“People say they would kill to know what I know – and that is exactly what they would have to do.”
So begins June Kenton, the driving force behind the famous luxury lingerie brand Rigby & Peller, in the wry opening to her new autobiography, Storm In a D-Cup.
The corsetière to the Queen has helped hundreds of celebrity clients over the years, but her lips remain tighter than well-fitted lingerie over their secrets.
“I never say anything I’ll regret,” says the lively 81-year-old. What she will tell me – and writes in the book – is about being a bundle of nerves on her first visit to Buckingham Palace.
“But it was all brilliant, we got on very well and I’ve had the Royal Warrant since 1982, so I must be doing something right,” she laughs.
Indeed she is. Her fascinating book tells the story of how she and Harold, her loving and supportive husband of 55 years, grew a business from one shop into an empire that now includes nine UK outlets and more than 40 worldwide, including Hong Kong, China, Dubai, and the US.
“The [Rigby & Peller] name is known all over the world, which is so satisfying because it’s what I’ve worked for,” says Kenton, whose client list reads like a celebrity who’s who.
There’s Dawn French (“just gorgeous”), Dame Barbara Cartland (“an extraordinary woman”), Princess Margaret, Joan Collins (“she would come into the shop and stand by the door as if to say ‘I’m here’”), Jo Brand (also an “extraordinary woman”) and Theresa May.
Retailing is in her blood. Her family owned a successful womenswear shop in Kilburn that also sold lingerie.
It was while working as a showroom assistant for a clothing wholesaler that she met fellow employee Harold. After marrying in 1962, they bought a clothes shop in Brixton market and, less than two years later, opened another in Croydon.
The third, Contour, came in 1970, selling lingerie right next to Harrods, to huge success. In 1982 Tessa Seiden, owner of made-to-measure corsetiere Rigby & Peller (and niece of its Hungarian Jewish refugee co-founder Gita Peller), asked the Kentons if they would buy her struggling store.
“Harold decided he was not interested. ‘We don’t need Rigby & Peller. I don’t want Rigby & Peller. We can’t afford Rigby & Peller.’ We bought Rigby & Peller,” Kenton writes. And the rest is history.
It riles Kenton that 85 percent of women wear the wrong size bra which they have usually fitted themselves or bought in a supermarket with dinner.
“I couldn’t understand how people were walking around wearing the wrong size bra,” Kenton tells me. “It’s because they don’t have a proper fitting. The tape measure doesn’t tell you anything – you have to use your eyes. We go into the fitting room and put bras on you. It’s an art form.”
She credits this approach with the turnaround of Rigby & Peller into a leading retailer. “You’d be amazed how many women are uncomfortable – they walk and they’re bouncing up and down, falling out of their bras.
“You don’t realise how it affects you – running for the bus, picking up a child; every time you move, it moves. Most people are wearing bras too small in the cup and too big around. It’s so important to wear the right bra – for your health and well-being and what your clothes look like.”
It is clear the Kentons are grafters who approach life with a terrifically positive outlook – including when business ideas fell short, or during ill health such as Kenton’s breast cancer diagnosis aged 71, and her subsequent mastectomy and reconstruction.
The couple made things happen. Through the Croydon branch of WIZO, Kenton became part of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, aiming to persuade the Soviet Government of the 1970s to allow Jews to leave. Kenton phoned one such refusenik family regularly for 17 years in a show of solidarity.
“And we got them out,” she says. “There’s no such thing as can’t – if you want to, you can. You can’t sit in your own bubble – you have to go out and make something happen.”
A month before her 60th birthday in 1995, Kenton completed her first charity trek , ‘Mount Sinai to the Promised Land’, for the One to One Project, raising funds for former refuseniks who had moved to Israel. She went on to do another four treks, raising around £300,000 for the cause.
Kenton, who now lives in Bushey Heath and is a member of her childhood synagogue in St John’s Wood, speaks lovingly of her two adopted children – David, 51, is a director of Rigby & Peller and works with the Community Security Trust while Jill, 46, is a voiceover artist.
While the grandmother-of-three remains tight-lipped over clients,
she does write that “one customer I came to know and love was the Queen Mother” and says Princess Diana was “a very, very good friend”.
“She was very caring. She used to call Rigby & Peller ‘headquarters’
and she’d call and say ‘I’m coming to HQ – will you be there?’ And I’d say, ‘Of course I’ll be there.’”
Storm In A D-Cup by June Kenton is published by Briars House at £19.99. Available from Rigby & Peller for four weeks, and at bookstores and online at junekenton.com from 22 April