‘We are 25 years old now. So, well past the point of be­ing a fad,’ says Cath Kid­ston chief

De­spite that Brexit shock­wave, the quirky, chintzy, polka-dot brand is ‘fly­ing’, as its chief ex­ec­u­tive tells Ash­ley Arm­strong

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - CV

Stretch­ing out in his bright­ly­coloured, chintzy of­fice Cath Kid­ston boss Kenny Wil­son re­flects on what could have be­come of his ca­reer had he not been dropped by leg­endary foot­ball man­ager Sir Alex Fer­gu­son from Aberdeen’s youth team. “I dreamt of be­ing a foot­baller, I thought that’s what I’d be. I re­mem­ber I got a ‘well done son’ and a ruf­fle on the head from Fer­gu­son and I thought that was it,” Wil­son says in his soft Scot­tish burr. But in­stead of muddy pitches and “hair-dryer treat­ments”, he now works in a build­ing which has an on-site man­i­curist, yoga classes and pink neon signs read­ing “bloom­ing lovely”. He takes it in his stride. As well as kitsch Lon­don land­mark wall­pa­per and ubiq­ui­tous Cath Kid­ston polka-dot pat­terns, his own of­fice in­cludes a colour­ful map of his home­town, Aberdeen, to make him feel at home, More­cambe and Wise post­cards, a con­stantly mist­ing de­hu­mid­i­fier, pic­tures of his cheer­lead­ing daugh­ter and sou­venirs from his 13-year-stint run­ning jeans gi­ant Le­vis in Europe.

Wil­son joined the busi­ness six years ago af­ter be­ing re­cruited by the epony­mous de­signer Cath Kid­ston, who founded the brand in 1996 and wanted some­one to take the com­pany’s growth to the next stage. “She was very clear from day one that she wanted to hand the busi­ness over, but only when she and it was good and ready,” Wil­son says. “She wanted to feel like the child was ready to walk.”

Kid­ston stepped back from the busi­ness in 2014 and handed cre­ative con­trol over the same year, just shortly af­ter Hong Kong-based Bar­ing Pri­vate Eq­uity Asia took con­trol of the busi­ness in a deal thought to value the brand at around £250m.

The cash boost from the new own­ers and their Asian con­nec­tions has since helped to pro­pel growth in the re­gion. Af­ter ini­tial dis­rup­tions from buy­ing back Cath Kid­ston’s li­cence in Ja­pan from a fran­chisee, the busi­ness is “now fly­ing”, ac­cord­ing to Wil­son.

Around 20pc of Cath Kid­ston’s sales now come from Asia, mak­ing the lion’s share of its over­seas sales, and the boss has bold plans to tur­bocharge its growth in Ja­pan by in­creas­ing the num­ber of stores from 30 to 55 over the next three years. Ja­panese cus­tomers in par­tic­u­lar like the brand’s play­ful and quirky de­signs which they call “Kawaii”, which roughly trans­lates as “cute”. Kawaii is a big busi­ness in Ja­pan, spurring sales of Hello Kitty dolls to adults and even Lolita style fashion with pop stars.

In the UK, Wil­son is re­spond­ing to the 30pc rise in on­line sales by reshuf­fling its port­fo­lio of 67 ex­ist­ing shops. Wil­son di­vides Cath Kid­ston’s es­tate into two, the larger stores be­ing his “tourist” shops such as those in Lon­don, Ed­in­burgh and York. These have re­cently ben­e­fited from the in­crease in over­seas shop­pers since the EU ref­er­en­dum re­sult sparked a rise in Brexit bar­gain hunters. The rest of his stores are now be­ing sized-up for re­lo­ca­tions. “We will be in­vest­ing in bricks and mor­tar in the UK but we will not be open­ing new stores,” Wil­son says. “Where we are open­ing Age: 51 Ed­u­ca­tion: Cults Academy, Aberdeen Uni­ver­sity

Fam­ily: Daugh­ter Ab­bie and wife Sue

Lives: Hol­land Park, War­wick­shire and Aberdeen

Ca­reer: K Shoes, Bur­ton Group, Levi's, Claire's Ac­ces­sories, Cath Kid­ston

Big break: Be­ing made pres­i­dent of Le­vis Europe at 34-years-old

Drives: Range Rover and As­ton Mar­tin DBS one, we’ll be shut­ting an­other.” Wil­son talks about the group’s shop in Brighton – a city which should be a sweet spot for the brand – which is cur­rently hid­den in the rab­bit war­ren of the city’s sea­side lanes. “It should be a great store for us, but if shop­pers can’t find it, it’s not go­ing to be get­ting the traf­fic.”

As Cath Kid­ston has grown as a com­pany there have been fre­quent ques­tions about whether the brand, which has be­come in­stantly recog­nis­able for its kitsch tea-rose de­signs, might lose its pop­u­lar­ity as tastes have changed. While vin­tage was the buzz­word a few years ago, now a Scan­di­na­vian style of mod­ernism is all the rage.

So, is the brand in danger of be­ing a fad? It’s a ques­tion Wil­son con­stantly asks but he rea­sons “we are 25 years old now, so we are well past the point of be­ing a fad”.

