From start-up to the pages of Vogue: ‘How I founded a lingerie company’

Not too long ago Emily Bendell moved back to her dad’s house in Nottingham in order to save money. She is now running her own lingerie company, Bluebella, which has been featured in Vogue, worn by Kate Moss and shot by Mario Testino.

To say that entrepreneur Emily is doing well would be an understatement! She has just been invited to both Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. No biggie.

Want to know how she found investors, what she wears to work and what her advice is to aspiring entrepreneurs? Here List for Life talks with the businesswoman.

1. Why did you decide to start your own company?

I wanted to work for myself and create and build something. I have always loved lingerie and I wanted to create a product that I felt didn’t exist but should! I felt women had evolved and the definition of what lingerie was about had changed, yet the market had not moved on from the traditional idea of sexy. I wanted to build a brand that spoke to me and my friends – a lingerie brand that was all about modernity, fashion and strength.

2. Talk us through your career journey so far.

I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at university and on graduating worked as a legal and business journalist. I enjoyed the role and the travelling it incorporated but the idea for Bluebella was growing in my mind and I didn’t want to always wonder ‘what if’. When the lease on my flat was up, I quit my job and moved from London back to my dad’s in Nottingham to cut my outgoings and work on the business.

With a small amount of initial capital, I started work. I wanted to first test the concept so before spending money on designing and manufacturing our own product, I went to countless trade shows to try to build contacts, find suppliers, and network with buyers.

I bought in small boutique brands that couldn’t be found in the UK and got out there myself to get customer feedback. The first sales were to friends and family and at local events and gradually the customer base expanded through word of mouth and local and regional press. We were then able to design and manufacture our own ranges.


Image Credit: Emily Bendell

3. What has been the most amazing, ‘pinch me’ moment of your career so far?

Bluebella was featured as the cover shoot on Sunday Times Style. I felt like we had really arrived then as a fashion brand and not just a lingerie brand. Since then we’ve been in VogueGlamourLove magazines and top stylists are calling us for major shoots with Kate Moss and Testino. On a business front, I have been invited to 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

4. How did you find initial investors?

Getting investment wasn’t easy. It was the depths of the recession so the banks weren’t lending. Plus, we have an issue in this country in that most of the business angel community are male and as angels tend to invest in sectors they know – female focused businesses can be overlooked. It was tough and disheartening hearing lots of ‘nos’. But perseverance paid off. I eventually found an all-female business angel network called Addidi and completed an investment round with Addidi, some other angels and some government match funding.

5. What would your advice be to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Being an entrepreneur can be very hard and very lonely. I think having a mentor is invaluable for those moments when you just need to vent to someone! Tenacity is also key. You need to be able to constantly pick yourself up after falling down and always find ways around each problem rather than accept it. There are a seemingly never ending set of pitfalls to starting a new business and you are going to make mistakes – they are inevitable. The main thing is to not allow the setbacks to get you down. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, just deal with the problem and try to learn from it.

6. Do you think women in the world of work have a tougher time than men?

Improvements have been made to reduce the pay gap and it’s much better for women in their 20s but it drops off horrendously after having children and that is something we need to address.

7. Have you ever experienced sexism?

Yes, I’ve had meetings with potential investors where they have asked my plans around starting a family, which would be illegal in an interview situation. They wouldn’t have asked a man that question, so it’s simply not acceptable to ask a woman.

8. What are the biggest hurdles that women in business currently face?

There are clearly issues around investment – the angel community being male dominated and discrimination against women of child bearing age. But I think there is masses of opportunity for women in business and in my experience being female has, outside of seeking investment, been incredibly positive.

9. What do you like to wear to work?

My style is very modern and probably quite androgynous. I love my flats – and I often wear brogues or trainers with cropped trousers and a shirt or with a dress or pleated midi skirt.

My work in the office can be quite hands on so I can’t have clothes that are too structured, so I look for stylish and comfortable outfits but that are still smart enough for business meetings. I will often have impromptu meetings with buyers at the last minute so I can’t go to work in jeans and a t-shirt.

I like high street brands like & Other Stories, Cos, or Whistles especially for workwear and I’ll mix these with the odd designer piece or accessory. I go for clean lines but occasionally drop in vintage pieces. My grandmother had incredible style and left me some incredible items, some of which she made herself.

10. What is the greatest piece of style advice you have ever been given?

Feel comfortable and confident in what you wear. However great an outfit, if it doesn’t suit you or looks awkward in any way, it simply won’t work.

Now what?