Bags of money: Why the world just can’t get enough of Cath Kidston’s bright ideas

Covet it or cringe at the thought of it, it’s Britain’s most unstoppable brand

Cath Kidston has acknowledged the contrasting reactions her eponymous brand of floralware inspires. Appearing on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2011, the head of a blossoming global empire of twee said: “People either love it and want a little bit of it very much, or want to stab us.”

If success is keeping the haters at arm’s length, it was reflected yesterday in the chain’s latest annual sales figures. Twenty years after Kidston saw business potential in her home-made ironing board cover, she is now shifting £105m of brightly coloured bags, mugs,  notepads and cake stands.

British sales at Cath Kidston rose 21 per cent in the year to March. The UK now has more than 60 outlets and a London flagship is due to open on Piccadilly before Christmas.

But the figures also reveal overseas sales rising 53 per cent, driven by huge demand in Asia. China’s middle-class crave British heritage, however contrived, and can’t get enough of Burberry and floral trailblazer Laura Ashley. Cath Kidston will open a second store in Shanghai later this year, to add to its other 30 outlets in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan. Japan has a further 32 stores.

Overseas desire was evident yesterday at the concession in Harrod’s, which opened on Friday. Sam and Amal, teenage sisters on holiday from Saudi Arabia, had spent £77.90 on a bag, towel and hand cream, all decorated with Kidston’s trademark flowers. “Normally we have to order online,” Amal said. Asked why they liked the store, the girls  added: “It’s just British. You can’t find this elsewhere.”

Kidston, who’s 54, has become as aware of her own heritage as any latent fondness for granny’s teapot. Among the most prominent products at Harrod’s is her own book, Coming Up Roses: The Story of a Growing Business, which was published in April to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of her “glorified junk shop” in Holland Park. The book  is no rags-to-riches tale, however – Kidston grew up in a large house in Hampshire, and is the granddaughter of Glen Kidston, a racing driver and hunter. Kidston’s  uncle is Charles Henry Allsopp, the 6th Baron Hindlip and father of the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. As a teenager Catherine Kidston worked for society interior designer Nicky Haslam before setting up her own business, at one time working for the record producer Hugh Padgham, whom she later married.

After surviving cancer, which had claimed her parents early, she started to design products inspired by the rural idyll of her youth.

The brand became a cult success and soon flourished, despite her early doubts. “I remember feeling I’d really overstepped the mark when I opened my second shop – thinking, that’s probably going a stage too far,” she told Radio 4.

In 2010, Kidston sold a majority share in her business to a US private equity firm, making a reported £30m, although she still holds a 23 per cent stake and remains creative director. She lives in the Cotswolds and Chiswick with Padgham and a step-daughter.

Under its chief executive Kenny Wilson, Cath Kidston the chain hides a canny business sense behind its cheery exterior. Lucrative collaborations have increased appeal beyond the brand’s ultra middle-class origins, and also among younger consumers. Kidston has slapped her name and style on Roberts radios, Millets tents and Nokia mobile phones. In 2008 she designed charity shopping bags made from plastic bottles for Tesco.

Outside Britain, franchised stores have minimised the initial investment required from the company’s HQ in St Neots in Cambridgeshire. The chain then succeeds by offering a sense of luxury, while preserving one of relative affordability in Britain. “In China, its cachet means people pay a premium,” Neil Saunders, a retail analyst, explains. “But it has not done so at the expense of mass market appeal in Britain. It’s a very strong position.” A Burberry mac, he adds, is fiercely expensive anywhere. A Cath Kidston handbag that is equally desirable to foreign eyes? Not so much. 

While often compared to Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston “doesn’t have the same baggage”, Saunders adds. “It has managed to be seen as cool as well as traditional. It’s like the Laura Ashley of the Eighties but smarter.”

Wilson, too, concedes Kidston will never be universally loved. “We don’t try to be divisive,” he said. “We try to say, here’s our brand and this what it stands for.” As the haters circle, the challenge for Kidston, Saunders says is to: “Keep the brand fresh and interesting. The danger is that it becomes ubiquitous, or fashions move on. It has to keep reinventing without seeming to.”

In numbers

£105m Cath Kidston total sales (year to March 2013)

53% increase in international sales

62 Outlets across Asia

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable