Tuesday, 10 March 2009

*Day One ~ Cath Kidston Article*

Cath Kidston in her shop in Wimbledon, London

I just love this photo of Cath Kidston above don't you, it accompanied this article
which is from The Telegraph in 2006 and gives great insight in to the lovely lady herself.


Who'd have thought that Cath Kidston would make a fortune from cute, nostalgia-heavy clothes and homeware? Certainly not the woman herself.
She tells Rosemary McBain about her latest venture - and why her life hasn't always been a bed of roses.

I have to admit that, unlike the majority of Middle England, I have only recently caught on to the phenomenon that is Cath Kidston.

I had, in the recent past, witnessed Kidston mania among my friends - pretty rosebud-covered ironing-boards, bathroom towels with polka dots on them, floral biscuit tins. I had ooh-ed and ah-ed and said, 'Where did you get that from?' and they had all replied, as if with one voice, 'Cath Kidston!' Obviously, she sells like hot cakes.

So here I am, at the Kidston head office, surrounded by Cath Kidston products. Everywhere I turn there are colourful aprons and mugs and wash bags and duvet covers. Everything is covered in polka dots or stars or roses. 'Look at me!' it says. 'Look at me and buy me and love me.' It's all rather clever - retro with a twist. It makes me wonder about Kidston herself. Does she have apple-pie cheeks? Does she spend her life with umpteen children hanging off her apron strings? Does she hoover and bake and starch as if it is going out of fashion?

'No!' says Cath Kidston, vaguely horrified. She is sitting in front of me playing with the new mobile phone she has designed for Nokia. 'They look quite modern, don't they?
This one here' - she shows me a candy-pink one with stars - 'is for the teen market, really, then there's this one that I call Pop Flowers and this one with white birds and florals on it.'
But aren't mobile phones a bit modern? After all, the rest of her stuff seems to be steeped in vintage - shell pictures, pastel paintings of lighthouses, the odd bit of gymkhana-themed wallpaper? 'Ah, but I think I am modern-vintage. I love the idea of putting something as old-fashioned as chintz on a modern phone. The thing about design is that you must keep moving on, keep it fresh. It would be terribly boring for me if I kept on doing the same biscuit tin and ironing-board cover.'

It seems to be Kidston's ability to harness this Middle England bent for nostalgia and her flair as a designer that have made her so successful so quickly. 'When I opened my first shop I did absolutely everything. I had a tiny, useless computer and I did all the receipts on carbon paper because I was so worried my computer might crash.' Nine years on, her empire is constantly expanding - last month she opened a shop in Tokyo, for instance, and her online store has grown by 75 per cent in the past year.

But, for all this success, what is 47-year-old Cath Kidston like as a person? Well, she is actually rather lovely - warm, enthusiastic, fun. Her staff all seem to love her, and they mill merrily around her office. Her Lakeland terrier Stanley does, too. 'He's a celebrity in Japan,' she tells me, rubbing his tightly curled head. 'When we opened the shop in Tokyo people bought him presents!' She is also very elegant - tall, beautiful, with perfectly enunciated words and very classily cut and gently blonded hair. And it all makes sense when you meet her, for Kidston is, of course, exactly the sort of person who buys her products. She is wearing one of her own crêpe tea dresses and a pair of footless tights. She seems as 'modern-vintage' as her wares, with her traditionally English, slightly eccentric country upbringing teamed with her modern business acumen.

Kidston describes a childhood full of horse-riding, going to boarding school and racketing around her family home on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border. 'I swam in streams and rode ponies and played a lot with my older sister and two younger brothers and it was very harmonious,' she says. It all sounds pretty idyllic. 'It was. But even then I loved to play house. I watched people bake, cook, steam, launder, clean, put away, and I loved it. I loved the order of it, the smell of it.' She says her country home was full of dogs and siblings, but had slightly austere antique furniture. 'Yet our playroom was bright and light and colourful, and I've never forgotten that.' She sometimes thinks back to that playroom and realises how it had its own particular style. 'I was very influenced by how simple and lacking in ornamentation it was - slightly Scandinavian - and I loved it. It was bright and airy whereas the rest of the house wasn't.'
She says she also enjoyed playing shop.

