Knickerbocker glory

When Olivier Gazay couldn’t find a decent pair of pants, he decided to launch his own shop. By Jennifer Farrar

Olivier Gazay comes from a distinguished line of French lawyers and judges that stretches right back to the 16th century. So when he announced that he was quitting his assistant’s post at City giant Linklaters to set up a chain of designer underwear shops, one or two jaws hit the floor.

“My father was appalled and said he had not paid through the nose for my education for me to go off and sell knickers,” says Gazay.

“But he became very supportive after Christmas when I sent him a pair of underpants as a present. He said they were the most comfortable things he had ever worn and wished he had known about them years ago when he was travelling the world. Now he gives me business advice and he loves the stores.”

The first branch of Aware, originally aimed at men only, opened on the King’s Road in London in November 2001 and was quickly followed by another three branches across the capital.

Gazay was inspired to launch the shops after he struggled to find a decent pair of pants while he was living in the UK. “I found it such a nightmare,” he says. “I did not want to go to Marks & Spencer and I just hate department stores. So we set up a store that would predominantly sell underwear for men. But we soon came under pressure from women, who buy 70 per cent of men’s underwear, to devote a corner of the shop to them. So we have done this – although their corner is getting bigger and bigger.”

Gazay’s new career is a far cry from his earlier days as both a diplomat and a corporate lawyer. After studying law in France, Gazay completed the LLB at University College London and went straight on to study for an LLM in intellectual property, aged just 22.

‘The idea that I might spend the rest of my life arguing about how much a banana should be sold for was enough to convince me that I was not cut out to be a diplomat’
Olivier Gazay, Aware

Describing himself as the joker of the class, Gazay says his marks slipped over the first few months because he was lazy and didn’t turn up on time.

“One of the lecturers, who liked me, pulled me aside to say that I had to take things a bit more seriously. So I did. I was very disappointed in my first results and had to work really hard to get through the course.”

Next, Gazay toyed with the idea of accepting a place on the College of Law’s Legal Practice Course in London, but instead decided to apply to the French diplomatic service and won a two-year posting to its embassy in Washington.

“I was the legal attach? but I got bored. The biggest case I worked on was about a banana,” he says solemnly. “It was during the trade war between the US and Europe so was quite important. But the idea that I might spend the rest of my life arguing about how much a banana should be sold for on the French market was enough to convince me that I was not cut out to be a diplomat.”

On his return to Paris in 1999, where he trained as a French barrister, Gazay was hired by US firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed but was soon poached by Linklaters, and spent around two years shuttling back and forth between Paris and London.

“I worked in the corporate team on some pretty big deals,” he recalls. ” I used to handle the deals with a high intellectual property content, such as the France Telecom takeover of Orange, or, and we also did some biotech stuff. But I quickly realised that I did not want to be a corporate lawyer and did not want to reach the age of 40 without having tried something else.”

Gazay’s colleagues at Linklaters responded warmly to the news of his career change. “I had a lot of emails from people who said they regretted the fact that they had not left the law to start again,” he recalls. “Although some still think that having your own business means you can go on holiday when you like or shut up the shop for the afternoon if you want a long lunch break. But they don’t realise how hard it is being your own boss. There is a lot of stress involved and I can’t switch off at the end of the day. I see flying knickers when I try to go to sleep at night.”

Gazay’s legal training has been of great help as a businessman. “I can analyse things very quickly and can change things right away if I see they are wrong. I don’t get tricked by professionals – such as lawyers and accountants. And although I don’t know much about property law, it’s easy for me to read and understand a 50-page lease in 15 minutes because I have been trained to do it quickly and efficiently.”

Although his move to the fashion world has been relatively painless, Gazay still has a couple of legal hang-ups. “I wore a suit and tie to one of my first meetings, I think it was with Dolce & Gabbana. They were all wearing jeans and couldn’t stop giggling at me.”

He adds: “One thing that has disappointed me is that if I say that I will do something to a really tight deadline then I will do it. But in fashion they don’t do that at all. They buy you lunch and promise to do things that will never happen unless you constantly remind them. I used to get really annoyed at this but now I laugh and just tell myself that there is nothing I can do about it.”

Looking to the future, Gazay and his business partner plan to open more branches of Aware across the UK before they even consider launching in Europe.

“The boom in ladies underwear is incredible and men’s underwear is the fastest-growing business in fashion. Our customers want us to set up a mail-order service and a website but we can’t do it all at once. There is real potential in this but we’re just taking things one step at a time.”