When Caprice Bourret arrives fashionably late at her trendy London office complete with two chihuahuas, she looks every inch the celebrity glamour model she once was, and on occasions still is. But initial appearances are deceptive. The woman whose face has decorated hundreds of magazine covers and who, by her own admission, made a career out of being “famous for being famous”, has now finally found her true vocation as a businesswoman.

Having tired of life as a model and aware that even the most beautiful women have a sell-by date in the cut-throat world of the catwalk, Caprice (as she is more conventionally known) went through various guises as an actor, an eminently forgettable stint as a singer and even a Celebrity Big Brother ‘star’ before discovering that the skimpy material she had spent so many hours posing in for the cameras held the key to what she really wanted to do.

“It really doesn’t take Einstein to model and I was getting bored,” she says. “I wanted something more. Some girls want to be movie stars and some girls just want to marry well and call it a day. I wanted a business idea that would last so my children could run it and their children could run it. That’s where the idea of lingerie came from.”

Having already learned the basics through a licensing deal set up with Debenhams in 2001 – which she instigated herself and which was the first of its kind – Caprice launched By Caprice Lingerie as a standalone brand in 2005 and abandoned the licensing deal last year. The company has recently completed its first full year’s trading and Caprice’s products can be found in stores in the UK, the US, Germany and South Africa, with plans to expand into Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Europe in the near future. And a new swimwear range is already designed and will be officially launched in 2008.

“I attribute a lot of my success to Debenhams because they really taught me the internal structure of how to run a lingerie company and the logistical part of it,” she says. “It took me about three years to really understand it. Then I thought ‘I could do this on my own; I don’t want anyone telling me how I should do it’ so I decided to take a shot and invest a big chunk of my money into the business and start it up.

“I didn’t know that once you start a business you have to keep putting money in so it’s been a rollercoaster ride for me,” she admits. “But this is my first year of trading and we’re in profit. What company does that? It usually takes three to five years. You’re lucky if you break even.”

Caprice is the first to admit that she still has much to learn in the world of business and there have been mistakes along the way. An employee recently put in the wrong ratios on her orders – for which Caprice blames herself for not having the time to supervise them properly – while a client recently cancelled an order because the fits weren’t up to scratch. “That one season really messed up the cashflow and I had problems,” she admits. “If it’s poor quality, clients cancel. I was responsible for all this merchandise and I didn’t get any money back from it. But it was a great learning curve and that will never, ever happen again.”

But, perhaps even more than most small businesses, Caprice is pivotal to the success of her company to date. On top of designing the ranges herself, measuring her own fits and dealing personally with clients and suppliers, Caprice is still very much the public face of her company. Modelling her own underwear in a Sunday newspaper can put 60% on her sales figures for the next three weeks, she explains. “We had a photoshoot that I couldn’t do so they just hired a gorgeous-looking model,” recalls Caprice. “It didn’t make any difference; the sales went up by maybe 10%. Maybe in two or three years that might work because I’ll be more of an established brand but right now, being a new brand, I have to do it myself.”

Musical marketing
After years of being under the media spotlight, Caprice has developed formidable marketing skills that would put many a larger organisation to shame. Having bought the rights to the musical Debbie Does Dallas, she’s just returned from a stint in South Africa where she played the lead role and dressed the female dancers in By Caprice lingerie. “Every three months you’ve got to think of something different because people get bored of just talking about Caprice in her underwear,” she says. She even sees reality TV shows as great marketing opportunities and would be quite happy to return to the Big Brother house, although posing naked for Playboy in 2000 was perhaps too much exposure. “As a woman I didn’t have to do that,” she says, “and I regret it.”

Another concept she has developed is what she calls a ‘trunk show’, which she initially ran in South Africa but hopes to introduce into the UK market. “At the till I have my sales girls write down the names, phone numbers and email addresses when somebody buys By Caprice lingerie,” she explains. “Then twice a year I do a mass email inviting them to the trunk show where I hold fit sessions and talk to them about the range going forward.

“I’ve just done a show at Stuattafords [in South Africa] and all the stock that was supposed to go out on the floor sold. It worked brilliantly,” she adds. “They tell their friends, who tell their friends and it becomes a girly club. They love it, I make them laugh and talk to them about Hollywood and they make other friends. And it’s a great selling tool.”

