Cath Kidston tells all at the V&A
As I walked to the tube station to get to the V&A to hear Cath Kidston speak I saw a twenty-something girl carrying a Cath Kidston red and white polka-dotted bag – inevitable, you’ll probably agree, as you can’t seem to go a day without seeing someone on the High Street carrying a Cath Kidston bag.
Since she opened her first store 16 years ago Cath Kidston has grown in to a £31million international brand, and since 2002 alone the business has gone from having three stores within a few miles of each other in West London to having 28 around the world, with five stores in Japan alone. She has been called the “Queen of Florals” by The Guardian newspaper and indeed it is her traditional floral prints that women of all ages seem to love.
Unassuming and down-to-earth Cath comes across as someone to whom this success has happened, as opposed to her chasing it. She confesses that when she opened her first shop she didn’t have any intention of having more than one. However, being ahead of the growing trend for vintage styles, and with the support of the press and the fashion world from early on (a Vogue staffer dropped by regularly at her first shop in Holland Park, and Miuccia Prada once came in to buy some aprons), Cath Kidston is now one of those rare companies bucking the recession.
After working in retail for several years Cath moved in to interior design, learning the trade from the infamous Nicky Haslam, before she started her first business venture with a friend selling curtain poles and antique curtains. Then, inspired by the flamboyant country house style of the late 1980s, the idea for her first store was triggered by a photograph in a magazine showing a bathroom decorated in a very floral and traditional style, with rustic looking furnishings and a bath with the sides covered in patterned wallpaper.
She had £15,000 to start with, £5,000 of which went in to manufacturing wallpaper with her now famous rose print pattern, the original version of which she found in an old cupboard. She would buy unwanted furnishings and redo them, but now makes a variety of new products, with 2009 prints sitting alongside reworks of old ones, re-shaped, or re-coloured, or used on different products, to keep the successful mix of new and familiar which her customers cherish. A key element of the charm of Cath Kidston’s products, and what Cath aimed to achieve, was to make domestic chores more friendly. One of the best-selling products has always been the ironing board covers, which originally kept the business afloat, selling three to four in a normal week in the early days, and still a major seller now.
In the noughties the business has truly developed in a corporate sense, with investors on board, and a full staff of more than 80 now including savvy merchandising and buying departments. As well as stores around the world, the brand has developed its mail order capacity and is also online. Showing how new all this is, the Cath Kidston company has only recently identified its brand, having deduced it by asking its customers, rather than strategically shaping it itself. Recent market research has left Cath impressed by the range of the business’ customers of all ages, although determinedly female, except at Christmas and Valentine’s Day!
A preview of what’s to come – one of 2010’s new prints is in the spirit of Britishness once again with the staycation in mind, featuring drawings of sights around the UK including Stonehenge, York Minster and Edinburgh Castle. Cath jokes that a Kidston tartan might be next.
More imminently, look out for two pop-up shops opening in London for Christmas. More info at www.cathkidston.co.uk