An exclusive interview with the founder of Bordelle, Alexandra Popa
Together with Constance von Dadelszen, Faradays co-founder and creative director
In honour of International Women’s Day, two female fashion founders from opposite ends of the world connected this week to learn from, and share, each other’s equally encouraging journeys.
From breaking the rules of the game via their mutually unconventional starting points and the importance of fostering tight-knit teams, to the antidote for chasing that ever-elusive idea of balance, read the one-on-one catch up below, between Bordelle’s indelibly inspiring Alexandra Popa, and Faradays’ very own co-founder and creative director, Constance von Dadelszen.
Alex, you’ve created a brand that has become so close to many women's hearts around the world – I mean that literally, when worn, but also in the emotive sense.
The brand has almost a cult-like effect on everyone who encounters it.
It is very hard to find something in fashion or lingerie that is as comfortable and functional as it is beautiful, and Bordelle as a brand has nailed it.
Can you talk to us about the impetus for creating the brand – when and how the idea for Bordelle began, how long it took from the seed of your idea to launch, and what was the key point of difference you were looking to create?
Thank you, this means a lot.
On a personal level, I always had a great interest in beautifully made lingerie and owned a collection of pieces that I barely wore but bought in admiration of the artistry and craft involved.
When I decided to stop pursuing a more traditional career path in the city and shifted my goals to building a career in the fashion industry, I was intrigued by the level of design innovation that was sweeping the catwalks on a seasonal basis.
That was back in the early noughties when London was home to some of the most successful British fashion designers like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, but it was also the creative hub of a successful cohort of very young emerging designers (Christopher Kane, Gareth Pugh, Erdem, Roksanda Ilincic to name a few) that were making huge waves in the industry.
Conversely, in the lingerie world designs were kept to a minimum, with a hyper focus on comfort and fit, overtly romanticized or straight out vulgar. Except for a handful of brands, there was really very little competition.
Initialised in 2007, the concept of Bordelle was born from a realization that there was a niche for more directional high-end lingerie with a strong design aesthetic that could be worn to be seen and valued on par with ready-to-wear.
The beginnings were tough, and I had significant setbacks. For about a year and a half of maximum input and no real progress I began to really doubt myself. I was burning a lot of cash and almost gave up when, out of the blue, in January 2009 I managed to secure an appointment with Browns fashion and although the order did not come through, I launched a month and a half later in Selfridges department store during London Fashion Week. It was phenomenal.
The perseverance really did pay off in the end.
It absolutely has.
To your point, I’ve found a lot of people believe that if you're going to end up in this kind of industry that you need to have started with a business degree, a fashion degree or another relevant study.
Much like me, though, you didn’t come from a traditional fashion design background.
Do you think coming into the luxury lingerie market from a different angle is a large reason for the brand’s success? Can you elaborate a little on this?
This is something I have often asked myself.
Initially, I found my lack of a formal design degree and technical training to be a big hinderance. Pattern cutting and sample making are skills that take years to refine and expertise in this area is incredibly scarce. Being unable to make my own patterns and samples meant I had significantly higher start-up costs as I had to work with freelance creatives to bring my vision to life and the process was more complicated.
Today I think differently and see the upside as this pushed me to take risks and think outside the box, despite at times being laughed at. The idea of producing only three (bra) sizes and making everything adjustable for a more personalized fit was a Bordelle invention born out of the necessity to pattern cut and grade less and to ultimately produce less stock.
The concept was highly functional, very innovative in terms of design aesthetic and gave boutique buyers the option to spend their budget on style variation as opposed to ordering a bra style in 20 plus sizes. Many lingerie brands have now adopted this sizing method and the term ‘easy sizing’ has been coined as a result, but initially it was considered foolish. I will never forget the discouragement I received from industry professionals convinced that it was never going to work. I realized that it is when you go against the grain or question the status quo that real progress is made.
I am now very driven by taking on new challenges, developing and testing new ideas and learning and growing in the process.
