Stepping into the ornate Art Deco foyer of the QT Hotel, past the suspender-clad door greeters and floor to ceiling glass cages has always transported me far away from the Sydney streetscape directly outside. This time, it was as a guest of Passionata for their Australian launch. For a brand whose current Spring-Summer 2015 campaign is centred around Dutch beauty Valerie van der Graaf frolicking through a hypercolour carnival, the QT Hotel with all its highly themed kitsch was the perfect setting.
As I stepped through the door of the State Suite, I was greeted by the lovely Isabel, to whom I owed thanks for the kind invitation. She promptly plied me with a flute of sparkling wine and introduced me to Alain. My first impression was of a sharp-witted, friendly, bespectacled French gentleman in a well-tailored suit.
“Mr. de Rodellec?” I inquired.
“Yes!” He seemed startled that I knew his name.
When it comes to lingerie, I imagine that Mr. de Rodellec is startled by little else.
As Head of Group Exports for the Chantelle Group for the past 10 years, Alain has been instrumental in the lingerie group’s international expansion and success over that time. Founded in 1876 by François Auguste Gamichon, the Chantelle Group’s umbrella of brands (encompassing Chantelle, Chantal Thomass and Passionata, among others) is still famously family-owned and operated.
A key milestone of this brand was innovating technology in elasticated fabrics through the family textile engineer in the 1930s, and incorporating those fabrics into the production of girdles in the 1940s at a time when women were doing away with heavily boned corsets (for that, we have Chanel’s “little black dress” in Vogue to thank). In the 1970s, Chantelle introduced the first moulded, seamless bra to the market.
The impression I had before meeting Alain was that with over a century of dedication to the female form, Chantelle has always focused on innovation surrounding comfort for its end users.
After admiring the models posing in the luxurious bedroom, viewing the colourful new Passionata collection and meeting some more of my fellow attendees (whilst resisting the brioche burgers and baby pink cupcakes that were loudly calling my name), Alain and I sat down for our interview. Our ensuing conversation was warm, engaging and indeed fascinating for this self-confessed lingerie addict. Since I tend not to have conversations with a pen and pad of paper, I have boiled down the essence (ie. paraphrased) into a Q&A below.
Q: Before Chantelle, you held managerial positions at BIC (yes, I stalked you on LinkedIn). How was the move from stationary to lingerie?
A: (bemused) Ah, so you know this! Yes, I was at BIC for some years. When I went over to Chantelle, it was made very clear to me that the position was not about fashion and frivolity, but very much about running a business. My role is focused on expanding the brand internationally, although of course this expansion must be done with the vision of the Chantelle Group at heart.
Q: Yes, I understand you have a long history of innovation and a clear reputation for classic design – quintessential French lingerie. Chantelle innovated with girdle technology earlier in the last century and released the first strapless moulded bra in the 1970s, which I was very surprised to find out. What is the current vision that you are trying to convey, across all your brands from high end to the younger more playful Passionata?
A: Across everything we produce, the three most important things must always be Fit – Comfort – Support. Although we pride ourselves on our reputation for classic design and a long history of experience, the focus is definitely on those three points.
Q: Tying in with this vision, and given the history of innovation, is reforming and revolutionising technology in lingerie still a primary focus for Chantelle?
A: Most definitely. We currently have a Research & Development team of 40 people who are constantly monitoring the consumer base, as well as working closely with textile engineers and manufacturers for constant innovations in fabrics. As time has passed, we have made sure that our products are not only maintaining our classic reputation for design, but that those designs are evolving in line with the body morphology of women. (Dear reader, many articles have been published recently citing that the average bra size has increased by over 3 cup sizes. Lingerie retailer Intimacy held a USA-based study showing a jump from 34B in 1983 to 34DD in 2013)
Women’s busts are increasing in size and they need bras that not only support them with the right fit and comfort, but also with beautiful designs. This has been a huge focus for us during my time at Chantelle.
Q: Passionata has released its latest lines up to an H cup. You rarely see such fun and playful designs in the larger sizes. It is definitely refreshing to see and extremely welcome to so many women I know who are plagued with that dilemma of finding something that fits but is also actually gorgeous to wear.
I would however like to know if there is anything else specific in terms of technological innovation. Is there anything you can tell me about?
A: Yes, I can. You are aware that typically strapless bras are lined with silicone to help from slipping down the skin. Silicone has however been receiving press attention from health and environmental advocates regarding its potential detriments to health. Our R&D department has worked on creating a strapless bra that stays in place without the use of silicone, and we will be releasing it soon.
Q: That is very interesting and definitely something I will be watching out for! So we are here for the launch of Passionata in Australia – with a strong boutique presence of both Chantelle and Chantal Thomass here, why was now the right time to launch the “playful younger sister”, so to speak?
A: Passionata has been successful across its target demographic in our other regions. Starting with Europe, we felt there was a definite increasing demand from younger women for fun, beautiful lingerie across other regions. We have launched Passionata across Europe, America, as well as Asia and now Australia. Partnering with a large retailer like David Jones, where Chantelle and Chantal Thomass are already successfully stocked, we felt comfortable that we also had the right distribution network to support the introduction of Passionata. In Europe, we have standalone Chantelle Group stores as well.
