‘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
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