Looking back at your entrepreneurial journey so far, what would you say has been one of your biggest highlights?
I can divide my highlights into various chapters of the brand’s journey. Vertical integration meaning full control from initial 2D sketch to technical development, production and logistics had always been my dream. I am proud to have no external investors, no loans.
When launching in Selfridges during LFW in 2009, I was so relieved that after facing so many challenges there was a ray of hope. The window displays on Oxford Street and making it on the news for selling out £1k plus girdle dresses within 24 hours of launching on the shop floor was instant validation of my somewhat controversial concept and a great launch pad.
And how about the biggest challenge?
So many, I don’t know where to begin! Nailing the fit and construction was particularly difficult due to my lack of formal technical knowledge.
It took time to re-write the rulebook with regards to grading adjustable bras as this had not been done before; making arrangements to service European clients post Brexit and most recently, our current factory construction project in Romania, designed to the highest standards and with the aim of being energetically independent.
Was there a pivotal moment for the business where you just saw it take off….
Or where you changed tack from the original plan and just ran with it? Tell us about it…
2015-2016 was a pivotal time for me.
After more than five years of struggling to start a family I finally got pregnant and the realisation that I had nine months to implement the structure to allow me to go on maternity leave for a year fast tracked so many crucial developments.
I changed my hiring philosophy and put together a core team that has been instrumental to what Bordelle is today. I learnt to let go and in doing so empowered my team and crucially allowed myself time to think on the bigger picture.
I went on maternity leave knowing I had a safety net and for the first time, I felt that I was no longer on my own. The business took off as a result. Looking back, I can’t believe it took me such a long time to implement this. I just needed the right impetus.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
With the benefit of hindsight, you can pinpoint the problem and see exactly when and where things went wrong, but learning and growth come from experience, especially the experience of failing or making mistakes.
This is what has shaped me and made me who I am so I guess my answer would be no.
Ok, let’s talk about that taboo word… balance.
Personally, as a co-founder of three businesses and now as a mother, I don’t think there is such a thing. I find it a very tight rope to walk. From my experience I’ve found that you just have to let go of the 24/7 guilt that comes with it – either for spending time on your business instead of with your little one, or vice versa.
You also have a young family with a wonderful husband and two gorgeous young ones. How do you find work/life balance– do you feel there is such a thing?
What would your advice be to women who may be reading this and working through the juggle?
I totally hear you, and we must be careful, as the idea itself sets women up to be disappointed. Theoretically the concept of work/life balance sounds great on paper. I had plans for starting Bordelle when I was 24, unmarried, no children and with a lot of admiration for women who were glorified by society or the media for claiming to have achieved work/life balance perfection, dreaming of how one day, I too will emulate this.
The reality is a bittersweet imbalance involving constant trade-offs.
In the past, I would lean too heavily into work. Today I am playing so many roles and have given up trying to perfect each one - impossible.
I am my biggest critic but am now trying to not be so harsh on myself and embrace the imperfections. My aim has shifted to increasing quality of life.
I try to set boundaries as this is so important to maintaining good relationships within the family and work dynamic. I try to spend as much time with my children as possible. I’m there for the drop offs and pick-ups, I now work less hours during the working day and work from home two to three days a week which gives me flexibility and assures my girls that I am always there.
My advice to women is to have more compassion for themselves. Try to incorporate self-care and wellbeing into your life as without it no other action is possible. The ability to focus, be more creative and more readily available to others rests on creating time and space for yourself and not feeling guilty for it.
I love that advice; a lot of what you’ve said certainly resonates with me too.
Having built Bordelle from the ground up on your own to now, with a team of almost 100, in your current role as Creative Director, how do you carve out the much needed time to not work ‘in’ the business, but rather on the business - on growth, on plans, on new concepts?
How much of your time would you say is taken up by the creative, and how much is it the rest of the work that comes with being a business founder?
