A farmer’s daughter sets off for Umbria in search of love, but instead finds vests (beautiful ones), and returns, inspired, to her Yorkshire home to launch her own lingerie business – and finally meets her match.
True story, even though it does sound like the plot of a quirky, romantic novel.
Susan Johnson, founder of North Yorkshire lingerie and fashion retailer Bella di Notte, happily admits she went to Italy in the 1990s looking for romance.
“I went there looking for a husband, actually – I was getting quite desperate. But they weren’t really up for a straight-talking Yorkshire woman who couldn’t cook like their mother did.”
With no potential husbands, Susan was finding Umbria a little chilly, so she went out one day to the local market in search of a vest. And that was when she discovered some rather lovely merino styles that made the thermals back home look decidedly drab.
“I fell in love with the vests,” she says. “I thought, I like this so much, surely other people are going to feel the same? I looked for a company to work with me, which was not easy 20 years ago, because they would not take seriously a 29-year-old girl who was trying to run a business.”
Eventually, Susan found a willing vest manufacturer run by an Italian couple. She says: “I started designing products that they didn’t make. For example, Italians don’t wear Long Johns, so I started designing them. They thought it was hilarious. The lady said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t get undressed in front of an Italian man wearing Long Johns’.”
On Susan’s return to North Yorkshire, Bella di Notte was born and business blossomed, along with a new romance. “When I started working in lingerie, the men were much more interested in me and I found a husband immediately,” she says.
Susan still lives near Helmsley, and has now been married to Chris for 20 years. He works for an agricultural machinery business in Malton, but helps out on Bella di Notte, particularly with IT. They have two children, Eddie, 12, and Jessica, 11. “They all muck in and help,” Susan says.
Her love – yes, love – for vests began when she was a child, growing up on the family farm on the moors near Bransdale. “I’m a cold person. I was outdoors always as a kid, horse riding and mucking out. I had to keep warm, so my mum always used to buy me vests, so I had quite a strong opinion about them.”
After a degree in Business Studies, Susan got a job with Black and Decker working on product development and packaging. All useful experience, but she soon felt that corporate life wasn’t for her, hence the decision to move to Italy.
Today, beautiful vests (in merino and silk, cotton, and micromodal styles) still represent a quarter of Bella di Notte’s business. They became particularly sought-after when Bond girl Olga Kurylenko wore them in Quantum of Solace. “It put us on the map – we sold a lot of that vest,” Susan says. “They fit well, without side seams, and form a complete second skin on your body. They last for years, and they are pretty.”
Lingerie brands stocked by Bella di Notte include Prima Donna, Felina, Anita, Marie Jo, Triumph and Lejaby, with expert bra fitting, post-surgery consultations and sample sales at its store, which has moved this month along with the whole business from Helmsley to larger premises in Malton.
“The move has been prompted by business growth,” Susan says. It’s a growth that has come from branching out into fashion and outerwear about five years ago. “Because we do a lot of bra fitting, we ended up in trouser fitting – basically, ladies’ bottoms, because us ladies have problems in finding a properly fitting pair of trousers. We’re now selling 5,000 pairs of trousers a year,” she says.
Bella di Notte is now the biggest UK stockists of German brand Brax, which specialises in trousers for different body shapes. The move arose from Susan’s own experience of trying to find trousers that fit both her narrow waist and her wider hips. She says: “It was driving me mad. Someone told me about these trousers and I tried them on and they fitted – and it was all my trouser problems sorted.
“An unfortunate fact of life is that, as you age, you lose your bottom and your thighs thin and your waist thickens, so you end up having trousers being baggy on the bottom, and tight on the waist.”
Fortunately, Brax has specialist type of trouser especially for this problem, too. There are three basic trouser shapes – the Shakira, a slim fit; the Mary, good for apple shapes; and the Carola, which works for pear shapes. They come in a range of colours and fabrics, with two-way and sometimes three-way stretch. They wash and wear, and although they cost £100, they last three times longer than many High Street brands, say Susan.
There are 16 staff members now at Bella di Notte’s new headquarters at Malton Enterprise Park. Next, the company will develop new knitwear lines.
With Susan’s knack of spotting a gap in the market, it should work well. “We had a tough time surviving through the recession, but we did, and I took a bit of a back seat for a few years when I had my kids. Now the kids are a bit older, I’m back expanding the business again.
“People are really looking for quality now. You start to get more figure challenges as you get older but you still want to look good – why shouldn’t you?”
Bella di Notte is at Malton Enterprise Park and at www.belladinotte.com.