If you're like me and many other American women, you probably have a drawer full of lingerie but only a couple of bras you wear regularly. I bought my two favorites back in 2012, which I now realize is quite shameful. In my defense, the bras fit me perfectly at the time and were expensive purchases, about $100 each. I picked them up at Intimacy, a lingerie boutique specializing in hands-on bra fittings, at my mall in Houston after a frustrating trip to Victoria's Secret.
Intimacy has since been reincarnated across the U.S. as Rigby & Peller, a British lingerie multi-brand shop founded in 1939 by two female corsetières. June Kenton bought the company in 1982 and, after an audition meeting with Queen Elizabeth, managed to hold onto the business's royal warrant to fit Her Majesty. That's right — you need a royal warrant to fit the Queen's breasts and Kenton has it. Her other clients include the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cambridge aka Kate Middleton, as well as celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga. Belgian lingerie manufacturer Van de Velde bought a majority stake in Rigby & Peller in 2011, a year after it brokered a similar deal with the Atlanta-based Intimacy. But after Intimacy saw comparable sales decrease by 10.3 percent in the first half of the 2015, according to WWD, the Belgian bosses decided to invest in the Rigby & Peller name. In the face of emerging online-only lingerie brands touting expert fit advice, Rigby & Peller is doubling down on the in-store fitting experience. In addition to locations in the U.K., China, Germany, Denmark and Hong Kong, the brand now has 12 shops in the U.S., all former Intimacy spaces.
On Tuesday, I stopped by the 5th Avenue store in New York for a bra fitting and to meet U.S. CEO Ginny Gerard. "We've taken on an international name, but everything that they love before is still here," she said when asked what changes former Intimacy customers might notice. The specialists are largely the same and fittings conducted without measuring tapes are available to all shoppers. "Our training in fact hasn't changed, it's actually increased — we're offering more," said Gerard. Rigby & Peller's U.S. stylists are trained for six to eight weeks in stores and at the headquarters in Atlanta to learn how to visually assess breast tissue shape and firmness and how to approach customers apprehensive about the process. Stylists have to also be experts on the different brands the shop carries, including On Gossamer, Stella McCartney and Van de Velde's Andres Sarda, Marie Jo and Primadonna. "I've worked in retail a long time and quite often as a sales associate, stuff shows up on the selling floor and maybe you went to a meeting and had a muffin and halfway listened and hoped that you would get something," said Gerard. "But what we see is you have to very passionate about lingerie to [work] here in the first place."
The stylist who fit me, store manager Candece Etafo, was extremely knowledgable and calming as I stood topless and confused in front of her. She hooked me into different styles and sizes (disclaimer: I was sent home with a free bra) and explained that women need to check in with their bras every six months. Breasts change even if you aren't going through puberty, childbirth, nursing or menopause and it's a mistake to commit to a certain size for life. I identified with a woman in the changing room next to me who was upset her cup size had increased. Her stylist calmly explained it didn't mean her boobs were bigger. (Brands vary greatly and different combinations of bands and cups are equivalent.)
I chatted with Etafo about my personal hangups — skin on my back that bulges over the bra band right behind my armpits — and she reminded me that the bothersome skin actually allows me to raise my arms above my head. A wider band style fixed the problem and I wondered if the Queen herself has made a similar request. Etafo also recommended a steady rotation of five to seven bras, including a sports bra and a strapless one, and to wash each after three wears. Forget Woolite, she added, and use a lingerie specific detergent instead that preserves elasticity.
"You really need to feel it, you need to experience it," said Gerard. "There are so many aspects to the fit that the opportunity to physically try the product on — you can't take it out of the equation." Intimacy clients might also notice that the new Rigby & Peller stores have a bigger range of bras than before, both in size (especially with smaller band and bigger cups) and price (less expensive). The most popular sizes in the shop across the country are 32E, 32F, 34E, 34F and 36G, but cup sizes go up to a J, including GG and HH.
Gerard says the company is turning its focus to the online business now, too, hoping to have the offerings reflect what is available in-store and help women who've been fitted keep shopping. You can make a fitting appointment on the site, as well. "There's a place for online shopping for everyone, we all have constraints on our time but there's really no replacement for taking the time for yourself," said Gerard. "The magic happens in our fitting rooms and it's really the one-on-one experience."
For those who are accustomed to mass market lingerie brands, the Rigby & Peller experience will probably convince you to spend more on fewer, better built styles. The Marie Jo bra I picked out on Tuesday retails for $131, and there were several more models I wanted to buy — including the best sports bra I've ever tried on — but was discouraged by the price. Clearly, the Queen has no such deterrents, but there is a strange comfort in knowing she's choosing from a similar selection. Rigby & Peller won't reveal Her Majesty's favorites, so I've decided she's wearing a well-fit, lacy balconet bra under all those colorful coat dresses.