A fitting obsession
Rose & Thorne is proof that it is possible to successfully break into a mature industry and grow with minimal capital. But it takes a truckload of purpose and innovation.
Rose & Thorne is proof that it is possible to successfully break into a mature industry and grow with minimal capital. But it takes, as co-founder Stefan Preston points out, a truckload of purpose and innovation.
It was never going to be easy. Starting off in the low-growth lingerie industry from scratch, stealing market share from big, well-funded competitors and developing sustainable channels to market was always going to be a tall ask. But Rose & Thorne co-founders Stefan Preston and Sue Dunmore had both worked for one of those competitors, Bendon Group, and were under no illusion on what it would take to succeed in such a fiercely competitive market.
It would take an obsession – six obsessions to be precise; around a company culture that involved all stakeholders sharing their values; around team collaboration; around design agility, customer advocacy, deeper relationships with customers, and a focus on the whole customer experience, not just the product.
The credentials of the co-founders meant this company was never going to lack leadership. As CEO of the Bendon Group from 2002 to 2007, Preston had more than doubled turnover and since leaving that company, become a respected director and ‘business designer’. Through his family company Ingenio he provides leadership at a strategic level. His role at Rose & Thorne involves working on the business, coaching, guiding and applying his vast industry knowledge for the betterment of the business.
Sue Dunmore is responsible for the day-to-day running of the business and has worked within the lingerie industry for more than 20 years as a designer, merchandiser and buyer. At Bendon she led a team of 37 designers.
Rose & Thorne started life as a ‘community’ of ex-Bendon employees who were suddenly made redundant in 2010 when the company was taken over by Australians and exported across the Tasman. There are six shareholders, all ex-Bendon staffers, and the team’s been working together now for more than ten years.
“Rose & Thorne is 100 percent owned by employees and one of our key aspirations is to foster a workplace that is both inspirational and rewarding to work in,” says Preston.
Referring back to those six obsessions, he says an example of how they reinforce them is through their internal Facebook group.
“We have employees, potential investors, store merchandisers, suppliers, and even interested advisors on this group. Through this, everyone in the wider community knows exactly what is happening in the company at all times and can contribute to the developing conversation that is Rose & Thorne.
“In some ways we actually know more about what is going on in our customers’ stores than our buyers do.”
Many milestones have already been ticked off – not least of which was developing the Rose Label product program and securing their first major orders from Australia. Now Preston says their biggest challenge is securing sustainable channels to market.
They’ve already made headway and late last year secured a big, new co-branding deal with a chain of ‘Plus-size’ retail stores across the ditch. This followed six months of R&D, producing, in collaboration with customers, a range of custom lingerie based on fit and comfort. Two attributes dear to any busy woman.
By now you’ll have gathered that Rose & Thorne approach design a little differently to the big brands. It’s all thanks to, what Preston labels as “one of the best technical design teams in the world”. He is full of praise for the skills of Rose & Thorne’s designers.
“Unlike our competitors we spend a lot of time with our customers and have insights allowing us to design breakthrough approaches in our products. We offer a superior everyday wearing experience at half the price of comparable options,” he says. “We do this because we design very differently to the traditional industry. It makes a big difference to the wearer, which is why we have so much advocacy from our customers. We just need to get a lot better at getting our message out there.”
So in an industry that, as a whole, is driven by the idea of seduction and sexuality (almost a case of men designing for men), Rose & Thorne is driven by a totally different idea built around everyday qualities. “Three-quarters of women’s lingerie looks sexy, but it is uncomfortable and often lies in a drawer unworn,” explains Preston. “The items that are actually worn tend to be ugly and overworn. Those everyday favourite items could be a lot better, and that is what Rose & Thorne is redefining. We aim to ‘sass up’ what has traditionally been a very dull space.”
Ask Preston what lessons business has taught him over the years, and he immediately cuts to the philosophy behind Rose & Thorne.
“My most profound observation is that most people build businesses the wrong way around. They start by determining strategy and then implement business design ideas in support of it. Of course, we should start with profound insight into what value we can create for our customers and then implement a business design that serves this first, and then takes care of our need for viability. That is basically how Apple beat Microsoft.
“The other learning has been on the value of focusing on the culture in and around our businesses. Businesses are basically ecosystems of individuals who’re voluntarily trading resources. Looked at through this lens it becomes obvious that our traditional view of management leaves a lot of potential on the table,” he says.
On the export front, Preston believes the ‘winning orders for products’ strategy is fundamentally flawed. “It is commodity-led thinking that has seen many companies trying to sell in too many markets with too little resource on the ground. The model we must aim for involves creating a compelling branded experience in the offshore market, preferably with local people on the ground. This approach is more competitively robust, has higher margins and is way less risky.”
From a business perspective, Preston believes retail fashion is a flawed model too. “For an industry based on creative design it’s ironic that the default method of promoting and distributing it is so conventional.
“My advice is to find out where people have a serious unmet need and then design a unique brand that serves it. For example, right now there is a real gap in the market for women’s clothing that is a lot more flexible and comfortable for all the demands of the busy work day. Lulu Lemon made lots of money solving this problem from a sport perspective. But where are the mainstream fashion brands when it comes to solving this problem?
Looking back Preston says their Bendon experience, while a great one, was ultimately disappointing because the foundations they built up were eroded in, what he calls, “the pursuit of short-term goals”. Now with Rose & Thorne they’re pouring their energy and creativity into creating a company built on a “solid and sustainable foundation”.
“Even in our infant state, every single day at Rose & Thorne is better than the best day in our previous roles.”
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.