Factor Bermuda joins fashion’s big league
At Holt Renfrew in Canada, Melissa Leach’s Factor Bermuda hangs beside Balmain, Gucci, Zimmerman and many other big names in fashion.
It’s an impressive feat for the designer, who had the luxury department store chain in her sights when she launched her brand of sun-protective, sustainable swimwear two years ago.
“I was always in awe of Holt Renfrew,” she said. “I’m from New Brunswick, from a very small town in Canada on the East Coast, but whenever I travelled to Toronto I would go to Holt Renfrew.
“It’s obviously not something we had where I was brought up. I would walk into the stores and be really in awe. It was so incredible looking at all the big designer brands, and what they were doing was really exciting for me. And so I decided pretty early on that I wished to be a buyer at Holt Renfrew.”
Ms Leach entered the fashion world as a model but was always more interested in the business side of the industry. After she completed her studies she spent 15 years in the UK, working in wholesale and on the strategy side of such brands as Burberry and Jimmy Choo. In 2007 her life was disrupted when doctors discovered she had skin cancer. The experience led her to create Factor Bermuda, which offers UPF 50+ protection, after she moved here from England.
In 2020, the retail industry lost billions of dollars as manufacturing was put on hold or cancelled and stores were shuttered because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, Ms Leach sent her lookbook out to “all the top buyers”.
“I have a very selective list of the stores that I would like to be in,” she said. “I call it selective distribution because I really feel like my brand is at a high level price-wise and also construction-wise. So I have a top 20 of who I’d love to sell to in the world. Holt Renfrew was obviously very near the top of that list.”
Inspiration came in her late teens when she read a newspaper article about John Gerhardt, a man from her town who had been appointed the company’s creative director.
“Being creative director of Holt Renfrew’s a big deal; I was just so excited by it. I thought: this guy’s from my town and he achieved those things in fashion.”
She was thrilled when Mr Gerhardt, now director, creative services with Moët Hennessy (LVMH) in France, replied to a letter she sent congratulating him on his achievement.
“I told him how much I really looked up to him and how I wished to work in fashion and at Holt Renfrew someday and he really sweetly replied with words of encouragement.
“It was just so lovely for him to do that. It pushed me further; it just kind of made me believe that even though I was from this small Canadian town, that I could achieve my own goals too.”
She continued: “I’m never one to appreciate my own accomplishments. Whenever I’m feeling like I’ve accomplished something I’m on to the next thing.
“So definitely with this achievement I had a moment where I sat down and tried to realise how far I’ve come and tried just to really appreciate it. It’s a big deal for me.”
Having worked in the industry she knew just how hard it would be to get her brand noticed. Although she received a lot of encouragement from previous contacts, many of them had changed roles or moved on.
“I think buyers from the bigger stores maybe get a bad rep – I think it’s because so many people are contacting them on a daily basis, trying to get their pieces in their stores. So it’s not easy to get in contact with the top buyers in these very important stores.”
That she was able to do that was “incredible”.
“They were so incredibly lovely – from the beginning,” she said. “I set up a digital office [in my home] and I had a local model come and try on all the pieces so that the buyers could see them.
“In part maybe it was a little bit easier because digital buying was really all any buyer was doing from last season because of Covid. So I think it made buyers more open to that process – not seeing it in a show room live, but seeing it digitally.”
It typically takes “several weeks” to get feedback from buyers and the response to small brands such as hers is usually negative, Ms Leach said.
“But the moment I finished my presentation they told me immediately: we love it. We think it’s not like what anyone else is doing. We think it’s really very beautiful and different and we would love to have it for all of our top stores.
“To have them say these wonderful things about the brand and be genuinely interested in selling the brand at their amazing store is so encouraging to me because I’m only really in my second season.”
She was even more thrilled when, months after the initial order was placed, Holt Renfrew’s buyer asked if they could triple it.
“I think this is only the beginning,” Ms Leach said. “What I’ve launched with was a core capsule collection of five styles. Other designers I worked with in the past ran into trouble because they launched too many pieces too soon.
“What I wanted to do was launch something that was a really strong foundation for the company; see how that performed and build on it from there. So that’s what I’ve done.”
The designer is working with an agency to expand Factor Bermuda’s wholesale distribution to the Middle East, Asia, the UK and Europe next season. She also intends to increase the number of pieces – “from five to eight or ten” – and add “some lighter colours, some brighter colours” and a hand-painted print that “celebrates Bermuda”.
“Every print that I do, every colour choice that I make, I really want it to be very reflective of Bermuda because the brand is Factor Bermuda and I always want to celebrate Bermuda and this beautiful island as much as I can,” she said.
Factor Bermuda has been available from www.holtrenfrew.com since May. The swimwear can also be found in Holt Renfrew’s main stores in Toronto and Vancouver. In Bermuda, visit Hamilton Princess & Beach Club and The St Regis Bermuda Resort. Island-wide delivery is available through factorbermuda.com.
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