Absolutely met Cath Kidston to discuss prints, names and geraniums
If you’re a geranium person, you’ll understand what Cath Kidston means when she says that there’s ‘a sort of geranium cult’. These flowers with their distinctive fragrance inspire strong feelings, their scent transporting some people back to their childhoods instantly. If you’re in the cult, you’ll know that the past winter has been a particularly bad one for geraniums and many people lost prized plants to the frost. Not Kidston, though – because she has a greenhouse, and even though she claims not to be a good gardener and not to know when to prune hydrangeas, she is very good at geraniums.
So good in fact that she has set up a new business based on the flowers. Her new range of body care is made up of lotions and oils scented with geraniums from her greenhouse, and I’m meeting her at her pop-up shop in Bloomsbury’s Pentreath and Hall, where she is surrounded by a beautiful display of potted real geraniums and clever paper ones, along with her new collection. Of course it’s not the geraniums that make Cath Kidston a household name. It’s the chain of shops that she set up under her own name in 1993, almost inadvertently, which became a vast global enterprise, hugely profitable in Asia and immediately identifiable for its line in floral prints adorning everything from ironing board covers to children’s pyjamas to wallpaper. It remains a vast business, but without her: she sold it, along with her name, in 2015. The new range of bath and body products is labelled C. Atherley, using her mother’s name, with no mention of Kidston.
In person, she’s not what you’d expect of a global businesswoman. In fact she’s probably the nicest person you’ll ever meet: smiling, kind, gentle and extremely modest. She tells me that her first shop in Clarendon Cross was entirely different from the Cath Kidston stores that came later. Really it was a junk shop, selling random things that Cath had made or found and repurposed. “I’d had a business before doing interiors and I sold curtain poles and fittings, then I had an idea. In the 80s a lot of people tried to have formal Victorian dining rooms and old fashioned chintzy tastes, but that era was changing and I thought, what do my friends want? They want a kitchen living room with a table that kids can play at, a family-friendly space, plastic oilcloth tablecloths that kids could make a mess on. I was going to car boot sales and buying old bits of painted furniture – just things that were fun for young people’s homes, mixing your granny’s sideboard with an Ikea table. I’d make cushions with old fabrics. So it began as a junk shop really.” The first product that really sold was a padded ironing board cover. “I had a tiny flat with the ironing board on the back of the door and I thought, why not have a nice cover?” So she made one and that became the first thing that really paid the rent. “Gradually it grew and I gave up the interior design to focus on the shop.”
Putting her name on the shop was at first just about drawing attention to her existing interiors business. “I just needed people to look me up in the phone book – but then it was too late to take the name away. I never expected it to grow.” Now she can’t use my name for a business ever again. Is that weird? She’s philosophical about it. “I’m so used to it. I was very lucky with that business and I benefited from it so much. You don’t get anything for nothing. When I left I thought I’d just let it go, and keep my proud happy memories” She’s not the only person to give up her name in that way. “I saw the Laura Ashley family ahead of me – there’s a club of us. It’s not a bad club to be in if you see it in perspective really is it? By the end I was working in a very big company with about 250 franchises in Asia. I’d never seen myself doing that.”
Severing her ties with the business she’d dedicated herself to for so long created a big life change – and at first she threw herself into decorating her house in Gloucestershire. “I loved seeing so much sky after having been in an office for so long.” Soon she realised that she needed some sort of channel for her ideas. “All my references are to do with work so if see something exciting I’ll always think of some way of using it. But one day in India I saw the most beautiful design and it struck me that I had nothing to do with it.” Needing some way of being creative, she set up a small print studio. “It awakened in me a thought of how fun it was to be creative again. If you’re a designer it ‘s really nice to evolve your ideas and now I’m probably back to where I was 30 or 40 years ago looking at 18th century archives and things. A lot of brands are interested in traditional stuff with a new twist now and I like brands that are really edited.”
While the Cath Kidston brand was very much associated with florals, Kidston herself isn’t someone whose house is filled with blousy prints. “I have always loved flowers – but not just in print, I love fresh flowers in the house. I love the odd flowery dress. My business started with a big rose print, then a gingham print with roses that I’d found in Czechoslovakia. But in my home there aren’t that many. I’ve got a four poster bed painted bright red and the backdrop is floral but the rest is plain. I have some floral paintings, and a floral chintz seat in a chair but not full on floral. Much as I love print, I like things being quite simple. I love shapes rather than frilly things; I like plain bones to things.” She has a London house too, near the old Clarendon Cross shop, and she says: “it’s a traditional house but also quite modern – the kitchen is contemporary with pale wood floor and units, but also an old fireplace and Delft tiles. I love collecting pictures in auctions and car boot sales.”
Having her small creative team around her is a source of joy. “I’m 64 so I’ve seen a lot and I like being able to share that with my team, who are half my age and know all kinds of things I don’t.” The new range is made in partnership with Heathcote and Ivory, which is run by old friends of hers, and the geranium products are packaged with simple, bold designs and lovely illustrations by her younger colleagues.
For Kidston, her own sense of style is at the core of all her projects. “It’s about atmosphere, I want somewhere that feels welcoming. Not the fashion of the moment. I like houses where people have lived for a long time. Slowly slowly. It might take ages.”