'I loved selling things. It was something that gave me a lot of pleasure.' And making things, too. 'I was always watching Blue Peter and I liked to create things.' As an older child she was sent away to boarding school at Heathfield (whose alumnae include Diana, Princess of Wales), and then West Heath. 'I was good at school, but my sister was very naughty.'

Kidston left school after her A-levels and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. 'I was not brought up to think that I should go to university or have a job,' she says. 'I was expected to get married and run a home.' But that was not going to happen. 'I had no interest in doing that,' she says. She decided to go to London, where her sister was living, and worked in a variety of shops, including a stint at Laura Ashley. 'I was having a lovely time. London was very exciting and I had my friends and my sister and then…' Her world was turned upside down when her father, who came from a Glaswegian shipping family, died.

'I was only 19 and it was very shocking and utterly unexpected. We were all forced into turmoil. My mother was at home trying to look after my brothers. My sister and I were in London. He was such an all-encompassing man, my father. He was only 59 when he died, so we were all at sea. But it was then that I decided I had to do something with my life.'

Luckily, she had a talented aunt, Belinda Bellville, the founder of the fashion house Bellville Sassoon, who persuaded Kidston to go into interiors. 'She was very inspiring,' says Kidston, 'and a wonderful person.' Kidston then got taken on by the flamboyant interior designer Nicky Haslam - 'He is the most warm and inspiring person' - and spent three years learning the tricks of the trade. Eventually, she set up on her own. But she is no stranger to turmoil. In many ways, it is the tragedies she has suffered that have helped her, or forced her even, to make decisions. Her father's death shoe-horned her into a career as a designer. Then, when she was 36, she found a lump in her breast. Her mother had already died of the disease at 62. 'It was a terrible thing,' she says. 'It wasn't until I was diagnosed with breast cancer that I discovered other female relations of mine had also died from it.

I always wondered why no one had told me about what had happened to some of the women in the family, but I think it was because it was a different generation of people who just didn't talk about these things.'
Kidston says that, at the time, she was under a lot of pressure in her professional life. 'I was running an interior-design business, and I also had a shop selling curtain stuff such as materials and antique poles - quite ornate and quite unlike the stuff I do now.' Business was booming but, in her heart, Kidston kept thinking back to that simple, bright nursery she had known as a child. 'I yearned to make things again - simple, practical, beautiful things.' So she sourced materials, started designing and soon opened her first shop in Clarendon Cross in London. 'It stocked the first things I ever designed, practical things like wash bags and ironing-board covers. I was really enjoying that, but I was running two businesses and they were both taking up increasing amounts of time. I realised I had to make a choice.'

Her interior-design business was very successful. She had many interesting clients and was doing the interiors for homes, yachts, mansions and the like. The money she made from this business supported the Cath Kidston shop.
'I couldn't get backing for the shop, so I backed it myself.'

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer everything changed. 'I had no idea what was going to happen. I had seen my mother die from it so it was grim.' But it forced her to choose. 'When I recovered I realised that life was too short not to do something you really wanted to do. It was a huge risk to stop doing the interiors work and concentrate on the shop. If it had crashed and burned, I would have been left with nothing, but I felt I had survived death, really, and it gave me the energy and confidence to start the shop.'

It helped that in her personal life she was supported by her long-term partner, the record producer Hugh Padgham. They met many years previously when she was asked to design a home for him. 'All I knew was that he was a big-time producer who'd done records for Sting, Bowie, McCartney,' she says. 'He had bought a house in Chiswick, so I wandered around it and realised he was a single man, and thought I'd better decorate accordingly. You know, no swags and bows and rosebuds. I did muted colours.' One thing led to another and Kidston ended up moving in with Padgham. 'I then told him I wanted to redecorate the entire house as it wasn't in the style I liked. I thought that was a bit cheeky. He'd paid me to do his house and I wasn't that keen on it!' She says he has been amazingly supportive. 'When I was making the decision to jack in the interior-design business and concentrate on Cath Kidston, I knew he would probably rescue me if it all failed, but I really wanted to succeed on my own.'

