What I Know About Style

Susana Lorena, founder of Maison SL

May
2

Olivia Allwood-Mollon interviews Susana Lorena, founder of Ledbury Road lingerie store, Maison SL

How did you get into lingerie, was it something you’d always been interested in?

I always loved lingerie. I remember getting my first bra, when I was a teenager. I had a boyish figure as a girl and a late developer and I will never forget the experience of feeling like a woman for the first time. That experience has always stayed with me – how lingerie can profoundly affect the way a woman feels about herself.

You racked up over 20 years of experience, working at places like La Perla, Rigby & Peller and Eres, before starting Maison SL – what have you learnt along the way?

I’ve learnt a lot but there are three things that stand out and shape the way we run Maison SL:

  1. You have to listen to what women want. That is the most important skill in this job, and by listening, I mean active listening not just to the words but to what people mean. Only then we can match their expectations. The customer is at the centre of everything we do.
  2. Luxury is much about the shopping experience as it is about the quality of the products we offer. In that sense, we are selling a service as much as a product.
  3. Curating and managing collections every season is very hard with lingerie and swimwear. We have to take into consideration trends, demand and costs and one of the trickiest things in this business is managing and controlling the stock. If you are selling dresses you may stock half a dozen sizes but the same bra can come in up to 50 or more sizes!

Maison SL is on the lovely Ledbury Road – what’re your favourite things about the area?

I love the area. There’s a great variety of shops (except shoes!), cafes, bars and restaurants and we are close to Portobello Road with its wonderful market. Most importantly, the area has a community feeling. It’s like a little village and we all know each other in the shops nearby and help each other out when needed.

Can you describe your typical customer…

There isn’t a single typical customer because they are so varied. We have teenagers with their mums coming to buy their first bras right through to fashionable ladies in their nineties, with all sorts in between. Students, young professionals, pregnant and breastfeeding mums, and busy working women. I suppose our most regular customers are women in their thirties, forties and fifties who want well-fitting, comfortable bras but are also looking for stylish and beautiful lingerie and swimwear.

What is the most important thing to look for in a bra and fitting?

Correct size and shape is essential. It sounds obvious but you’ve no idea how many new customers we have coming in wearing the wrong size bra. It is also essential to factor in how a woman feels, because if you don’t feel good and comfortable with a bra, it will just sit in a drawer and you won’t wear it. So first we need to understand what our customer’s preferences and expectations are. Then when we do a bra fitting we try our best to make sure the customer feels comfortable and understands the process – why a certain style, colour or shape is going to work best for her. Above all, we make it an easy and fun experience. The majority of our clients tell us that they never used to enjoy bra shopping or buying swimwear.

How does Maison SL differ from other lingerie stores?

We are different in two important ways. First, we are a specialist shop with loads of experience in fitting and styling. The majority of lingerie is sold through big chains and departments where you won’t get the same level of expertise. Second, we can cater for everyone – all ages, shapes and sizes from Cup size A to I. We can do this because we are a multi-brand boutique selling more than two dozen leading brands. With lingerie, some brands work well for certain customers but not others but we have styles to suit all kinds of customers and are not bound to any one brand. We can also order specific sizes, colours and styles for customers and we do so frequently. Department stores will not do that because they need to sell the stock they have.

Do you have a personal favourite brand or designer?

It’s very hard to say. I love all the brands we stock. You cannot beat Aubade for their wonderful French half-cup or corbeille bras. Empreinte and Prima Donna are supreme for larger cup sizes. Fleur of England is a favourite British brand with its delicate, romantic styles and also goes up to an F cup. Lise Charmel and Marie Jo both have a pretty range. For silkwear, Marjolaine’s delicate French lace and Parasol Rose’s beautifully styled camisoles are unbeatable. If I had to pick, Maison Lejaby is one of my favourites for every day and I.D.Sarrieri, the stunning Romanian brand, is a must if you want something really special.

Would you say attitudes to lingerie have changed over the years?

Yes, 20-25 years ago the push up was king but nowadays women favour comfort and more natural shapes and fabrics. Often women ask for non-wired bras and we sell a lot more bralettes. But it’s important to keep this in proportion. The vast majority of bras sold – probably well over two-thirds – are under-wired because many women need the support. And a good wired bra is very comfortable providing it’s fitted properly. Most women don’t get properly fitted often enough. We change a lot in size from our teenage years onwards and your size can vary with fluctuations in weight, hormone changes, motherhood, menopause and so on.

The other big change is in attitudes towards sustainability. Many of our lingerie and swimwear brands are embracing recyclable materials, sustainable packaging and so on. We have swimwear made from polyamide recycled from fishing nets. There’s been a big change in attitudes to sustainability and we see that in the number of unwanted bras we collect for recycling. We run an annual Bra Amnesty to collect unwanted bras for recycling in order to raise money for Against Breast Cancer and the number of bras donated has gone up sixfold over the past year. We now get several 20kg boxes of bras every month. It used to be mainly younger women but now customers of all ages are worried about the environment. It’s a wonderful way to raise money for a fantastic charity and it also helps women in Africa where the bras in good condition are sent.

Do you have a favourite restaurant, cafe or pub near Maison SL?

I love Granger & Co, just round the corner in Westbourne Grove. We always go there early evening to avoid the queues. For a cocktail or glass of champagne after work, I like to sit outside on the terrace at Beach Blanket Babylon. Another favourite restaurant is The Shed, 5 minutes walk  from Notting Hill Gate, with its wonderful menu of seasonal farm produce.

Have you ever considered designing your own range?

Yes, I am working on it and plan to launch our Maison SL range next year. We’ll start small with a range of bralettes which will be different from anything currently out there on the market. Watch this space!

Do you have any tips or tricks to extend the life of lingerie?

The best way to make lingerie last longer is to wash it by hand but, let’s face it, that’s not always possible when we are busy with work and family. So if your machine washes it, do it on a delicate cycle and never tumble dry. Also, remember to hook the back band so the hooks don’t get caught in the lace and damage it.

What’s the one thing you wish more women understood?

That they are beautiful, normal… and a lot smaller than they think. So often we women have hang-ups about our bodies. I’ve even had gorgeous, slim models without an ounce to spare coming into the shop worrying about being overweight.

Do you have many male customers popping in for gifts?

Yes, a lot of the local customers’ husbands or boyfriends shop here as we have everyone’s size and preferred styles on the database. This way it’s easy for husbands and partners to always get the perfect gift in the right size. For first-timers looking for a present we tend to recommend buying a wireless body, or silk or modal nightwear, as they don’t tend to know cup sizes. And if you are buying a woman lingerie for the first time, never buy her something red!

Would you ever consider setting up shop anywhere else

Yes, now that we are well established in Ledbury Road, we would love to open another Maison SL outlet in London but I want to do that within an existing retail business. What would be ideal would be a Maison SL concession within a department store that does not have an existing lingerie department or would like to broaden its range of brands by partnering with a shop like ours.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I love making women feel good about themselves, whatever their size or shape. When a woman that hates bra shopping tells me the whole experience was a lot easier than she thought, and she feels really good about herself, that makes me very happy.

www.maisonsl.com

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