June Kenton tells the naked truth
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The queen of bespoke underwear, June Kenton, has had an unexpected late-career TV hit on Channel 4’s ‘How To Look Good Naked’. Here she talks about some of the tricks of her trade
If TV cook Delia were responsible for sending sales of omelette pans through the roof, then June Kenton, the Grande Dame of British Underwear, may be doing the same for control pants.
If you are not familiar with them, then you are not among the 2.8 million regular viewers of Channel 4’s baroque makeover show “How to Look Good Naked.”
The concept is simple but compelling. Each week, HTLGN’s presenter, Gok Wan, a deliciously camp, Hong Kong-born fashion stylist, has taken a woman who is profoundly unhappy with her body and shown her how, sans surgery but through clever styling and a bewitching cocktail of flattery, humour and empathy, she can look great - with and without clothes.
His not-so-secret weapon, and the only other fixture on the programme, is Kenton, co-founder and co-owner - with Harold, her husband of 44 years - of Rigby & Peller, the up-market bra-and-knicker purveyor to (among thousands of others) the Queen, Cherie Blair, Dawn French and the late Princess of Wales.
Despite the classy clientele, Kenton is down-to-earth, funny and feisty, with a slew of entertaining, non-PC anecdotes.
“When the Channel 4 team came to film in the shop, I didn’t realise I was actually auditioning. I had two of my granddaughters, Hannah, 10, and Emily, seven, with me in the shop. The crew wanted to film a fitting. I’ve never been interviewed for a job before. My first job was with a friend of my late father who just said, ‘Come and work for me,’ and after that we had our own business. So when the Channel 4 girl said, ‘We’ve got other people to see,’ I was a bit shocked. Then, when they phoned to say I had the job, I didn’t realise I would be the only other ‘regular’ beside Gok.”
She speaks warmly of Gok, arguably the most sympathetic man on TV, with whom all of the women would, doubtless, elope if only he was not - self-evidently in Kenton’s words - “majorly gay.”
“He is absolutely brilliant with the women. When he meets them they are a bundle of nerves. He absolutely puts them at their ease, he is their friend. From weeping about how they look at the start, he makes them feel okay about themselves.
“He is a joy to work with. He told me he wants to come over for Friday night dinner and wants to light the candles. I told him that women do that. Then I looked at him” - she pauses for dramatic effect - “and I said, ‘Well, maybe…’”
On screen, she has mimed shock, thrown up her hands, poked rolls of flesh overflowing from too-tight pants and ill-fitting bras, and put her finger through holes in underwear. But on a Simon Cowell-scale of scary, she barely registers.
“I can be cruel. I will say ‘get that off, there’s a hole in it.’ Or express horror at the state of someone’s bra. But you have to make a judgement about how you can speak to someone. I wouldn’t say anything harsh to a woman I thought had a real problem with body image. Women can be very vulnerable, especially the ones in the programme.
“I could never hurt someone. But I will often say ‘hello, gravity is calling. We don’t want bosoms on the floor.’ But I would never want anyone to leave the fitting room in tears.
“It is absolutely fabulous to have a programme that is about looking better without going under the knife. If you think you can sort out your figure shape with just the right underwear and the right clothes, what could be better?”
One reason she agreed to do the show is her opposition to cosmetic surgery, on both aesthetic and health grounds. She claims - and she should know - that “boob-jobs make it difficult to fit a bra, as [augmented breasts] are too solid and don’t drop into a bra-cup.”
Kenton acknowledges that you “couldn’t buy the publicity” for Rigby & Peller, which, in April, opened its third shop, this time in Brent Cross. It joins the original R&P in Hans Road, Knightsbridge, near Harrods, and the second in Conduit Street, Mayfair.
Along with rocketing sales of those control pants (Spanx, if you need to know) and waist-cinchers - Kenton and Gok’s dual alternatives to the surgeon’s knife and drastic dieting - the queues for a fitting, always serpentine at Rigby & Peller, have grown ever longer since HTLGN began. It is not the first time TV has had this effect. After “Giving the Empire a Lift,” a 1993 Carlton documentary on Rigby & Peller, Hans Road got so busy that June decided to hire a doorman.
“The day the documentary was going out, I phoned the Corps of Commissionaires to book a doorman - I thought Harrods wouldn’t like the queues. I said I wanted a woman; it seemed more appropriate.
“When I arrived very early the next morning, there was a man in commissionaire’s uniform.” The invaluable Ted was with them for the next 11 years. “He chatted to the husbands, sorted out the queues, organised coffee, found taxis for people - even if they weren’t our customers.”
Their business began 45 years ago when June Collier met Harold Kenton at a knitwear wholesaler’s. They married, and bought a womenswear shop in Brixton. Its success led to another in Streatham.
Called Contour, it specialised in bras and swimwear and focused on the proper fitting of bras. “Most women buy a bra that is too big round the body and too small in the cup. It was always a mishegas of mine that I wanted to fit bras properly.
“In 1977, we decided we should be in central London. We went to Harrods, and next door, in Hans Road — which was completely dead apart from an estate agent - we saw this little shop called ‘The Corset Boutique.’ It was very old-fashioned and dark. We went in and I said, rather rudely, to the elderly couple, ‘When are you going to retire?’ They said ‘Now.’”
Hans Road became their second Contour shop and their third roaring success. Then, in 1982, they bought another going concern: Rigby & Peller in South Molton Street.
Although Rigby & Peller held two royal warrants - from the Queen and the Queen Mother - when the Kentons bought the business, the warrants did not automatically pass to the new owners.
“It is, after all, the most personal of royal warrants. I had to go to the Palace to be approved by the Queen,” says Kenton who - valuing as she does her royal client - goes shtum when asked about her Palace visits.
Princess Margaret “never wore any underwear that wasn’t Rigby & Peller,” she notes, but it was the late Princess Diana with whom she became great chums. As well as being a long-standing client, she and Kenton attended the same private gym.
“Diana was just so lovely.
I wanted to get her into [Israeli swimwear designer] Gottex and asked her if she would come to see the collection at their London office.
“She did, and chose a number of swimsuits which were specially made for her. Leah Gottlieb, the founder and designer of Gottex, flew to London to meet her. Diana signed pictures for Mrs Gottlieb, who told me afterwards that it was the highlight of her life.
“Most of the swimsuits Diana was wearing in the south of France were Gottex,” says Kenton sadly, referring to the fateful last holiday from which Diana was returning when she stopped over in Paris on that August Bank Holiday just over nine years ago.
The Kentons have two adult children: David, now managing director of Rigby & Peller, and Jill, a former director of operations at R&P, but currently pursuing a career in TV presenting. There are also three granddaughters, dozens of whose pictures dot the charming, chintz-adorned drawing room of their Bushey Heath home.
She is a life member of Wizo, thousands of whose members have heard her sharply observed talks on her work. She also has a long-standing connection with the charity One to One, and its precursor, the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, forged through more than a decade of demonstrations (“from 1971, I spent my life on the streets,” she giggles).
When, after perestroika and glasnost, the 35s metamorphosed into One to One, supporting disadvantaged Jews in Israel, Kenton did five One to One sponsored treks in Israel.
“I was 59 when I did my first trek. Until I started training, I wouldn’t walk from a car park without saying ‘get the car.’ And no-one thought I would sleep in a tent. But it was amazing, a life-changing experience and one everyone should have if they can.”
Apart from Harold and One to One, her other passion in life is “my mission in life to tell every woman to have an expert bra fitting.”
If the next series of HTLGN is as successful as the recent one, she may come a step closer to achieving her ambition.