At the forefront of hosiery design for almost a 100 years, ELLE remains synonymous with luxury fabrics, exquisite detailing and fun, innovative designs.
When ELLE’s founder, William Wileman, set up his very first business in 1919, the hosiery industry was on the brink of an exciting revolution.
A glimpse of stocking…
“In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
Now heaven knows,
When Cole Porter’s hit musical ‘Anything Goes’ made its Broadway debut in 1934, women’s fashions were indeed changing. Hemlines were on the up, it was becoming socially acceptable for ladies to show their legs and the sale of fashion stockings rose dramatically as new, synthetic fibres replaced cotton and costly silk, demand for fashion stockings soared – fuelled by the introduction of new, more affordable synthetic fibres which replaced costly silk.
William was well placed to take advantage of the new trends. He had grown up in the hosiery trade and came from a long line of prominent Leicestershire hosiers. In 1845 his ancestor, Richard Wileman, claimed to be ‘the oldest manufacturer in the kingdom’, weaving traditional men’s worsted stockings from the excellent Leicestershire wool.
Initially William worked out of a humble shed in Earl Shilton near Leicester - the historic heartland of the UK hosiery trade. With just 4 employees on the payroll and a handful of knitting machines, he must have worked hard for in 1920 he joined forces with Arthur Nicholls to found Nicholls & Wileman Ltd and relocated to spacious factory premises - The Mpyre Works in Wood Street. Nicholls & Wileman Ltd went on to become one of the biggest hosiery manufacturers in Leicestershire, employing over 450 local people. They worked with some of the most advanced machines in the world which were updated regularly as technology, yarns and fashions changed. William’s son Keith made regular trips to hosiery factories in the USA to keep up with the latest innovations.
Initially Nicholls & Wileman produced stockings made from rayon, known as artificial silk. But when revolutionary Nylon really took off they diversified into seamed Nylons – the embodiment of perfection for any lady of style!
There was no stretch in Nylon so stockings came in half sizes and were ‘fully fashioned’ to the shape of the leg for a perfect fit. Advertising was an important driver of stocking sales so Nicholls & Wileman had a portfolio of brands, including the highly successful DIGNITY and ELLE brands, invoking luxury and romance, quality and value.
Ultra sheer branded stockings were manufactured to exceptionally high standards with very strict quality controls in place. Every single pair of stockings was finished by hand and underwent 7 inspections at key stages to ensure perfection. Stockings were despatched to UK warehouses and to agents all over the world, as far afield as South Africa and Trinidad.
William and Arthur may have been very demanding employers but they looked after their loyal and highly skilled staff. The company’s 30-year commemorative booklet proudly states that staff have their own canteen providing a full meal service and ‘The girls are comfortably seated in chairs and sing to broadcast music’. Better than many production lines today! A summer Works Outing by train to Blackpool was a highly anticipated annual event and everyone received a pork pie at Christmas as a token of thanks.
As new technology including seamless tube knitting and stretch Lycra came onto the market, William and Arthur diversified. They set up other hosiery companies in the region including Barber & Nicholls, run by William’s son Keith. They extracted the brand ELLE and started up Elle Hosiery Ltd in the early 1960’s – around the time that the first mini-skirts appeared.
It was difficult to avoid a glimpse of stocking tops under such a short skirt so tights – or pantyhose as they were known - were the practical solution!
Elle became synonymous with innovative tights and socks. Not just sheer and plain tights but patterned and brightly coloured designs featuring strong fashion themes such as spots, diamonds and bows. Exclusive designs, luxurious yarns and a focus on quality allowed ELLE to sell and market premium fashion hosiery, as they still do today.
William and Arthur eventually retired from business and ELLE has been in the hands of the current owners since the 1990s, with much of the product range licensed to partners such as Drew Brady & Company who are part of the Ruia Group of Companies.
After almost 100 years, ELLE’s key philosophy remains unchanged: luxurious, quality products which are made to fit, and not only look good, but feel wonderful against your skin.
The Emergence of Plus size
In 2020 current Chief Executive, Anja Kahn, brought the Plus Size sector of the market back in-house, and today there is a core team focused on bringing Plus Size into mainstream fashion and encouraging a normalcy to seeing Plus Size women depicted in a positive and accepting light.