Q: Would you think of opening any standalone Passionata stores in Australia in the near future?
A: Not in the immediate future. We will start with David Jones and our existing independent boutique stockists. It is constantly an exercise of cost versus market demand. Even in Europe, we have found that we cannot have single-branded stores as consumers increasingly want variety when they shop. They can find that in a department store. To compete, we therefore stock a range of brands across the Chantelle Group family in our standalone stores.
Q: I definitely agree with that strategy. Speaking of consumer mentality – When I think Passionata, I immediately think “young, fun and playful”. When it comes to this image however, Australia already has a strong presence of brands like Kayser, Bonds and Lovable that fit that “vibe”. Although Passionata is hitting a lower price point than the other luxury brands in the Chantelle group, it is still priced above these existing labels with a large presence in the psyche of young lingerie consumers accustomed to “fast fashion” intimates brands. How do you strike that balance between perception and price point?
A: You have hit the nail on the head here. This is a question we are constantly asking ourselves, and a balance we are constantly working to strike. There is definitely that trade-off. A bra at $60-$70 is still quite expensive for a young girl. Even though we see Passionata as young and fun, we still want to convey the same sense of high quality (in fabrics and manufacturing) that is inherent in Chantelle and Chantal Thomass. This has also been an important consideration in our retail partner. David Jones conveys the level at which we wish to position Passionata. It holds the essence of luxury lingerie, but with a younger attitude. We are showing that luxury lingerie should not be thought of as unattainable or only for special occasions, and that women can feel luxurious as well as a certain spark and vibrancy.
Q: You mentioned the Asian market. I was born in China, grew up in Australia, studied in Europe and subsequently lived and worked in USA and Asia for several years. Being a lingerie lover, I noticed that attitudes towards lingerie vary almost to an extreme extent across some regions. For example, in Asia, instead of focusing on supporting the bust, a lot of lingerie is designed with almost completely stiff padding that sits on top of the bust to create the shape instead of fitting it.
How have you found the cultural differences in your global expansion?
A: Asia has been an interesting exercise for us. We have found that across Europe, Americas and Australia, attitudes towards fit, comfort and support are largely uniform. All of our lines have been able to roll out across these regions (except for the few we sell only in France). I have also experienced what you have said about Asian attitudes to lingerie. Due to some difficulties we faced marketing our brand at the outset, we did in fact make a separate line of lingerie specifically for Asia, to sell alongside our international designs.
Q: A line that was only sold in Asia? How did that go? Did you think of partnering up with local celebrities to advertise your brand, as that is what works with other large luxury brands? I would always see billboards for the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton modelled by Asian actors and models.
A: First of all, it wouldn’t be in line with the Chantelle Group’s marketing strategy to create separate advertising campaigns for its different regions. Therefore we felt we had to change our designs to suit the local market, as we felt it was the styles that the local market was not accustomed to. As fate would have it, we eventually found that customers did in fact want a European lingerie brand for European designs. Our original designs ended up selling much more successfully than the designs we created specifically for Asia, and we ended up discontinuing that line.
Q: And how long did that learning exercise take?
A: A good 4 to 5 years.
Q: Moving on to trends in lingerie design – a large movement over the past few years in both established and also smaller independent designers has been the “strappy” or “bondage” look. I understand that the Chantelle Group always wishes to maintain its reputation of class and elegance, however when there is such a large movement in this trend, is it something the design department even considers?
A: You are right in saying we always wish to maintain classic elegance in our reputation. However if we see a trend in lingerie, we will always consider it. The Chantelle Group is not however a follower of trends. When it comes to any new designs or trends, we always put it through our test of the three main points I mentioned earlier. Does it add anything to the fit, support or comfort of the bra?
Q: I see. As much as the strappy trend is aesthetically interesting and edgy, it would not add to the fit, support or comfort of your designs as they currently stand.
A: That’s right. Having said that, if another trend comes along, we will definitely consider it also – we will incorporate it into our design as long as it adds value somewhere in those three essential categories.
Q: When the global community thinks of French lingerie, the standout is a brand like Agent Provocateur, known for its highly sexualised and luxurious image. How does the Chantelle Group see itself compared with a brand like this?
A: We are definitely very different and operating towards different markets. Agent Provocateur is a great business, and known for being very sexy with a focus on aesthetics. We however focus on the luxury lingerie image having those three focuses on fit, support and comfort. Aesthetics are not our primary focus; we only add the beautiful designs once we are sure the bra has its foundations in something any woman can wear every day.
We ended the interview with French cheek kisses, bountiful gratitude and an exchange of business cards. Alain was an intriguing man with insights I would have loved to pick through for much longer, and the conversation flowed freely. Alas I could not in good conscience monopolise his time entirely. I enjoyed the rest of the evening immensely, and my willpower eventually fell quite happily to the call of those brioche burgers and cupcakes.
Many thanks to Alain de Rodellec for his time and insights, and to Isabel at Bespoke PR for the invitation. I cannot wait to style Passionata’s exciting new line into future photshoots, and am already a happy owner of several pieces from the gorgeous colourful SS15 collection. The Chantelle Group focus on wearable luxury is definitely what this lingerie addict is feeling!