Yorkshire lingerie brand Bella di Notte founder on how she found success with luxury Italian vests and the best-fitting bras and trousers

As she prepares to hand over the reins of her lingerie brand Bella di Notte, founder Susie Johnson tells Stephanie Smith about bringing Italian luxury to Yorkshire.

In her mid-20s, Susie Johnson set off for Italy in search of a husband. Instead, she returned home to North Yorkshire with a vest, albeit a rather beautiful one that led to her founding and building the Bella di Notte brand of specialist lingerie and clothing.

Susie was born into a farming family near Kirkbymoorside, but preferred dressmaking with her mother to mucking out the pigs (although she did do that, too). “I knew that I didn’t like getting my fingernails that dirty,” she says.

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After a Business Studies degree at Coventry, she worked in the corporate sector for four years. “Then I realised that I wanted to find a husband, basically, and I couldn’t get any dates with the guys at work, so I had to look a bit further afield,” she says.

Rosella Merino Thermal Long Sleeve Vest in Night Blue, £69, and matching leggings, £59, at belladinotte.com.Rosella Merino Thermal Long Sleeve Vest in Night Blue, £69, and matching leggings, £59, at belladinotte.com.
Rosella Merino Thermal Long Sleeve Vest in Night Blue, £69, and matching leggings, £59, at belladinotte.com.

Susie went to Milan, then, missing living in the countryside, headed for Umbria. “And that’s where I found my vest, walking round the market,” she says. “It was so much more beautiful than anything I was used to, the awful sort of thermal vests we had back home then.

“My father was hoping that I’d come home with an Italian son-in-law, because he rather liked Italy, and instead I came home with an Italian vest to keep me warm, but I thought, because I didn’t have any great marriage options, I’ll start a business and do something I really love.”

Susie decided to bring the vests back to the UK, and headed to the library to find listings of Italian suppliers. “Most of them wouldn’t talk to me,” she says. “They just couldn’t believe that a young woman would be in business on her own. I had to engage an Italian man to help me, and he did all the talking.”

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Bella di Notte was born in 1998, and a Prince’s Trust loan paid for the first stock buy, when Susie, working from her little cottage at Gilmoor, would put the vests in the back of her car and drive around to markets and Country Living shows. Before long, customers were asking for a mail order catalogue, so she created one. “Customers still love getting our catalogue and it drives sales to our website even now,” she says.

Bella di Notte founder Susie JohnsonBella di Notte founder Susie Johnson
Bella di Notte founder Susie Johnson

She became an expert in bra fitting. “We stock the best quality bras in the world. We were about giving women choice. The high street can take away your choice,” she says.

Bella di Notte bra brands include Felina, Prima Donna, Wacoal, Empreinte, Chantelle, Anita and Susa. The French do the most glamorous underwear, while the Belgians and Germans are the best at making bras, she says, adding: “It’s really an engineering job.”

And Susie did find a husband. She met Chris, an engineer and expert in IT and operations, at around the same time that she launched Bella di Notte. “I said to him, look, I’ve not had a lot of luck with blokes. Me and the business come together, don't try to separate us,” she says.

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Before long, Bella di Notte had grown so much that Susie needed help, so Chris stepped in to support with the website, accounting and order management systems. They have two children, Eddie, 18, who is interested in agriculture, and Jessica, 17, who is studying textiles and photography.

Georgia Cotton Shirt in Siena Print, £75 at belladinotte.com.Georgia Cotton Shirt in Siena Print, £75 at belladinotte.com.
Georgia Cotton Shirt in Siena Print, £75 at belladinotte.com.

In 2008 Bella di Notte provided a vest for actress Olga Kurylenko to wear in Bond film Quantum of Solace, boosting sales. By 2009, turnover was £2million.

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New Bella di Notte collections have been added over the years. Susie had always had trouble finding trousers that fit properly so she sourced and stocked ones that did, then added tops, nightwear, leisurewear, skirts and dresses, holiday clothes and accessories. Bella di Notte began to make its own-brand clothes and prints, too, using designs handpainted by British artists, made up in Portugal, which offers great cotton quality, while Turkish manufacturers excel at jerseywear.

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“We like to work in colourful, happy products and beautiful prints,” she says, adding that the company has been branching more into knitwear, using Leicestershire suppliers working with high quality merino wool spun in Italy. “Being a Yorkshire girl, I like to buy once and buy well,” she says.

Organic cotton Anika Knitted Jacket in Navy/Ivory, £99 at belladinotte.com.Organic cotton Anika Knitted Jacket in Navy/Ivory, £99 at belladinotte.com.
Organic cotton Anika Knitted Jacket in Navy/Ivory, £99 at belladinotte.com.

Now Bella di Notte employs nearly 40 people and has a 5,000 sq ft unit in Malton. But the time has come to hand over the reins and so Cumbria-based mail-order company WCF Ltd has bought the company to add to its existing brands, which include Country Collection, James Meade and The Classic Boutique.

Bella di Notte will continue to operate from Malton. Jo Ritzema, managing director of WCF, says: “Both companies share a great ethos of investing and supporting their teams to drive innovation and productivity.”

Susie says: “It’s important that the business keeps growing because it has got massive growth potential. It’s well-loved.

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“It was always part of the business plan to retire at 55 to be able to enjoy a healthy retirement. And also to give back. Now is my time to help other people with their businesses.” She adds: “The biggest thing that you don’t have when you have your own business is time.”

She intends to mentor with charities and also with Chris, who has started a consultancy. “It is sad,” she says. “It was really our first child, so we are very affectionate and passionate about it. It’s taking quite a bit of getting used to but we have had it on our radar. What I always say in life is that at some point you have to say bye-bye.”

Olivia cotton top in Pisa print, £49 at belladinotte.com.Olivia cotton top in Pisa print, £49 at belladinotte.com.
Olivia cotton top in Pisa print, £49 at belladinotte.com.

She will make sure she has a lifestyle supply of the Bella di Notte Rosella vest. “It was the first vest I ever designed,” she says. “And the matching thermal knickers, which I cannot live without in the winter time in merino and silk from Italy. I have a whole drawerful of them in every colour.”