Axfords Corsets: A Family Business

Liane Oldham finds out how the forward-thinking owner of a Sussex family business balances tradition with innovation in an ever-changing industry

Axfords is a name synonymous with beautiful underwear since 1880. Their shop in London’s Vauxhall Bridge Road was well-known among its discerning clientele before the internet allowed the firm to build a truly worldwide customer base.

In 1977 singer/songwriter Ian Dury used a picture of himself and his son Baxter, then aged six, standing outside Axfords’ shop for the cover of his hit album New Boots and Panties!!

Most of us would be forgiven for assuming that the job of a corsetiere would be any man’s dream but Axfords’ owner Michael Hammond says his decision to leave his architectural practice and take over this very traditional family business had a much more solid foundation.

“I had absolutely no intention of taking over the business from my mother who ran both the factory and the shop but I very quickly realised that it would be a much more sound financial decision than architecture. The interest in beautiful, handmade corsets was on the increase and I could see a definite gap in the market,” says Michael.

Michael closed the London shop in 1990 when he and his wife, Diane, moved to Sussex to concentrate on running the business from the factory in Brighton. He increased the production of corsets and the business went global.

All this coincided with a marked shift in how underwear was viewed in the fashion industry. Madonna started romping around  in various corsets and conical cupped creations by designer Jean Paul Gaultier during her world tour. Aussie songstress Kylie also donned a corset on stage. 

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The corset, once a never to be seen underwear garment from the strait-laced Victorian times, was suddenly taking centre stage as an over garment, seen on the catwalks of Milan and Paris and worn by some of world’s most famous celebrities.

On a more personal level Michael’s wife Diane also noticed a change in the way corsets were viewed. “When I first met Michael in the 80s corsets were still very much in the shadows, part of the fetish and clubbing scene really. I was intrigued by the business and how attitudes were changing. 

Walking tall“I used to take my friends over to the shop for fittings and when they looked in the mirror they couldn’t believe what a change wearing a properly fitted, handmade garment actually made. They were amazed. Wearing a corset is quite a unique experience. Your whole posture changes. Your back is straighter, you walk taller. It transforms your figure and how you hold yourself. You do feel very different. The secret is getting the fitting exactly right.”

Axfords now supplies handmade corsets to retail and wholesale markets throughout the UK, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and the Far East. When I visited the Brighton factory I was expecting to arrive at a modern building churning out multitudes of corsets but in fact it was just like something out of a Catherine Cookson novel.

The old Victorian building was just a stone’s throw from Brighton station. A narrow, tall building with four floors, the top one being for the seamstresses and the one below for the cutting which is always done on a Friday. The business is still run in that charming, traditional way where ledgers are kept and everything operates from stock.

“An Axfords corset is a totally traditional, British-made product from start to finish. This is what our customers from the Far East and US like about us. They like the fact that we still run our factory in this very traditional way,” says Michael.

All of the Axfords staff live locally in and around Brighton and the factory, being so near to Gatwick, is ideal for visiting overseas clients.

“One of our seamstresses retired last year. I have known her since I was 10 years old and I used to come in when my mother ran the factory,” says Michael.

“She was 82 when she left us, she still worked on an old Singer sewing machine which was a nightmare, we kept spares for it downstairs.”

An Axfords corset is the antithesis of today’s throwaway fashion, it is made to be beautiful, luxurious and designed to last.

All the corsets are made in the Brighton factory, none are imported. Over 4,000 of them are kept in stock, meaning that the majority of orders can go out within one working day.

The attention to detail is reflective of the level of skill and time put into producing a garment of such quality. Each corset is made by an individual corsetiere who, although an already fully trained machinist, will have trained with Axfords for another three months before working on an actual corset for sale.

“The fabric we use comes from a mill in the north of England,” says Michael. “It is dyed to our specifications and stiffened to make a perfect material for corsets – strong and wrinkle resistant. The eyelets are plated with zinc, to avoid skin allergies and reinforced with washers. The front fastening, known as a “busk”, is made from stainless steel. The bones are manufactured on our farm in East Sussex and are made of plated steel, not plastic. The metal suspenders are “swedged” – pressed on to the elastic here in Brighton, not bought in. The majority of our styles have cotton lining for comfort.”

Each corset is discreetly signed and it is this level of attention and discretion that appeals to many of Axfords’ clientele.

“A lot of our business also comes from individual clients who call at the factory to discuss their order and exact specifications. Customers range from teenagers to 70 year olds. We get a lot of repeat business. Some of our clients have been coming for years” Says Diane.

Brides are also a significant market as well as honeymooners. There is a special ivory/lace range for them.

“Invariably men will often order a style in red or purple and the ladies will bring them back a week later and change them for ivory or cream, “ says Michael.

The company also deals with the world of stage, film and music. Girls Aloud wore Axfords corsets on their last tour. Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw wore them last year for a production of a Restoration comedy, and the company has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as providing design advice on various TV and film productions. “I remember we got a call from a lady who said she needed one for a particular function,” says Diane.

In illustrious company“That function turned out to be the Turner Prize and the lady in question was the wife of Grayson Perry who won it that year. He accepted the award dressed as his alter ego, Clare, complete with a little girl style frock with bow and ankle socks! Philippa did her best to upstage him in one of our bright red, satin corsets. She told us afterwards that it worked brilliantly which we saw quite clearly the next day in the news headlines.”

Just as its product has historically a very traditional beginning which is now completely at the forefront of fashion, Axfords also still manages to encompass the tradition and discretion of a long-standing family business with the technological advancement of today. Much of their business also comes from the internet and online sales.

“We first went online in September 1997” Says Michael “So we were quite early adopters of the internet.”

I couldn’t leave the charming Axfords factory without actually trying on one of their beautifully made garments. I have never been a fan of tight-fitting clothing so I was amazed at how I felt when Diane laced me up in a corset and I looked in the mirror. It really did make me feel special – sexy and elegant rolled into one piece of clothing.

Whether it is on the periphery or on the centre stage of fashion, there has and always will be a place for a beautifully made garment such as the corset.

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