The Interview: Gillian Ridley Whittle of Peachaus on creating a brand with purpose
Gillian Ridley Whittle, founder of Peachaus, has held some of the most prestigious roles on the British (and Australian) high street. Her career has taken in director-level roles at Marks & Spencer, Target and Topshop to name three. So, when she found herself looking for a new role following the sale of Topshop from the collapsed Arcadia to ASOS in 2021, she initially thought she wanted to take on another big role.
However, after the bruising experience of presiding over womenswear at Topshop over the pandemic era during which its parent company went into administration and the brand was eventually sold to ASOS, Ridley Whittle came to the conclusion that continuing what she calls "an ego-driven career" was the last thing she wanted.
"I was stressed out, not very happy, and I wasn’t seeing my kids or my husband as much as I wanted and [another big job] just wasn't what I wanted," she explains.
She admits she was "burned out" from pursuing such a high profile career for so long and "disillusioned" with what the fashion industry had become at the hands of high street giants. She felt ashamed by the waste, the relentless pursuit of cheaper prices and newness, and, as such, had a revelation. "I realised I was part of a fashion system that was broken. I realised that I was part of the problem and I had to be part of the solution to the problem," she says.
She spent some time reflecting on what to do and decided to establish her own brand that would embody the values she held close to her heart, but also she wanted to create a new blueprint for creating a fashion brand; one that put humanity and the planet at its core.
Having previously headed up lingerie for UK market leader Marks & Spencer, Ridley Whittle decided to focus on what she believes is the under-served lingerie and sleepwear market. She wanted to create underwear that was feminine but not overly sexy, which was also sustainable, supportive and comfortable.
"I really felt like there was a gap in the market left by Elle MacPherson Intimates," she says of the aesthetic she wanted to achieve, "I really miss [that brand] and thought I could fill that gap."
Elle Macpherson Intimates was a range of lingerie and sleepwear created by the Australian supermodel in partnership with Australian lingerie group Bendon. It was wildly successful, offering feminine, flattering and, while not cheap, accessibly priced options for women of all shapes, sizes and ages. In 2014 Macpherson and Bendon terminated their partnership and the Australian group went on to launch a line with German supermodel Heidi Klum, which is no longer running.
Ridley Whittle's knowledge of the lingerie market and suppliers gave her a clear advantage when it came launching a brand in this space but she felt she needed to nail her purpose before going to market. She also needed a backer and a mentor. To add to the challenge, this was all taking place during the time that Covid-19 was sweeping across the planet.
However, Ridley Whittle is a great believer in positive energy and things happening at the right time, or at least the right people happening at the right time. "When you change your life and start a new course, I truly believe that the right people come into your life and that started with Cedric," she says.
Cedric is Cedric Wilmotte, CEO of Michael Kors. "My friend was coaching Michael Kors' team and she said 'I think you should meet Cedric'. I wasn't sure why at first but I met him and I immediately understood why she had introduced us. He said he wanted to invest in brands that put humanity and the planet first.
"He told me I needed to dig deeper on my purpose, so I went away and did more work on that and the financials and the whole business plan."
The result was that Wilmotte came on board not just as an investor but as a business partner. "He was very clear about that, he wanted to be my business partner. He wanted to help. He's just so human, so kind and supportive," she says.
Peachaus is a name that that Ridley Whittle had come up with back in 2016 when she was still working for Target in Australia. The name combines Peach, which has connotations of sweetness and goodness, the German word for house, Haus, and Us, representing community.
For Ridley Whittle, the community aspect of the brand is key. She wants the entire supply chain to benefit from the brand. "It's not about winning at any cost. For me to win, someone else doesn't have to lose," she says.
She has also considered cost to the planet, using materials such as organic cottons and bamboo along with recycled polyester and recycled Italian lace to create the collection, which comprising a tight edit of lingerie (bras, bralettes, knickers), sleepwear and loungewear, along with activewear. The Portuguese manufacturers she uses are listed on the website along with links to their website so customers can find out more about how the product is made and also read about their values. Also showcased are the designers of the brand's logo, the prints, the swing tags and the embroiderer used.
While Ridley-Whittle wants to expand the collection, it will only be done in a considered way and the nature of the categories she has chosen means that driving constant newness into the collection is not an imperative. Products such as the Betula balcontte bra, the Sakura front close brand and the Betony briefs will remain constants in the collection as women get to know the styles that work for them and come back for more. Pricing ranges from £55 to £60 for bras with soft cup bralettes coming in at £50 and knickers ranging from £18-£25.
There's a different approach to sizing too. While the old school measures of band sizes coupled with a cup size are still listed for those who are used to it, Ridley-Whittle has devised a new simplified system arguing the old system is archaic, based on pattern cutting and "not real bodies" and is essentially meaningless to modern women. At Peachaus, sizes range from S, M, L for the band size (which relates to your dress size, for instance M is 10-12) with cup sizes ranging from 1-8. Two simple measurements taken under and across the bust will reveal the wearer's correct size.
Ridley Whittle is not the only high profile woman to come from the high street to pursue a more values-focused career and brand. For instance, former Topshop brand director and Whistles CEO Jane Shepherdson is now chair at rental platform My Wardrobe HQ, ex-Tesco category director for clothing and former Figleaves CEO Julia Reynolds has established Reyhouse and, Nayna McIntosh, formerly of Marks & Spencer, Next and George at Asda has established Hope Fashion. All of these brands have strong values taking in inclusivity, sustainability and conscious consumption and it's interesting to note that the high street of old was largely run by men and it's now the women who worked for them who are stepping into the light and pioneering a new way of doing business.
"We need to be softer, we need more feminine energy," she says of the future of fashion. By feminine energy, she doesn't mean fewer men, just a new approach. Excluding anybody couldn't be further from her ethos. "It's about helping other people ignite," she explains, "It's about igniting your own power – the power of you and me. And we're just getting started."