COMPANY PROFILE: Honey Birdette
Eloise Monaghan formed Honey Birdette in November 2006 with the vision of creating a provocative, high-end women’s lingerie store that empowers women to embrace their sexuality. Headquartered in Surry Hills, Honey Birdette’s current store network comprises 11 stores in Queensland, 16 in NSW, nine in Victoria, five in Western Australia, and four in South Australia. In recent years Brett Blundy’s BBRC has invested in a large stake of Honey Birdette and BBRC is working with Monaghan and her team to expand the business the business throughout Australia and internationally.
JG: Where did the Honey Birdette idea come from? It is much more than just a lingerie retailer; how has the Honey Birdette offer evolved over the last decade?
EM: My mother had worked in retail shops when I was younger and one of them was a lingerie store. She always had great lingerie, so I was semi-inspired by that and semi-inspired by my time in London. I could see that there’s a real gap in the market here. It’s something that I’m intensely passionate about and I’ve always wanted to run my own small business.
I went shopping in an adult shop one evening for a friend’s hen’s night. There was a man smoking behind the counter and it was just all kinds of awkward. Truckers were in there who were probably more awkward than me. I just said, ‘there has got to be something better than this for women. I’ve always been quite passionate about women’s sexuality and embracing that. So that night, I came up with the concept with a friend and came up with the name Honey Birdette. I forgot it the next day due to too many champagnes, and then it came back to me. We started out slugging it out in a store in West End [in Brisbane], which is the worst possible location for luxury lingerie. I learned a lot from that store. We gradually got into a shopping centre here and there and then into our first Westfield. That was exciting.
I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect because obviously we were stocking massagers and toys as well. It was not a small percentage of our sales – it was 20 per cent of our sales – but about five per cent of store space. Then we realised we’d hit the nail on the head with the concept itself. My background was branding and growing brands and making them visually appealing in terms of having a certain tone of voice. So Honey Birdette was always going to be an experience.
JG: Obviously there is a correlation between lingerie and adult products, but it’s not the most obvious of moves to stock them together in a retail store that is not an adult store…
EM: We’ve got to the stage now where she [our customer] is thinking about her lingerie before she’s thinking about her outfit. And generally we design [lingerie] to be seen. I’ve always felt that there was a space for very provocative, yet practical, lingerie that could be worn every day. For me, it is. I suppose Honey Birdette is the riding crop of lingerie, but more than that, it’s a power thing. We found, with women, because I’ve worked a lot selling in the high street in Brisbane, it’s a thing that she put underneath her suit to make her feel even more powerful. And no one knew that she was wearing a suspender, but she would just walk down the street with a glint in her eye. It’s basically the lingerie you’d wear when you go in for a pay rise, because you’ll get it.
You can see it in our Honeys [instore staff]. It’s the way they walk, the way they talk. It sounds ridiculous, but your lingerie can change your behaviour and the way you act and how powerful, or empowered, you feel. It’s just embracing our sexuality and not being ashamed of it. And it’s not adult lingerie and it’s not Bonds. It’s really a fashion statement for her and she’s wearing it because it empowers her, and she doesn’t care about anyone else. She’s not worrying it just for her boyfriend; she is wearing it because it makes her feel good. And that’s our whole philosophy and it’s our whole business – it’s framed around customers and, for me, customer is the most important thing in the world. We are in a privileged position be able to discuss the most intimate aspects of someone’s life – with them in a shopping centre. That’s why we provide such a glamorous fit out and salons and champagne and shopping. Because we want it to be an experience where from the first moment they walked in to the moment they walk out to the moment they open that package and they use that product and love it, it’s 110 per cent sophisticated, sassy, and a little bit sinister.
EM: I don’t think I’ve ever set about to fail at anything. I don’t think I ever doubted that we would succeed. It’s not being arrogant, it’s just my nature .To get something like [Honey Birdette] into shopping centres to begin with, and to have it embraced, to have all the leasing managers come to you and go, ‘wow, this is a concept, this is different’. At the moment, we’ve got a thousand H&Ms everywhere…it’s nothing special. It’s the same cookie cutter format. And yeah it’s great and the basics are all there, but is it a special shopping experience? No…and it’s not meant to be. But at the same time it’s not exclusive – I can get it online. We try and treat every store a little bit differently; we’re not rolling out massively and quickly. That’s what we’re doing with our new Pacific Fair store – it seems like Disneyland in there. It’s so exciting.