In fact, By Caprice Lingerie is so reliant on its founder that Caprice has found herself having to scale back her aspirations. Despite planning to expand into Spain and Sweden this year, she admits that starting out by launching in four countries at once was a mistake and has identified the UK and South Africa as her main priorities. “If I could do it again I would concentrate on one country, make it absolutely enormous and then expand,” she says.
‘It really doesn’t take Einstein to model and I was getting bored. I wanted something more. Some girls want to be movie stars and some girls just want to marry well and call it a day. I wanted a business idea that would last’

“Maybe in my mind I got a bit greedy. I’m only one person and nobody can market my products like me. This is one thing that I do need to understand. I thought I was invincible,” she admits. “I am going to Sweden and Spain because they called me and I’m not going to say no. But I’ve warned them that I’m not going to do heavy marketing.”

But there remains one market that holds a certain fascination: her homeland in the US. Her lingerie is already in Nordstroms but has recently caught the eye of the department store Dillard’s, with its 330 stores in 29 states, and she’s sorely tempted to attempt to build the brand further across the Atlantic. “How could you say no to Dillard’s?” she asks. “It’s crazy. What small business gets a phone call from Dillard’s in its first year? I might want to hold off for six months because things are happening really fast in England. I’m expanding but I need more people.

“The smaller territories are much easier for me,” she continues. “I go in and spend two weeks there and everyone knows the brand. I do a huge marketing blitz and it works. But I’d need a year for the US. That’s a totally different ballgame.” One option she’s considering is to take on a business partner in the US only, which would involve diluting her 100% holding and offering a profit-sharing scheme for that territory.

First impressions last
Yet for all her new image as a successful businesswoman, Caprice still faces a battle to change impressions that were formed a few years back. “People come up to me and ask what I’m doing these days,” she says. “And I tell them I’m running my company. And they say ‘oh, aren’t you doing anything else?’ I’m working 12 hours a day, I can’t even breathe. They don’t really understand that because in the entertainment industry there’s a lot of licensing deals when all you have to do is sign a piece of paper to give the department store or the production company your name and they do all the hard work. I do it all myself but people don’t understand this.”

But there are also times when this misconception of her as something of an airhead can work to her advantage in meetings with clients who expect her to be as vacuous as some of her fellow celebrities. “They’re thinking ‘oh, a model, great. We can get a cheap deal’. But I came out with a better deal every single time.”

It was that desire to get the best possible deal that grabbed Caprice’s interest in business in the first place. She explains that celebrities generally get 5-15% for licensing deals – although that can amount to a lot of money for next to no work – but a look at the weekly sales figures she received from Debenhams convinced her to go it alone. “The mark-ups are unbelievable,” she says. “If you can crack it we’re talking millions of pounds.” She brings out six new lines a year, she explains, and turned over around £250,000 in the most recent period for which she has figures.

But running her own business is about more than just the money. “I love coming into the office with my chihuahuas,” she says. “I do still do a lot of travelling but I love knowing what’s going on – ‘send me over the margins’, ‘no, you call them up’, ‘you’re not going to charge me that much, that lace isn’t that expensive’ – I love the wheeling and dealing of it. And I make a living out of it too. It’s fantastic.”
Caprice is rather less enamoured about the tax levels in the UK, which she describes as “astronomical”, and is only too aware of the need to keep outgoings to a minimum. “I am the best at keeping costs down,” she claims. “You have to when you start a business; you can’t be frivolous. I see a lot of money coming in but I have to put it back into the business. I need to market; around Christmas time I want to do billboards. If I make £10 I’ll only spend £2. It’s how I am; it’s in my blood.”

Outsourcing responsibility for sourcing factories and managing production means she only directly employs three people, although she expects to increase this to eight in the next few months. She estimates she put in around £250,000 to start up By Caprice Lingerie, which she borrowed from her holding company Caprice Enterprises Limited and has yet to fully repay, but “10 days later I was putting more money in”.

Long-term, she has much bolder plans for the business. Her intention is to build it up along the same lines as Tamara Mellon and Jimmy Choo and then sell a stake to a larger rival for “a ridiculous amount of money”, allowing her to take more of a back seat and work on other projects. “I want to be the biggest lingerie company in the world,” she says. “I want to be a Victoria’s Secrets. But in order for me to expand to that capacity I need an investor to come onboard. I don’t have the infrastructure to do it myself. I’m doing very well now but to be that big and that powerful I need somebody else.”

Things are going pretty well for Caprice, who also boasts a substantial property empire, away from work as well. She’s just moved in with her property developer boyfriend John Hitchcox and lives in London with Stinker and Roly, her two Chihuahuas which she describes as her children and who probably play a far more central part in her life than is strictly healthy. She’s already involved in producing more musicals and theatres and spends what little free time she has meditating, reading and cycling. As well as dreaming of women’s underwear, of course.

Extract from full interview conducted by Nick Martindale for New Business magazine