She has, of course, far exceeded her own expectations. Over the past nine years she has created a successful franchise with shops in Britain, America and Japan, with a turnover of more than £10 million.'The Japanese love it,' she says. 'But I have to make everything smaller for that market - smaller bed linen, for example - whereas it is the opposite for the Americans.
I still feel stunned. I thought it might all fail.' But why? 'I'm not qualified to do what I do. I keep thinking that I will be having dinner with all the members of my extended family, and someone will come up to me and tap me on the back and say, "We've found you out!" But it does seem to be working so far.'

What does she think is her main design influence? 'I think it was my father. Up until the point he died of brain cancer, I was having a pretty easy time working in shops in London, but then I knew I had to do something to survive. My father, much more than my mother, was interested in fabrics and design. My paternal grandmother had wonderful taste. She wore beautiful clothes and was interested in colours and fabrics and how things were made, and my father was similar. People always assume I am trying to recreate my childhood in my designs, but actually I think my designs are practical. I have everyday things in my shops, things that I would really use.'
Is her home packed full of her own stuff? 'Well, I'm in the process of redecorating our house in Chiswick. Not Hugh's original one, but our house together.' Will it be a riot of colour and polka dots and flower prints? 'No!' says Kidston, looking shocked. 'I don't go in for that. What I really like is white walls, say, with splashes of colour. I always think my designs can refresh things. A new tablecloth or laundry bag can brighten up an entire room. My philosophy is that I don't design people's entire houses. People choose the bits that they like, so it's not my style in their house but their own personality that shapes their home.'

Kidston and Padgham also have a house in Gloucestershire that is full of family heirlooms. 'I do find it hard to throw things out, especially if they belonged to my parents, but I am not a hoarder. That said, I cannot pass by a car-boot sale without stopping and snooping around. I am very involved with my houses. To me, a home should be safe and warm but also an inspiration.'

What of her own home?
I should think she once dreamt of children's wellies in the hall - she does not have children, but she says endless friends pop in for dinner. 'And I have Stanley! I've smothered him so much I don't think he has any natural instinct left. He's frightened of rabbits and terrified of the countryside.' Does she get any time to enjoy it all? 'Yes, I don't work long hours. I love working, don't get me wrong, it keeps me active and interested. Hugh and I lead a pretty normal life, but when I'm not in the office I do spend a lot of time thinking up new patterns and ideas.'

What's new, then, for autumn 2006? 'Ah,' she says laughing. 'Do you know what's recently made me really happy? I've been sourcing a doorstop. I've been trying for ages to get one that works - the right shape, weight, design - and now, finally, I think we've cracked it. Now that, for me, is pure joy.'


  1. Thanks Alison, that was a fascinating article! I really enjoyed reading it.

    Mel xxx

  2. WOW how interesting you are great for sharing it with us thank you she sounds like a lovly lady have a good week best wishes Pat

  3. I enjoyed reading that interview.

    Victoria xxx

  4. That was so interesting to read, Alison. Lots of things I didn't know about the lady. She seems to enjoy continued success and her items seem to be constantly in great demand. I've only just started buying the odd thing even though I've loved her designs and colours for a long time.

  5. look at that studio -- GASP! she looks like such a cool person.

    thanks for Day One!


  6. What a wonderful interview- thanks for sharing.

  7. I really, really enjoyed reading that, very inspiring indeed

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  9. Hi Allison,

    I love Cath Kidston and has been collecting steadily over this year.

    This is a wonderful post about the woman behind these lovely things.


  10. Thank you so much for this post - I finally got to know Cath Kidston. I love her bags and is beginning to appreciate the home furnishings too. I am even thinking of starting my own CK collection, after seeing yours! =)

  11. although I loved it when did her business start

    1. 1992 it think!!!!!! any comments

  12. Kidston opened her first shop in London's Notting Hill in 1993. In 2010, she sold a majority stake of the company to private equity investors TA Associates, retaining a minority stake and remaining the company's Creative Director.
    Hope this helps.


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Love Alison