Case study: from the law to lingerie

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SME meets Vicki and Ian Ashman who have enjoyed a rather surprising career change

Before you set up Scrumpies in 2017, you were both international lawyers. What led to you to set up your own business?

Ian: When I retired in 2013, I thought I was going to become bi-lingual in French and become a scratch golfer! Generally, the idea was to have a rest and enjoy some proper leisure time. However, I always thought that I would want to use the skills I’d learnt in the world of law in a new arena and that I would relish the challenge of making a success of something totally new. I’ve always wanted to have a project that was totally our own. As lawyers we had grown the law firm over the years from a small business to a global operation but we accomplished that as part of team. After about 18 months of retirement we realised that we were both getting quite bored. No-one could understand how retirement was stressful but it was and I knew I needed to start using my energy and business expertise again. However, I didn’t retire from the law to then start working in same industry again so I was looking for something totally new.

Ian and Vicki on their trip to Iceland to research their “Northern Lights” knicker

Vicki: When we retired we had quite different ideas about the future. I had plans to run a coffee shop and write a book. We both wanted to be more available to do things with the children. I certainly didn’t have plans then to start a knicker business! However I think there is a point where work is so hard-wired into your day that it is impossible to switch off. Over a period of a year or two, we realised that we’d wanted to retire from the business of law but not from business altogether.  I also think it’s important for children to see their parents do different things, to work at goals and to overcome obstacles. Our sitting around waiting for the children to finish school wasn’t good for anyone.

Tell us about Scrumpies. Why did you decide to move into the lingerie business?

Vicki: We saw a gap in the market between the safe but boring cotton knickers for sale on the high street which every woman has in her underwear drawer and the top end lingerie brands that are not only intimidating to wear but jaw-droppingly expensive. Scrumpies’ knickers sit in that middle ground – special, beautiful but still very wearable. In terms of market trends, the 21st century has heralded a change in attitude towards knickers. Consumers are more open-minded to the idea that knickers can be more than simply a gift from a lover to a woman. It’s now acceptable to buy knickers as a gift for your friend or your sister for example. Our brand takes advantage of that trend. Overall the gifting market for the brand has been   bolstered by the fact that each Scrumpies’ design is different so it’s possible to really personalise the gift. We had one customer buy four different designs for four different recipients, for example.

Ian: We chose the name Scrumpies because ‘scrumping’ or stealing apples from an orchard is a uniquely British form of mischief. We thought this encapsulated the ethos of our brand – British, fun, a touch mischievous. Each pair of Scrumpies is named after a different apple – Golden Delicious, Gala, Pink Lady and so on.  The Mayfair bit comes from the fact that every design was initially thrashed out, literally, around our kitchen table at our home in Mayfair.

What is unique about your products?

Ian: We are a brand set up by individuals for individuals which makes us very different from the retail conglomerates that dominate the high street.

Vicki:  Lingerie can be clichéd and disappointing to wear or feel. We are committed to quality, style, fun and class. It’s a brand born out of fun and joie de vivre. There is nothing boring, dark or intimidating about Scrumpies. We also wanted to bring knickers into the mainstream! As well as our male customers, we are delighted to see women buying Scrumpies for their sisters and mates. Women should be able to do this and without a doubt Scrumpies is the best lingerie gift on the market.

What were the challenges in the early days?

Ian: We only launched last Autumn so we are really still in the “early days”. We’ve relished the challenges and learning about a new industry. If we’d wanted an easy ride we’d have reinvented ourselves in our comfort zone of law. We were faced with setting up the entire brand infrastructure from design and manufacturing to distribution, sales and marketing. We had to educate ourselves quickly and ensure that we enlisted top quality partners in the business.

Vicki: One issue for us as novices to retail was separating good advice from bad. When you are new to any business sector you are susceptible to a lot of advice from veterans of the industry who feel you should be educated on how things are done. For example, at an early stage we were told that a brand ambassador was essential to our product launch strategy. Signing a brand ambassador is actually quite a tricky process because there are lots of stakeholders which makes negotiations difficult. Luckily for us our negotiations were so painful and protracted that it gave us time to work out that we didn’t actually want a brand ambassador. In fact, having one would be contrary to our brand ethos. The whole point of Scrumpies is that there is one for every woman. We shouldn’t promote one face of Scrumpies because that isn’t our vision. This was an important moment for us –  realising we had to have the confidence to keep our own voice.

How does your design team operate?

Ian: We had lots of experience of running business but were obviously new to lingerie design and retail. We needed to recruit and retain the very best to help us. As part of the recruitment process we ran a competition for the best “Pink Lady” design. We had plenty of great submissions from prospective designers but were so lucky to get Ruan’s designs. As the stand out submission it was instantly clear that Ruan got the Scrumpies’ vibe and he is an amazing talent. We were also very lucky to engage the expertise of Doug who is our Creative Director. He is a photographer with many years of big brand experience. Success for Scrumpies would only come if the brand was launched with an appropriately professional and high end look. Doug has been instrumental in ensuring that the Scrumpies’ message looks fantastic and that we are always consistent to our brand.

Vicki: We are still small enough so it’s always a team effort and the designs come from inspirations we have all had. For example, the Gala design was inspired by a parrot we saw while on holiday in Marrakesh which we photographed and sent to Ruan to paint. 

Where to you hope your business will be in 2020?

Ian: Our three-year plan takes us to a turnover of over £3 million which would be a decent start. We are in this for the long term with the goal to build a global brand. We’ve made a very strong start with the brand in the UK and US but see exciting opportunities for the brand across Europe and over the Middle East.

Vicki: Each knicker comes with a charm in the shape of the apple core which is the membership card of the Scrumpies’ Club. We are really going to focus on that element in the coming months and connect with members over special events, partnerships and promotions. Our goal is to make  Scrumpies a loved and trusted household name and in the knicker drawer of women across the globe!

Scrumpies of Mayfair are priced from £35, available at www.scrumpiesofmayfair.com