Janet Reger: Her Story, by Janet Reger with Shirley Flack.
Chapmans; 246pp; £15.99. Review by Charles Darwent.
Janet Reger made a fortune creating and selling a product that was semi-transparent. Her auto(sic)biography may be viewed as the latest addition to this collection. It is, if you like, the book of the nightie. Like Reger's lingerie, Janet Reger: Her Story titillates chiefly by what it hints at rather than by what it intentionally reveals. Staring down Reger's literary decolletage is no fun at all. Guessing at the shadows that lurk beneath her soignee narrative (or rather, one suspects, that of her belligerently surnamed co-writer, Shirley Flack) is altogether more intriguing. Take, for example, her anecdote about employing homeworkers to construct the prototype (circa 1967) Reger brassiere. "Finding the right workers is like the old joke," opines the lingerie queen. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince. There was the elderly Indian lady who accused me of being cruel when I said I had no more work for her. She was incapable of sewing a straight line. 'It's not my fault I have bad eyesight,' she said, aggrieved. 'I do my best.'"
Sentimentalists may feel a passing twinge for the elderly Indian lady, but then sentimentalists probably don't become lingerie millionairesses. Suffice it to say that the legendary softness of Reger's product seems not to have had any noticeable influence on her business methods.
The unions, too, found themselves on the receiving end of the iron will in the velvet camisole. After quashing early rumblings of a strike among what Reger calls "the girls" at the firm's Wirksworth factory, the rumour went around that Reger had thrown the union out. "When I heard this, I asked the girls: 'What do you actually want a union for? We're a small business. If you've got a problem, you can talk to me about it.'"
When, in spite of this steely disingenuousness, some of "the girls" insisted, not entirely unnaturally, on being allowed to join the TGWU anyway, Reger's response was a terse "If you want a meeting, have it in your own time"; hardly, one feels, the stuff of enlightened industrial relations. "There was," concludes Reger, with a glint, "no further hint of union militancy".
Somehow, one might have expected the genesis of Mrs Thatcher to have provided the final ruche to Reger's lingerie empire (even if the former prime minister was not, one trusts, an apostle of her diaphanous undergarments). Both women, after all, made their careers from a combination of silkiness underwired with steel, and their attitudes to union law seem to have been roughly similar.
In fact, by some deep feminist irony, the recession brought on by the harsh monetarism of the early Thatcher years contrived to kill the Regers' luxury-goods-led business. (It also contrived, unfortunately, to kill Mr Reger. The narrative parallel between the couple's marital and commercial fortunes is one of the most moving episodes in this book, and should be read by anyone who feels tempted to mix business with family).
The moral Reger draws from her own experience is as old, and as poignant, as capitalism. "The financial climate (in 1980-81) was like that of 1990-91," she notes, sadly. "We had borrowed when everything was worth so much, and on paper it still was; but goods weren't selling, nothing was happening, and the property market had slumped. It is one thing to say that one of my shops is worth £100,000, the other £160,000, and my house is worth £200,000. If nobody wants the properties or can afford to buy them, then they are worthless."
There is, nonetheless, a happyish ending to all of this. A wiser if sadder Reger now once again runs a lingerie shop in Beauchamp Place, and her skimpier and more corsetted new business is bearing up to the vicissitudes of Majorism rather better than her old business did to those of Major's predecessor (although the present PM is also, one assumes, not one of Reger's clients). "I suspect I will always be referred to as 'Janet Reger who went bankrupt and began again,'" concludes Janet Reger, who went bankrupt and began again. The point, however, is that she is still referred to at all.
Charles Darwent is a freelance writer.