Made in Belper: Slenderella

Ashley Franklin meets Gary Spendlove, the Belper lad who's not only kept a great name alive but taken it from strength to strength

In 1973, when Belper lad Gary Spendlove (pictured above) left school, trainee opportunities in the town were aplenty. At that time, Belper housed big companies like Deb, Jaeger, Blounts, Courtaulds, Glow Worm, Silkolene, Lubrizol, Parkray, English Sewing and, nearby in Heage, Bowmer & Kirkland.

Sixteen year old Gary opted for the hosiery company Courtaulds, although townsfolk still referred to it as Brettles, despite it being taken over in 1964. After all, the name had been associated with Belper since the early part of the 19th century when the town had the largest hosiery firms in the world.

The company itself prospered for nearly 150 years. In the 1930s, Brettles was not only Belper’s largest employer but also one of only six factories in Britain employing over 1,000 people. It also supplied stockings to Queen Victoria.

The latter part of the last century saw a steep decline in the local textile industry with Courtaulds, Blounts, Jaeger, Flanders and the Ewe Hosiery Company all closing down. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. What could be Belper’s best kept secret is that the 16-year-old Courtaulds apprentice from 1973, Gary Spendlove, has quietly revived the ladieswear industry in the town. What’s more, the Brettles name lives on: it’s one of several brands under the umbrella of Gary’s lingerie and nightwear firm Slenderella.

It’s a local company with a global reach. Although 80 per cent of Slenderella’s trade is based in the British Isles – supplying over 750 retailers – it exports around the world and works with factories in the Far East.

Gary himself, along with members of his design team, travels extensively to Turkey, China, Hong Kong, India and across Europe, not that he struck me as the high-powered, cool-talking, jetsetting exec type when we met at Slenderella’s Belper base, the former Flanders factory in Queen’s Street. Personable and chatty, GarySpendlove is a typically unassuming, hard-working family man who although jetting off to source fabrics, strike deals and meet customers in Shanghai, Istanbul, Dubai and Delhi, seems very at ease in his modest Belper office in Slenderella House.

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When he left Herbert Strutt school, a few streets away, Gary was instilled with a simple desire ‘to make something of my life’. He started his working life sweeping Courtaulds’ floors and stacking and packing boxes. ‘I was eventually allowed to make tea,’ he smiles. ‘Almost right from the start, I used to look around me and say “one day this will be mine”. Confidence of youth, I suppose.’

Two years later, Gary was already on the way up: only a day after passing his driving test, he was out on the road visiting retailers. At 19, he was a sales rep in Scotland and then Yorkshire, became Northern England Sales Manager at 21, and National Sales Manager at 26. However, in 1996, the Brettles brand was taken over by Leicester-based company Chilprufe, and Brettles faded in the marketplace, with their Alfreton site closing in 1999.

When Chilprufe went into receivership at the turn of 2002, this could have been the end of the Brettles story. However, by the end of that year, Gary had acquired the Slenderella brand and also bought the Brettles name from Chilprufe. ‘I returned Brettles to where it always belonged,’ says Gary.

Within a year, Slenderella had won the Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce Regional Small Business Award and an award for the UK’s Best Classic Nightwear Collection out of over 100 businesses. Continued expansion brought the company to its current site, a complex which includes a warehouse, a retail shop and a snooker club.

So what’s been key to Slenderella’s success? ‘Combining high quality with value for money,’ he replies, ‘and running a tight ship where everyone on board knows which way to sail.’

On the bridge of the Slenderella ship is his General Manager Amanda Clarke who showed me round the site, introducing me to Warehouse Manager Sue Brindley and assistant Pat Thawley, both of whom started work at Brettles as 15-year-olds, and to Retail Shop Manager Julie Wheelhouse, a former Brettles worker and once a winner of Miss Brettle who loves the Slenderella brand – ‘good quality at factory prices,’ she enthuses. The shop has only been trading for two years and Julie says that first-time local customers are thrilled to see the Brettles name again.

If anything, the brand looks set to expand as Gary continues to seek out new clients in both the UK and beyond. There are perks to his travels worldwide: it’s enabled him to visit the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City and, most memorably, the ancient city of Petra which he explored on horseback. He’s also ridden a quad bike around the mountains of Riyadh and floated on the Dead Sea. Less salubrious but just as unforgettable was the time he was on the first passenger plane into Kuwait after the Iraq War. ‘The buildings were still smoking,’ Gary recalls, ‘and the Iraqi soldiers had taken everything, even the light bulb fixtures.’

Gary will soon be off to Vietnam for the first time but he always hankers for home, which is now in Kirk Ireton where he lives with his wife Gaynor and two teenage children: Ashley, who’s Head Boy at Queen Elizabeth Grammar; and Hayley, who is Form Captain at Derby High School. Both, he says, are showing an interest in moving into his business.

Gary chose Kirk Ireton so as not to be too far from his home town where he is proud to be Chairman of Belper Meadows Cricket Club and executive chairman of the Belper & District Scouting Association. ‘I love Belper for its beauty, rich industrial heritage, and the friendly, loyal people who always look after each other,’ says Gary.

According to his General Manager Amanda, who has known him for 25 years, Gary is a boss who is ‘passionate and generous with a strong work ethic. He’s a great entrepreneur but he has no airs and graces. He connects with people and he is a fantastic person to work for. People who come here, stay.’

Gary, now 53, is here to stay, too. He knows he is sitting on valuable assets but insists he’s not just in the business to make money. ‘I’m proud to be Belper born and bred and I cherish the history of this place,’ says Gary. ‘I’m just delighted that the hosiery and textile trade lives on in Belper, proud that I’ve brought Brettles back home, and satisfied that I’m not only giving employment to local people but, in effect, keeping a great many people in work worldwide.’

With thanks to Geoff Futter for his help with this article.

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