowed you to both support the cause and yourself.

But nor has the market become easier. Such undergarments are additionally complex because breasts themselves are very varied, in shape, symmetry and size, with breast tissue ranging from as little as 8oz in one woman to 10lb in another. Add to this the potential bottlenecks and component shortages of the kind that Maidenform attributed to its recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and it is easy to conclude that the bra manufacturer requires an iron fist in a silk cup.

"The basic problems of bra design are well understood: how you might wire it, how to cushion it, the shape of the cup, and so on. But bra design for big busts especially is much more complex. It certainly proved much more complex than we had anticipated," says Dick Powell of Seymour Powell, the product design company. As well as products for BMW, Casio, Dunlop and Morphy Richards (for whom they created the first cordless kettle), two years of research into how bras support the bust resulted in the creation for Charnos of their Bioform, a prototype three-dimensional undercup support using an armature rather than a traditional underwire. "Bra design is part of fashion design because bras are essentially sold on style. But that means there is still very little understanding of the issues of body mechanics, especially with the loading and stresses involved in bras for big busts."

Developmental costs are astronomical, and with copyright-infringement court cases seemingly always on the go, the odds are stacked against small companies such as Mone's. "It never seems to be Gossard versus Wonderbra," says Mone. "It's always one of them versus us. There's room for new people, but you need a lot of money behind you and a lot of guts in you because you'll have to be prepared to take some of the biggest risks of your life. Last year, I had my house on the line. Again. When I've got three young children. That's crazy. I still get really infuriated by all those big companies out there always trying to rip us off. Sometimes, it's a compliment. But in business terms, you just want them to go away. What has kept us ahead are inventions that no one else has thought off."

Mone continues to work on new products. One top-secret item will launch later this year, and she promises that this, too, will break new ground. But now it seems that everyone is at it, trying to create the next uplifting invention. Even a company as tiny as the Bronx-based S&S Industries has recently been awarded a US patent for a new kind of underwire that, sitting on a small spring, promises to never poke through the fabric. Scientists elsewhere promise "smart bras" that use sensors to make self-adjustments; and another that detects abnormal cell growth is already undergoing tests and expected on the UK market within the next three years.

Perhaps we are already pushing the limits of bra technology. Maybe it is time for a new erogenous zone. After all, hosiery manufacturers such as Aristoc and Pretty Polly, with their rear-reshaping and lifting Wonderbum and Bumboost tights, are all set to give behinds the next leap forward.