Over the years, my role has shifted from the fun creative stuff to strategy, growth, targets, team management and a lot of operational and legal complexities that are associated with growth. I’ve always had a keen interest in the business of fashion which is perhaps linked to my economics degree and master in management, but when I started I really had zero clue in practical terms.
I think I am now in a good place as I’m supported by an amazing team and brilliant managers that oversee the key departments.
These days, my best ideas arise outside the workplace, where there are no distractions and I have time to ponder on the bigger picture.
I agree. Something that I’ve found integral to my own business’ success is having the unwavering support of my team. I am very fortunate to have collected a tight knit group of people around me, from shareholders and business mentors to head office staff who have grown together with me as the business has grown.
There is so much joy that comes with being in this business, but when there are days that are tough, I’ve found having people who have actually experienced the journey with you to be your compass and your cheerleaders is just so important. The ones that will remind you to keep going, that you are on the right path.
Have you found that same experience with your own team?
My team are my rock and my second family. I have often heard that business should not be personal but how can it not be as we are all so emotive. It is precisely the unique and authentic connection and collaborative approach that we have as a team that has made us successful.
I have worked with most of my current team for at least 6 years. We have grown and shaped each other. I have seen them go from interns to managers, to buying a house and getting engaged and married and it’s so rewarding to be a part of this.
After a series of hiring disasters, I thought long and hard about the type of people I wanted to work with and made changes so that I could start attracting, hiring, and retaining the right people. I realised that hard-working people attract each other. Like-minded people like to associate with each other.
I really worked on myself and surrounded myself with people whom I really admire, who keep me inspired and very importantly, whom I can learn from. The result is a highly efficient, attention to detail obsessed team who are also incredibly fun to be around.
Going back to the product, prior to our store opening, there were very few lingerie brands that were as beautiful and luxurious available in New Zealand.
There were also no brands in my opinion that sat as perfectly as Bordelle does alongside ready to wear, or could really be worn as outerwear as comfortably as lingerie.
Was having a ready-to-wear component something you consciously worked to encourage from day one, or on the flipside do you think as a movement, the blurring lines of lingerie, loungewear and outerwear has been what has inspired you to create the pieces you do?
The concept of lingerie to be seen was there from day one. This was one of the main points of difference for Bordelle and when I started I had many more bodywear styles – a term that I use to refer to pieces that are designed to be styled with RTW.
Previously, fashion concept stores overlooked lingerie so when Bordelle got picked up by stores like Faradays it was often the only lingerie brand to sit alongside ready to wear.
After the pandemic I decided to go back to the roots and focus more on pieces that can easily sit alongside outerwear and I’m very excited to launch the upcoming collections.
What can Bordelle lovers look forward to in the future – are there any hints on new collection inspiration, colourways, products, new categories that you would like to share?
The new season set to land in stores in June has some wild card colourways in the lace category and I cannot wait to hear what the fashion consensus will be on that. We have worked on more toned-down shapes targeting the everyday luxury clientele as well as key bodywear styles that can definitely be worn out or to be seen - I look forward to seeing how you will be styling these, Constance!
I can’t wait, and will certainly let you know!
And outside of upcoming collections, what are you personally most looking forward to in 2023?
I would like 2023 to incorporate more self-care and reflection.
A focus on seeking out new experiences as opposed to satisfying material needs. Carving out more quality time to truly experience friends and family and watch my children grow.
A sabbatical is definitely on the horizon, perhaps not this year as our Design and Technical Manager is going on maternity leave at the beginning of the summer. This will also coincide with the relocation to our brand new 2000sqm factory so it will be all hands-on deck.
If you can distil it down, what is it that you love the most about what you do?
I love to be working with a young, creative, and extremely passionate all female team on a truly unique product that has added so much value to women’s lives, be it through empowerment, function or simply for just being beautiful, as the old French slogan of art for art’s sake would have you believe.
