“The first product that really triggered for me it was a grey ironing board cover. I was doing my ironing, in my small flat, with and I thought, ‘why not take some mad chintz off an old ‘50s dress and rework it into a board cover?’ If I’m going to do the ironing it might as well look better.”
A conversation with Cath Kidston is full of little anecdotes like this, delivered in her smooth Home Counties tones, with a polka-dotted lexicon that sums up the brand: “nice”, “wonderful” and “fun”. Bear with me: this isn’t fawning – it’s called branding.
The textiles designer, whose florals, spots and stripes have triumphed over the rafters of competition in the household interiors and knick-knacks markets, is adamant about a couple of things. Her products have to be practical, well-loved and not eye-wateringly expensive. This explains the ironing board example. Her prints, with the sort of nostalgic names – ‘shooting star’ and ‘provence rose’ – that have, the figures prove, had customers queuing at the door gooey-eyed.
Her company sprung to life in 1993. Back then, Cath (and yes, it’s Cath – calling her by her surname just feels a bit corporate) worked in the interiors industry, but noticed a gap in the in the midst of a polarised market. “I had a Eureka! moment. There were two ways to go in interior design – either you did the big, old fashioned, grand country house decoration with chintz and pelmets, or very sort of minimal modern Italian quite expensive look. I thought ‘there’s got to be an affordable way of doing one’s house up in a really practical way.’”
Doing up one’s house, or flat, or student digs, or dog, or garden, or baby cousin… “A chic junk shop” is how Cath describes her outposts, and it’s a pretty accurate description. Hidden amongst the pastel cake tins, rose bud print satchels and duck covered shower caps, though, are signs that Cath is aware of the need to adapt to 21st century “junk”. Today the number of Cath Kidston lines seems almost endless. Often, she speaks by example, placing herself in her customer’s mindset: “The iPhone is a classic example. I buy my plain black iPhone and I’ve lost it at the bottom of my bag, or I put it on a table in a meeting and there’s six other people with the same thing, so I really like having my own little identity… I’m looking at the moment at my blue starry iPhone case.” Pods, pads, berries (of the electronic type), oysters (of the Transport for London type) and business cards (of the, er, paper type) all slip nicely into a polka dot oil cloth case. “I don’t want to have a house of things that just hark back to my granny, I want something that takes that, but brings it into the 21st century… that’s more interesting, more of a challenge,” she says, explaining the logic behind the seemingly incongruous mix of chintz and high-tech gadgets.
Cath knows her customers’ tastes inside out; that’s not to say she narrows her appeal. Quite the opposite. Is she not worried, though, that the recent store openings in Oxford and Cambridge will lead the company on a dangerous road to tourist tat? Not so. “I hate to say but it’s something for us that’s always been a real driver in our business, I mean if you go to our store in Covent Garden then it probably will be predominantly tourists and we have an enormous number of customers from the Far East. “I just like being inclusive in what we’re doing. We have a wide age range of customers – my great-aunt who is 82 might come in for something, or an eight year old might. I kind of love that we have quite a diverse customer. [In Oxford] you might have a Japanese tourist next to a student next to a housewife from Summertown; I love that eclectic mix.”
That’s far from the stereotypes of yummy mummies with their floral nappy bags and rah-y girls with vintage rose print scarfs tossed over one shoulder that might creep over the brand, then. Cath is a retail lady, and so it’s natural that the tourist craze for her quintessentially ‘English’ goods is rather pleasant news. But it’s also natural for her to be wary of her company’s identity, which she is: “Obviously we don’t want to be all over the place, and we’re very careful where we open shops… in Oxford it took us three years to find the right space.”
Careful is a good description for her approach. In 2003, she brought in outside investment to help the expansion of the business: “I’d worked on my own [on the business] for 11 years, and I knew I was at the stage really where, as a creative director who had a really very kind of ‘home grown’ approach to business, I needed to put some order into it to expand.” The 40 investors she brought in allowed her to invest in managers that enabled the business to grow. “I was getting a lot of requests, ‘can we do a contract to do franchise stores in the Far East?’ and I thought, I’m really getting to a stage where if I make decisions here I will mess up.” Subsequently, TA Associates, the private equity firm that invested in 2010, have allowed Cath to concentrate on the creative side of the business, whilst still expanding internationally. Today she has 38 stores and concessions in the UK, eight in Japan and one in Kuwait. The company has been on The Sunday Times International Fast Track 100, when international sales grew 91 percent in a year, from £1.5m in 2007 to £5.6m in 2009.
All this sounds rather nice. But what about the economic outlook for the year to come? Will a double dip recession stop purchases of knick-knacks that are, admittedly, a little superfluous?
“Everyone’s still predicting that there will be sales growth, a slow sales growth, we’ve seen very strong sales growth over the past year, benefiting from lots of tourists coming over.” In fact, whether customers are prepared to put their hands in their pockets isn’t the biggest problem: “I think for us, a lot of the situation lies in profitability – I’m much more concerned about things like cotton prices. These things will have a much bigger knock-on effect for us than actual high street trading. We’re trying not to put our prices up much and really fight all the inflationary stuff.”
Cath Kidston Ltd has come a long way from its beginnings in a small shop in Holland Park. The business has grown with the customer base, and Cath has evolved with it. She might have decided she’s “too old” to wear her bubble gum pink cashmere cardigans, but, from eight to 82 year olds, I suspect there will be plenty of takers for them in any case.
PHOTO/Cath Kidston Ltd