Between the sheets

Christian Rucker turned her fruitless quest for white linen into a mail-order success story. By Imogen Fox

Five and a half years ago Christian Rucker was blessed with a very rare thing - a good idea. Like all the best ideas it was simple and effortless. "My husband and I were staying with his sister. We'd just bought a house and she'd just bought a house," explains Rucker. "The conversation turned to housey things and how we all liked plain white bed linens and towels, but that they were surprisingly very hard to find." A short leap of imagination later, and The White Company - a mail order company specialising in quality white towels and linens for the home - was conceived.

Although there have been rogue flashes of colour in recent catalogues (pretty gingham baby pillowcases and checked wool blankets), most of the bed spreads, blankets, towels and table linens on offer do still adhere to the company's name. With over 120,000 customers nationwide on The White Company's mailing lists, it seems the demand for whites is stronger than ever. While interiors magazines might inform us that hot pink boudoirs are the "big thing", white is to bed linens what black is to clothes - classic and stylish. "It's just soooo versatile," Rucker enthuses. "If you're 22, trendy and living in Portobello Road you can still have plain white sheets, and if you are older and like chintz, you can have beautiful hand-embroidered white linens."

Rucker clearly remains passionate about selling white (the self-stripe linens are her favourites) but she is also insistent on excellence. "The idea was to provide the very best quality at the best possible prices. We have the same suppliers as famous designer brands, but designers charge three times as much as us." Thus, a fantastic quality bed spread from The White Company will set you back around pounds 90, whereas the same quality duvet cover elsewhere might cost over pounds 250.

Softly spoken, with shy smiles and mild wafts of Chanel No.19, Rucker, 30, fits nobody's stereotype of a hard-headed businesswoman. As a youngster she wanted to be a fashion designer ("the next Betty Jackson,") and at 16 she left school to work for wedding dress designer Anneliese Sharpe. It wasn't what Rucker expected, and after a few months "sewing buttons and making coffees" the designer suggested Rucker might prefer working for a magazine.

Rucker agreed and worked as a receptionist at Conde Nast, before getting her big break at Brides and finally ending up as assistant health and beauty editor of Harpers & Queen. She stayed there until 1994 when The White Company was set up. Her experience in magazines proved invaluable for establishing her own company. "At Harpers I did a bit of everything - shooting, writing, editing... and I was always very keen on the art department which came in really handy when I was producing my brochures."

As well as knowing how to set up shoots on borrowed beds, Rucker knew first-hand the importance of good publicity. With no advertising budget, Rucker instead wrote to as many journalists as possible about her new venture. "I was really lucky," she says, "people picked up on it. Lucia van der Post, who was perceived as a shopping editor icon at the time, wrote almost a full page feature in the Financial Times about us. From that we got about 800 enquiries. I knew that without that support it would be very hard."

Rucker also thinks herself lucky to have had the experience of her husband, Nick Wheeler, to fall back on. The owner of mail order shirt company Charles Tyrwhitt, it was he who insisted that Rucker make The White Company mail order. "It meant we could keep our overheads low, and it was a good time for mail order - niche catalogues were starting to get a real hold, the old '28 day delivery' rule went out the window and everyone was delivering within the week."

Today, between 400 and 500 orders are processed daily by an increasing workforce, but Rucker recalls fondly the days when she and her sister used to do everything themselves from an attic room with one computer they couldn't work. "We packed all the orders into the back of my sister's mini metro and took them to the Post Office at the end of each day. We'd be standing in the queue with all these enormous parcels. It was ridiculous!"

Rucker is constantly thinking about ways of developing her company. She was amused to read recently that The White Company was soon to open a shop. "That's in the future though. At the moment I'm really excited about launching a children's range. I realised when I had my own babies how hard it was to find nice bed linen for them without cartoon monsters all over. The company's has been very much in tune with me all along."

The White Company: 0171 385 7988

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