My introductory Bordelle experience was a Christmas gift from my husband – as is probably evident from the conversation we’ve had today, it is now my favourite lingerie brand.
The Art Deco Bra was the very first piece I owned, and has become a firm favourite since, with a number of colourways now in my collection.
It is such a simple style but also incredibly intricate and well thought out at the same time.
Perhaps this question is like asking you to name a favourite child, but do you have any most-loved styles that you find yourself returning to time and again?
My go-to everyday Bordelle style is the Signature Push-up Bra that comes with silk satin moulded cups and adjustable elastic straps on the back. It is our version of a T-shirt bra and highly recommended for smaller busts. I have it in every colour and wear it most days as it’s not only super comfortable for a wired bra but the light padding gives me a natural lift, which I have really appreciated after having kids.
My all-time favourite style is the adjustable Waspie constructed from elastic panelling, many straps and 24 karat gold plated components (available at Faradays via pre-order). This is such a unique piece and instantly recognisable as Bordelle. I love pairing this style with a loose shirt, opaque tights and boots for a fun night out.
I am also a big fan of our show piece bodice bras, for example the Kleio and Cymatic bodice bras from the current season. I like to wear these with a cut-out back plain top or a sheer chiffon shirt.
On that note, I’d love to ask you a few questions!
Everytime time we meet, I so admire your style and Faraday’s is such a testament to your impeccable tastes. I love how you styled our Waspie with RTW last time we met in Paris!
I’d love to know more about what ready-to-wear pieces and brands that you personally style with Bordelle.
Firstly thank you, I'm very flattered. I adore your Waspie - I can't wait to style it again perhaps this time with an Alaïa oversized white shirt.
At Faradays, Bordelle is the ideal base to begin a fabulous outfit with. It pairs especially well with tailoring from Dadelszen (I wore my other Bordelle bodysuit with my Dadelszen Tuxedo the first time we met at Monsieur Bleu in Paris).
My other favourite pairing has to be with Alexander Vauthier – a designer that I feel has a similar sensual, feminine and sometimes risqué take on dressing, which Bordelle enhances beautifully.
I have noticed how now, more than before customers are more readily investing in timeless designs and premium luxury products that offer longevity and functionality. This can to some extent explain why our customers never get bored of our Signature line. Have you noticed this change in mindset and behaviour with your customers as well?
What I have noticed is the movement away from purchasing Bordelle for a special occasion, to regular purchasing of items from the Signature lines to wear every day.
We have clients who have replaced most of their lingerie items with Bordelle, after having fallen in love with the fit and the exceptional quality.
When I started Bordelle I had a lot of educating, justifying, and explaining to do to boutique buyers and customers on the product. I am sure Bordelle was hardly known in New Zealand before Faraday’s and since starting our partnership I am so impressed at how much we have grown.
Would you say that your love and understanding of our product has been instrumental to this growth? I am curious how you introduced Bordelle to your customers and what the reactions have been.
I have to admit, I don't make a habit of asking what lingerie women are wearing each day so I had no idea if our market would be able to support Bordelle prior to stocking it at Faradays.
However, I have three non-negotiables when it comes to introducing a brand to Faradays that I have found leads to success for us every time we do so.
- I have to love the brand myself, and be a prior consumer of the brand in the past/present
- It has to have a cult following, or have the ability to become a cult brand with loyal clients.
- It has to be of wonderful quality.
Bordelle was therefore a no-brainer for me.
My personal passion for the brand definitely helped its initial launch phase in Faradays; from then on, the Bordelle collections worked its own magic on our clients.
I love that. Thank you for being such a fan of our brand.
Looking forward to the years ahead, can you tell me - what are your plans for the future of Faradays?
I don't think I can sum them up in one small answer – there are so many exciting things that we are working on at the moment.
However, in the short term we have two fashion houses that I have loved for decades joining our family of brands; Celine will be arriving this winter, and another will launch later this year that's still hush hush - but watch this space…x