In a con­scious move to recog­nise how most British women wear dark clothes and for­mal styles are more ap­pro­pri­ate for work in Asia, Cath Kid­ston has re­cently re­leased a more muted colour pal­ette for a range of bags which, Wil­son says, now ac­count for 20pc of sales. Pre­dictably, black is still the new black.

How­ever, even while its toned­down flo­ral bags are prov­ing pop­u­lar the brand is also pro­duc­ing sell-out col­lab­o­ra­tions with Dis­ney. Its Win­nie the Pooh car­toon col­lec­tion sold out within 24 hours and de­mand for its Pe­ter Pan range has prompted the brand to im­pose a “five-of-one-item” limit on car­toon en­thu­si­asts.

He re­veals that around 28pc of the en­tire fe­male UK pop­u­la­tion own some­thing from Cath Kid­ston, whether that’s a purse, a hand­bag or a lunch box. Around 50pc of all pur­chases are gifts. “We are a dis­tinc­tive brand but I think it helps that we aren’t in too many places in the UK, so we’re not over ex­posed.”

It’s a sharp con­trast to his three years run­ning Claire’s Ac­ces­sories which had “700 shops across or the coun­try, or as I said, any­where where there was a pub or a church”. As he later ac­knowl­edges, it’s re­tail­ers like that, with such a vast store es­tate, that are be­ing un­done by the on­line shop­ping phe­nom­e­non.

With 65pc of sales com­ing from the UK, this coun­try still ac­counts for the lion’s share of busi­ness de­spite its in­ter­na­tional am­bi­tions. How­ever, Wil­son makes it clear that it’s the “Bri­tish­ness” of the busi­ness that makes its 160 over­seas shops suc­ceed in­ter­na­tion­ally. Next stop is Latin Amer­ica with a shop in Mex­ico open­ing last month and an­other in Ar­gentina next spring.

The brand wears its Bri­tish­ness lit­er­ally on its sleeve. Through the years, de­signs have in­cluded Union Jacks, red buses, march­ing guards, black cabs and phone boxes. It has even been given Royal ap­proval when one of its Beefeater knit­ted vests was worn by Prince Ge­orge, which Wil­son says with a smile prompted a sell-out.

How­ever, given the un­cer­tain rhetoric around Brexit, has brand Bri­tain been weak­ened? “I don’t think it has, be­cause peo­ple out­side still see us as be­ing a very cre­ative, open coun­try,” Wil­son says. “I don’t think that, if you live in Tokyo, peo­ple think that they will be less wel­come be­cause peo­ple out­side Lon­don voted to leave the EU. They have a big­ger, idyl­lic view on the British coun­try­side which still en­cour­ages them to visit.”

Like most British re­tail­ers, how to nav­i­gate Brexit and the un­cer­tainty it has brought, is one of the big­gest headaches Wil­son suf­fers. Cath Kid­ston has been partly shel­tered from some of the neg­a­tives be­cause of its con­sid­er­able over­seas rev­enues and the droves of tourists vis­it­ing its UK shops. How­ever, the busi­ness is also suf­fer­ing from the weak­ness of the pound, which has made the cost of goods soar, and the un­cer­tainty for its 150 work­ers in the UK who are from the EU. Brexit is al­ready mak­ing the at­trac­tion and re­ten­tion of staff more dif­fi­cult.

“We want pro­tec­tion for the [EU] col­leagues who have worked here for a num­ber of years and we also want to en­sure an on­go­ing sup­ply of tal­ent from EU work­ers who want to be here,” Wil­son says. “We need a pipe­line of peo­ple be­cause, ba­si­cally, right now we can­not fill all our jobs with British peo­ple.”

The UK’S re­tail in­dus­try em­ploys around 120,000 EU na­tion­als, ac­cord­ing to the British Re­tail Con­sor­tium. The de­bate about the sec­tor’s re­liance on an im­mi­grant work­force is ex­pected to rage on dur­ing Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions but there re­mains ques­tions about why so few Brits want to work in the sec­tor.

“It’s a hard one be­cause it’s a ques­tion of what drives peo­ple and their mo­ti­va­tion,” says Wil­son. “But our eastern Euro­pean col­leagues, for ex­am­ple, are more will­ing to get up and get in and deal with our an­ti­so­cial-hour stores, such as our Heathrow store which re­quires them to be there for be­fore 5am to set up be­fore first flights.

“I don’t want to get into be­ing the king of ide­ol­ogy. It’s not to say that some British peo­ple don’t want to do anti-so­cial hours, be­cause we do have some British peo­ple who work in our Heathrow store – but not enough.”

For a brief mo­ment Wil­son catches him­self par­rot­ing Theresa May, para­phras­ing “the Brexit de­ci­sion is the Brexit de­ci­sion”.

“It’s not some­thing I can con­trol,” he adds. But it’s clear that the Cath Kid­ston boss is aware that with­out more cer­tainty for EU work­ers Brexit could take the shine off his brightly coloured ex­pan­sion plans.

‘Our eastern Euro­pean col­leagues are more will­ing to get in and deal with our anti-so­cial hour stores’

Kenny Wil­son at Cath Kid­ston’s Lon­don base, above; when Prince Ge­orge wore a Kid­ston out­fit, be­low, it be­came an in­stant sell-out

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.