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The Brand – Van de Velde
Belgium’s best-known lingerie company may sell undergarments, but on the world stage it’s no underdog
Walk into any lingerie store in Belgium and you’ll see just how well things are going for luxury lingerie company Van de Velde. Many of its brands, most notably Marie Jo and PrimaDonna, are present in the country’s high-end boutiques, and brand recognition of the company is spectacular. Although that is not yet the case in neighbouring countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or France, it would be a mistake to suggest Van de Velde is a purely local success. It turns out there’s more to the company than meets the eye.
Spanning three generations, Van de Velde has evolved from a small family business that started off making corsets in the early 20th century to an international operation with a scope that includes product and brand development and an expanding global retail network. Last year, the company made headlines when it announced the acquisition of a majority stake in British company Rigby & Peller, best known for being the official supplier of undergarments to the Queen of England.
The story of Van de Velde as we know it today starts with brothers Herman and Karel Van de Velde and their cousin Lucas Laureys, who inherited the company in 1980 from Herman and Karel's father William Van de Velde. Almost immediately, they decided to implement some changes. “It was a beautiful company: profitable, with a strong reputation and without any debts. However, it was still a relatively small company,” explains Herman Van de Velde, a member of the third generation of the founding family and current managing director. Sensing a shift in the market, the company’s new bosses understood they had to go along with it. “My father wasn’t exactly a creator,” Herman says. “He launched new products, but only if and when inspiration struck. Now, there’s a system for it: creation is at the heart of this company.”
Gradually, the company turned from a supplier of undergarments into a fashion business that produces 5.5 million items every year. Van de Velde started creating and buying brands and put design departments in place for each of them. “We took care not to lose sight of the quality of our product, though,” says Herman. “It’s always a question of matching creativity to functionality, because fitting is so important. A woman will never decide to buy lingerie when she sees it; she will decide once she tries it on.”
Herman’s daughter Lien joined the company five years ago and quickly rose to the position of brand manager for Marie Jo L’Aventure, the less ornate and slightly sportier sister brand of Marie Jo. She explains the make-up of the design team: “We have stylists and pattern makers, but we also have much more technical profiles such as material and production engineers,” she says. “They take care of the fitting and quality by developing special materials, studying elasticity and checking durability. The composition of each collection is actually pretty much teamwork.”
The strategic move to become a fashion company quickly paid off for Van de Velde. Today, the seasonal collections generate 70 percent of the company’s turnover. The remaining 30 percent comes from its more timeless articles. “The majority of our business is done with products that are less than six months old,” says Herman. This conclusion leads him to explain the second big change the company has undergone in the past few decades. “Van de Velde has turned into a marketing company. My father used to say: ‘Just make a good product and the rest will follow.’ That is true, and we’re still obsessed with our product, but it’s not enough anymore.”
So in 1981 Van de Velde launched its first new brand, Marie Jolie, later shortened to Marie Jo. “That was our breakthrough as a producer of brands,” says Herman. The company went on to buy German brand PrimaDonna in 1990 to expand its reach to bigger sizes, and it later added spin-offs such as Marie Jo L’Aventure, Marie Jo Intense (fashionable sports lingerie) and PrimaDonna Twist (bigger sizes for a younger audience) to target different subgroups of customers. The company also bought Spanish brand Andres Sarda in 2008, the design team of which remains in Spain but works closely with the production team in Van de Velde’s home town of Schellebelle in East Flanders.
“While marketing Van de Velde, we needed to make clear choices,” says Herman. “Compared to the previous generation, we upgraded significantly. With the price of a bra starting at €55, we are all the way at the top of the pyramid, in the most luxurious segment of the market.” This market positioning and the company’s ardent devotion to the right styling and fitting of its products on its customers led to important consequences for the company’s retail strategy, the final focus point for this generation’s leadership. “You can buy lingerie online or in supermarkets, but not ours. We sell only through specialised retailers,” explains Herman. “That was not an easy decision to make, because this kind of retail business has been steadily declining in recent years. In Belgium you’ll find many good, independent lingerie boutiques, but that is less and less the case in the rest of Europe.”
This evolution could have posed a sizeable problem to Van de Velde’s expansion plans, so the company decided to take matters into their own hands. Starting with the opening of its own stores in Germany (under the name Oreia) and France (La Boutique Marie Jo), Van de Velde later set its sights on acquiring strategic retail organisations or multibrand store chains in other countries to reinforce their presence in local markets. In 2007 it started an alliance with American chain Intimacy Management LLC, in which Van de Velde would go on to take a majority stake in 2010. “Before our involvement, 20 percent of Intimacy’s turnover was based on our brands,” says Herman. “Today we’re up to 45 percent.”
The same story goes for the acquisition of Rigby & Peller last August, and the latest joint venture marks the introduction of Van de Velde into China, as it joins forces with Hong Kong-based marketing and distribution company Getz. “We decide which brands are sold in those stores, but we are smart about it. It’s not possible to fill them only with our own brands; our assortment is too limited for that. You need to complement it with beach- and nightwear, for example,” says Van de Velde. “Besides, how could we decide from Schellebelle what the local markets need? Gradually, we’d like to organise a buying structure in which roughly 50 or 60 percent is managed from here, and the rest is up to the local market.”
For all its international ambition, Van de Velde’s operations are still fundamentally Belgian. The headquarters are still in the same town where it all started in 1919, and everything apart from the actual assembly of the products happens there. “The design teams are here, we have European fabrics shipped to here and cut on the premises and only then are they shipped off to Tunisia, China or Romania to be assembled. All finished products come back here for quality control, packaging and distribution,” explains Herman.
Lien, who is in her twenties, is too young to really remember the early days, but as the first member of her generation stepping into the family business, she does sense a change: “You notice how everything is growing bigger and more structured. It’s a challenge to keep that specific family philosophy and authenticity a part of the company in the future, but I think it’s important to stay in tune with that enthusiasm and passion so typical for family companies.” It has got them this far, and you can’t help but wonder what else is in store for this Flemish family business.
Founded by Margaretha and Achiel Van de Velde in Schellebelle as an atelier for corsets
Their son William Van de Velde joins the company
The third generation takes the wheel: brothers Karel and Herman Van de Velde and their cousin Lucas Laureys
Launch of the first real brand, Marie Jo
Takeover of German brand PrimaDonna
The company buys a stake in Top Form International, a Chinese producer of lingerie, and moves parts of the assembly process to Hong Kong
Opening of own stores in Germany and France
Takes majority stake of 87 percent in British lingerie company Rigby & Peller and creates a joint venture with Hong Kong company Getz Bros for retail in China