How Michelle Mone made £39m from building better bras

Bra tycoon Michelle Mone became a multi-millionaire by making other women look better. But it hasn’t all been plan sailing for the founder of Ultimo lingerie.

It all started during a dinner party in 1996 when, aged 26, Michelle Mone found herself wearing a cleavage-enhancing, but very uncomfortable, bra.

She set about designing a bra that looked good and enhanced the cleavage yet was also comfortable to wear and set up MJM International Ltd with her husband and business partner Michael.

Three years of research, design and development led to the development of a gel implant in a bra which “adds up to two cup sizes giving fabulous cleavage whilst maintaining an extraordinarily ‘natural’ look,” according to the Ultimo website.

The silicone product was already available in the US and Mone obtained the European license to make bras from it.

However, MJM International nearly folded before it began. After being conned by a distributor who ran off with nearly £1million in cash and stock, Mone had to remortgage the family home and use her husband’s inheritance to stay afloat.

Despite the setback, Ultimo was launched at Selfridges in London in 1999 with the biggest media launch of a bra in the UK. The high-profile approached worked wonders and an estimated six weeks’ stock sold out in 24 hours. Mone was now the “bra queen”, a label which has stuck.

Expanding overseas

After the launch there was no stopping her; Mone conquered the US and launched Ultimo in the Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York in May 2000.

The same year Hollywood actress Julia Roberts wore an Ultimo OMG bra to enhance her cleavage in Erin Brockovich. More designs followed including The Ultimo Miracle Body and then lingerie designs for Asda and Debenhams.

In 2003 Management Today voted Michelle one of the top three female entrepreneurs in the UK alongside Martha Lane Fox and Stella McCartney.

As well as concessions and boutiques within department stores and fashion chains, Ultimo also has a growing number of standalone shops across the UK.

The bra brand has boasted some of the world’s best-known models including Penny Lancaster, Rachel Hunter and Kelly Brook. The glamorous world is a far cry from Mone’s upbringing in the East End of Glasgow.

Humble beginnings

She left school at 15 with no qualifications to find a job in order to support her family after her father was confined to a wheelchair. Even then she was ambitious – while her friends had posters of Duran Duran on their walls, Mone’s idol was Richard Branson.

Initially she embarked on a modelling career but this came to a premature end when she became pregnant aged 18 and married the baby’s father Michael. She took a job at Labatt Brewers and was running the sales and marketing team by the time she turned 20.

Mone went on to have two more children with Michael before separating last year. Despite being offered large sums of money to talk about her marriage, Mone has refused to do so.

But then, she doesn’t need the cash. Celebrity Net Worth puts Mone’s worth at about £39million. MJM International now has 42 staff in Glasgow, 60 consultants across the UK and 45 in Hong Kong, while under a partnership deal it employs 1,200 factory workers in China.

Beyond bras

But while Ultimo was becoming bigger and bigger, Mone was too. By 2008 she was a size 22 – weighing about 18 stone.

As she did with uncomfortable bras, she turned this personal challenge into a business opportunity too. Mone worked with herbalist Jan de Vries and lost and lost six stone in 18 months using controversial supplement Trim Secrets. Impressed, she bought into the business and showed off her new body with a modelling campaign for her Ultimo collection.

Along with Trim Secrets, Mone has diversified into beauty products with the launch of the UTan range of tanning products in May 2012. Mone spent time and money developing the product rather than just putting her name to a product already made.

Alongside underwear, slimming pills and self-tan and even a boob reduction cream Mone has developed a lucrative TV career appearing in in reality shows such as ‘MasterChef’ and ‘The Apprentice’.

Recognition and mentoring

In 2010 Mone won an OBE for her contribution to business. But she’s not keeping the secrets of her success to herself and happily shares advice and insight with her 148,000 followers on Twitter.

Other tips for success can be found on her website including help with CVs and job hunting and returning to work after having children.