How designing handbags led to making cheese tables

Design lessons learnt by Mulberry founder Roger Saul
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The Independent Online

‘You’re only as good as your last collection,’ says Roger Saul, founder of design label Mulberry and mentor to his son Freddie's new furniture company. At 21, Roger set up Mulberry in his parent's garage with a loan of £500; it is now a household name. Just as his parents helped him start out, Roger is now guiding his youngest son Freddie, 23.

'The Upcycled Collection is Freddie’s business. I’m acting as his mentor, helping with designs, scaling and costing. I’ve given him the wheels to go,' says Roger, who boasts forty years of business experience across fashion, interiors, hotel, restaurant, farm and food industries. ‘Freddie has an absolute desire to work with his hands and make things. It’s lovely to watch him learn how to use materials. He grew up on the farm and is a very practical creator of things. He’s done wonderful metal sculptures and once made a chain stand up like a snake out of old rusting pieces.’

Freddie’s tables for The Upcycled Collection are made using Stilton cheeseboard tabletops, reclaimed after the closing of the Hartington cheese factory in Derbyshire. Roger helps with the designs but Freddie is hands on with the manufacturing. ‘The inspiration behind them is from renewing old furniture,’ says Roger. ‘We need to use materials that are in front of us. We use things from the past for the future.’

Roger hopes to pass on his business experience to his son; When he was starting out in the early Seventies, he made snakeskin chokers in his kitchen and sold them to BIBA. ‘It was my entrée into designing, making and selling. My earliest learnings were buying and margins, costings, products bought and sold. I took the product full cycle. You have an idea, design it and learn how to make it. You create structure, costings and once you had an order, learn about manufacturing.’ Be it snakeskin accessories or reclaimed cheese tables, the naive cycle of a product's life remains the same.

Roger took Mulberry from being known for accessories into a lifestyle brand; this diversification taught him invaluable business lessons. He launched Mulberry clothes - first selling deconstructed army shirts - in the mid Seventies. In the Eighties, Roger introduced Mulberry swimwear, coats (with giant shoulders) and silk ties. Each new clothing warranted a different skill set. ‘It’s the technology of design. You learn as you go along. As a designer and entrepreneur, it’s very important to learn by mistakes. When we started making silk ties, we had huge problems. When you untied the knot, it left a scrumpled look. We learnt that ties need to be cut a certain way.’

In the early Nineties, Roger started Mulberry Home; ‘We then learnt the discipline of interiors. We knew how to design fabrics but not furniture. We had lots of new problems. For example, how wood warps and stretches with sun and damp.’ His next project was Charlbury Hotel in 1996, primarily to showcase the Mulberry Home collection but later a business in its own right. ‘I learnt about service; about designing a real house, rather than for photo shoots and how to look after a customer for 24 hours, not just 30 minutes of buying a handbag.’ In 2003, Roger came out of Mulberry and entered ‘a very different design era – creating product from the land.’ He sold all his Mulberry shares and, in a stroke of lucky timing, bought the 300-acre farm next to his house that was for sale.

By farming the land, he has built the luxury organic goods brand Sharpham Park; ‘I learnt the whole process of converting land into organic and sustainable crops. Now, I sell organic spelt to Waitrose and Harvey Nichols. My main discovery is that the whole process of product is no different whether it’s farming, designing clothes or furniture. Ultimately you are selling product to shops.’ With such experience, Roger is in a strong place to guide Freddie with his cheese tables currently for sale in Selfridges, Retrouvius and Sharpham Park shop. And if his son Freddie stays as good as his last collection, he too could become a household name.

Annie Deakin is interiors writer for sofa and interior design website