JG: What is your dialogue with leasing agents like in terms of Honey Birdette being perceived as a risk for shopping centre operators?
EM: We fought the leasing agent in the beginning, for sure. Because once the concept was established and once we had our first centre store, they could see that there was a concept there. The girls were dressed a certain way, so was something that was a bit fun and unique in a very homogenous environment. We fought councils more. We fought Christian groups. We fought the adult sector. The adult sector tried to get some major suppliers to boycott HB because they felt that we had an unfair advantage of being inside centers. Well, change the way you do business, and maybe you can too. I think we are sophisticated and we are definitely a global brand. I can see Honey Birdette in the US, in the UK, and Europe. We’ve got our Covent Garden store [in London] opening in August, which is a great location. Then a couple of others quickly off the back of that. Then we are also exploring other markets. I just think it’s something different, it’s something unique and a bit cheeky, and it provides a point of difference than what’s in a normal shopping centre.
We know what Country Road looks like, we know what Witchery looks like. They are all amazing brands, but I like to give a point of difference to each store now. You might go into one and it’s equestrian, you might go in another and it’s Studio 54, you might go into another one it’s got a disco ball and a showgirl. We want to have a different footprint for each area – relatively the same cabinetry, but a different footprint. We are always thinking about what can we do in terms of our products to make these more premium. We really think about what we’re doing; it does take six to 12 months to get a design from table to floor but we’re proud of that. We won’t reengineer based on pricing. We price the product according to what we think the product is worth, rather than the margin. It’s a quality product that I think is so much more sophisticated than most of the other products out there in the same category.
JG: How did Brett Blundy get involved in the business?
EM: I think he walked into the stores and liked what he saw. We chatted and he was very complimentary of what we’ve done. I didn’t know who he was but he seemed genuinely excited guy for the brand. Then the discussions became more and more. We started to open in Sydney city and Parramatta. We talked a lot. It ended up being absolutely the best thing; BBRC are such a professional group to deal with. You are constantly training, constantly educating, constantly going to academies and learning about continuous improvement. So many parts of the business I’ve learned so much more about as a result of the education I’ve got through BBRC. It sounds a bit corporate – and I’m the least corporate person you’ll know – but I really do get a lot of value out of it. It’s changed the business dramatically. We’ve expanded to 46 stores; we are looking at international operations, and the digital footprint is becoming larger and larger. We’ve got a massive social following. I probably credit most of what I know today, besides the brand and product, to BBRC.
[The business] has changed so dramatically. We’ve expanded to 46 stores, we are looking at international operations, the digital footprint is becoming larger and larger. It is a massive social following. I probably credit most of what I know today, besides the branded product, to BBRC. Even then, brand and product, I’ve learned a lot.
JG: How many more Honey Birdette stores can the Australian market accommodate?
EM: I’d say 10, maybe. We could double up in the city locations and do a few more after that in WA. But I’d say there is probably not more than 60 stores in Australia. But you just don’t know what’s going to happen. To be honest, as they come up, I look at them. We were quite closely with BBRC and when the property is right, we take it.
JG: That, in a sense, forces your hand to look overseas for further ongoing growth then…
EM: Yeah, possibly. I’d love to have a global presence and a digital presence. I think we are right for the UK market. I think in terms of our pricing our products, I think we should provide the right balance. There are a lot of brands in the UK that are owned by private equity and you don’t really feel that experience anymore. I experienced that first-hand when I was over there, so I think we can bring a lot of passion to an industry that should be all about passion. We’ve got some long ideas, but we’ve really nailed the product in the space that we’re in. I think we are probably the only lingerie brand in the world that’s releasing a collection a week, which is obviously hard for our very small team of designers, but they are a very innovative team. We are looking at doing things differently all the time. It’s really exciting for us.