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November 23, 2017
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Rigby and Peller campaign images.
Rigby & Peller masectomy bra
PrimaDonna Couture masectomy bra.
Source: rigbyandpeller.co.uk.

Growing up, perhaps one of life's greatest lessons came from Mum: "You should always have a good bit of scaffolding, namely a well-fitting bra, and a matching pair of pants." She wasn't alone in her sentiments. As German playwright, poet and theatre director Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1928 in The Threepenny Opera, "From the cradle to the coffin, underwear comes first."

It wasn't until Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer last April that I fully understood what this philosophy meant to her. It symbolised her femininity, her womanhood - her greatest identifier with her self. I didn't realise at the time that it would also underpin one of our toughest journeys together as mother and daughter.

The invasive surgery, hospital visits and conversations with doctors were punishing for us all, but they come with the territory. Complications, challenges and impenetrable emotions are to be expected. What you don't often hear about, however, is how to cope with the aftermath - both as patient and family member. Restoring confidence in the same woman who taught you its meaning in the first place doesn't have a textbook answer.

Mainstream mastectomy bras are - to put it mildly - unflattering. They seem to assume that cancer strips women of both breast and identity. The hospital prosthesis lacked all ability to remain discreet within Mum's shapeless black and white sports bras, while shopping for underwear became an eight-hour ordeal, pitted occasionally by embarrassing compliments from well-meaning shop staff. "If you've got it, flaunt it," said one.

The hospital prosthesis lacked all ability to remain discreet within Mum's shapeless black and white sports bras, while shopping for underwear became an eight-hour ordeal, pitted occasionally by embarrassing compliments from well-meaning shop staff. "If you've got it, flaunt it," said one.

As I shared these troubles with those around me, one name kept cropping up: Rigby & Peller. I decided to book a bra fitting appointment at the Knightsbridge store for Mum as a birthday gift. When she returned, complete with delicate pastel-hued lace underwear, she was bursting with confidence - who knew the power of a good bra, hey? Well, the company's longstanding owner, June Kenton, for one.

"When you're a mastectomy patient, you can really feel terrible suddenly, but why should you?" asked Kenton when speaking to The Independent in April 2008. After all, "A normal mastectomy takes around two hours and you're not an old lady when it's finished. You want to be able to go back to wearing and buying fashionable underwear […] it's very important to us at Rigby & Peller that we have amazing mastectomy bras and swimwear, by a brand called Anita, and that we take regular bras out of the same drawers that we take mastectomy bras from. All of the swimwear is hanging up together."

As Kenton elaborated to The Genteel, "often we are the first people that mastectomy customers have spoken to so we put them at ease and make them feel comfortable. Every Rigby & Peller store has mastectomy specialists on hand, to help customers with these difficult emotional issues."

Breast awareness is also "a major part of Rigby & Peller's existence, and something I have always felt very passionately about," says Kenton. "We had a campaign in 1997 where we printed one million tickets that went on every single bra and swimwear item that was sold [and] reminded people to examine themselves in the shower. It was a very successful breast awareness campaign."

Although Kenton was diagnosed with grade-three breast cancer in November 2007, she claims her own experiences have had little influence on the company's approach; "I have always been breast aware, and wanted all our customers to be breast aware too."

June Kenton Rigby & Keller
June Kenton.
Photograph courtesy of Rigby & Peller.

Rigby & Peller is not exclusive to mastectomy customers, however, and has an extensive client list that has previously included the likes of Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother. Kenton also possesses the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Corsetieres to H.M. Queen Elizabeth II ("she was absolutely lovely").

As with all her clients, Kenton emphatically notes that she has never discussed her meeting with the Queen with anyone. "I would never discuss anyone else's details; lingerie fittings are a very personal and private thing, not only for the Royal Family but for customers too. I believe it is important that you keep what you've seen to yourself."

As Kenton fully understands, fitting a bra is a deeply intimate and personal task, and needs to be handled with sensitivity. "Our Lingerie Stylists still go into the fitting room with every customer. We don't measure anyone with a tape measure - we do it all by sight. It is staff intensive but it is the only way to get a proper fitting and it's why we have such loyal customers, because we are experts at what we do."

Rigby & Peller's managing director, Sharon Teasdale, explains the motivation behind this philosophy. "Every 'body' is unique. We want to ensure that the product fits perfectly onto every woman's shape. A tape measure is great to use on straight lines, but never on shape. Our Lingerie Stylists understand how all our products fit, but they also take into account other factors such as each customer's style personality, cuts that are the most flattering for your shape, and colours that suit certain skin tones […] they offer a highly personal and tailored lingerie styling experience for each customer."

Kenton's philosophy for what makes a good bra - 'the underwire should be doing the work so that your shoulders don’t have to.'

Whether young or old, Rigby & Peller caters to everyone. "We really do have a wide mix of ages with our customers starting from 16 upwards when many are introduced to the brand by their mothers, and they continue to visit year after year," Teasdale told The Genteel, "Luxury doesn't age so why should women of a certain age only have the opportunity to wear it?"

This philosophy has carved out the company business model since Kenton first took over, but there have been many significant changes along the way. Hungarian Jewish refugee, Gita Peller, and her landlady, Bertha Rigby, first established Rigby & Peller in 1939. A reputable retailer for bespoke lingerie, it was taken over by Peller's cousin, Tessa Seiden, in 1954. However, in the early 1980s, Kenton received a phone call asking if she would like to buy the struggling company.

"My husband Harold and I were already running a successful lingerie business, Contour, but we only had one store. We heard Rigby & Peller was for sale, they had the Royal Warrant and they did made-to-measure lingerie, which we didn't, so we decided to take the plunge and buy it in 1982." The sale cost a reported £20,000, and since then, the husband and wife duo have transformed the low-key London store into a worldwide destination retailer.

For Kenton, the most notable change in the industry during these years has been cup fittings. "The biggest cup fitting was a C when I first started out. Colour options were also very limited. It was a choice of white, beige or black. We had a waiting list for black! Rigby & Peller revolutionised the industry. We were the first people in the UK to introduce [size] 30 round the back as you simply couldn't buy it before then."

Rigby & Peller Marie Antoinette corset
Made-to-measure Antoinette bra.
Photograph courtesy of Rigby & Peller.

One of the brand's biggest changes came in August 2011. Kenton sold an 87 per cent stake of Rigby & Peller to Belgian lingerie company Van de Velde for the reported figure of around £8 million. She candidly remarks, "Harold and I were getting on in age, Van de Velde had asked us many times did we want to sell, and the opportunity and timing was right. It was a question of moving the business forward, and we weren't prepared at our age to expand as we should do."

This sale has not come at the detriment of Rigby & Peller's sense of British heritage or exclusivity, though. Instead, it seems to have followed Kenton's philosophy for what makes a good bra - "the underwire should be doing the work so that your shoulders don’t have to." Both Kenton and her husband "are still involved in decisions and asked [for their] opinions on certain projects" and "the lovely thing about selling to Van de Velde is there didn't have to be any major changes."

For the past seventy years, the company has saved millions of sagging breasts from the power of gravity and reminded thousands of women about the importance of well-fitted lingerie. But the true success of the company remains predicated upon whether or not Rigby & Peller can retain Kenton's sense of professionalism and luxury service - for it is this that really sells the bra.

www.rigbyandpeller.co.uk

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