Last year, Cath Kidston celebrated over 20 years in business and opened her flagship store on Piccadilly. She speaks to The Resident about humble Notting Hill beginnings and the building of an interiors empire
If one were to conduct a straw poll amongst friends, it is odds on that at least one person will own a Cath Kidston item, whether that is a rose-print shopper, a spotty oven glove or a cowboy print kids duvet. The Cath Kidston ‘look’, it seems, has become a ubiquitous, yet highly desirable, part of our lifestyle and according to Cath Kidston’s publicity blurb, almost 60% of British women aged 18-65 are aware of the brand.
Kidston celebrated her brand’s 20th birthday last year, and although she’s delighted with the success, admits it has taken her by surprise. ‘I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am today,’ she says. ‘I hoped I was on to something when I ﬁrst launched the business, but can’t quite believe how far it has come since then.’ Currently there are 68 Cath Kidston stores and concessions in UK and Ireland, and an additional 75 across Spain, France, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Indonesia. From early beginnings offering home accessories, the shops now sell homeware, laundry, womenswear and childrenswear. In addition, Cath has also published six best-selling craft books.
Yet it has been a gentle, even organic, expansion. Cath opened her tiny store in 1993 in Notting Hill, where she sold an enticing mix of vintage furniture and colourful kitchen accessories. Despite promising beginnings, says Cath, ‘it took six years until I felt conﬁdent enough to open my second shop.’ It wasn’t long before she launched her now classic wallpaper, Antique Rose, inspired by a scrap of old wallpaper she found at the back of a wardrobe in a derelict cottage in Wales, and – in a light-bulb moment – it chimed with Cath’s notion of using a classic print in a modern way. She got the design redrawn, and the wallpaper and print became a best-seller – over 18,897 rolls of Antique Rose White wallpaper have sold since 2002.
Reaching a 20th birthday deserves to be celebrated, and accordingly, Cath released a new book in 2013, Coming Up Roses (£16, Quadrille), the story of how she built the business, which she hopes, ‘could inspire others to start a business of their own’. The birthday also saw the launch of the Coming Up Roses birthday collection, featuring a range of office essentials, including iPad and iPhone covers, in timeless Antique Rose and Red Spot. Many of us will be familiar with Cath’s iconic prints, including Strawberry, Spot and Cowboy, all inspired by her English country upbringing but some offer nostalgia with a twist. ‘Sail Boat is a slightly anarchic parody of a traditional nautical print,’ says Cath. ‘There are oil tankers and cruise ships amongst the lighthouses!’
For a woman whose business originated with a love of vintage fabrics, it was an enormous leap to move into new designs, the origins of which, Cath admits, lay in an early business mistake. She had ordered fabric on the roll from Czechoslovakia, which unexpectedly arrived made up into children’s bed linen sets.‘The only way to rescue the situation was to cut up the bedding and make it into smaller home accessory products like aprons, cushions and laundry bags,’ she says. ‘My product range expanded overnight.’
Ultimately, it was an inevitable step to branch into accessories and womenswear. These days, the cute Cath Kidston handbags, skirts and dresses, demure swimsuits and easy plimsolls are simultaneously classic and highly fashionable. Has she ever toyed with the idea of menswear? That prompts a ﬁrm ‘no’. ‘We have had a few requests for printed boxer shorts but I’ve never been tempted to branch out.’
And that is the secret of Cath Kidston’s success: she knows her brand. Now she has expanded into an international market, the English nature of the product has been key. In particular, her nostalgic, sweet prints sell like hotcakes in the Far East. ‘Our backpacks have sold phenomenally well in Korea, we can’t restock fast enough,’ she smiles. She has also learned that it is important not to try to turn the brand into something it is not. ‘In 2005 we designed a collection with dark colours,’ she says, with refreshing honesty. ‘It was completely out of character and commercially pretty disastrous!’ So with her eye ﬁrmly focused, where will Cath Kidston be going in the next 20 years? ‘We have a fantastic team in place to carry the baton forward,’ she says. ‘I hope the brand will be continually evolving whilst remaining true to its ethos, with an even wider global reach.’