Build it and they will come: Family-run company Pedlars is marketing a whole lifestyle

By Kate Burt
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:49

Remember when Jamie Oliver first came into the national consciousness, with that debut love-it/hate-it television series where he bished, bashed and boshed out stylish, accessible and wholesome food for his stylish, accessible and wholesome friends in his stylish, accessible and wholesome warehouse pad? His lifestyle was enviable and, even though a television show, lack of unattractive pals and a Shoreditch loft apartment were out of reach for most viewers, the Oliver style – letting you into his world, including you in the banter and jokes – made it all feel somehow attainable. And thus the sprawling Oliver brand, fingers in more pies at every step, was born.

And right now, something similar could be brewing in the world of interiors.

Three years ago, you might not have heard of a small, family-run homewares and furniture business based in rural Scotland called Pedlars, founded by husband-and-wife team Charlie and Caroline Gladstone. But if you flick through their catalogues, befriend them on Facebook, follow their blog, eat or stay at one of their gently branded establishments, or chat with employees ("all our friends!" insist the Gladstones on the website) in one of the shops or on the customer helpline; as with Oliver, you might start to feel that you know them. Oh look, there are Charlie and Caroline, effortlessly well-dressed and laughing as they perch cosily on a cool vintage moped. So stylish, so accessible and wholesome. And there are the Gladstones' six children – aged 10 to 21 – with Mum and Dad (surely they're not old enough to have six children!), in a big family bundle, giggling at a joke they want you to be included in. There are the staff – around 70 in total, around the country – photographed with the Pedlars dogs; they're beaming, naturally, and gathered around a cool, retro drum kit emblazoned with "Sgt Pedlars Happy Hearts Club Band".

Pedlars may be quietly launching a multi-pronged brand attack on Britain's interior decorating style.

Dispirited by "a decade of interiors magazines pushing minimalist Italian furniture, in white or black leather", the Gladstones saw a gap in the market for something "with soul". The Pedlars look, says Gladstone, is mainly "heritage". Though not, thankfully, in a Prince Charles style, despite initial suspicion that there could be a case for Pedlars' raison d'être to be a stash of inherited cash and a bit too much time on their hands (some inheritance, yes, more of which later, but spare time? Not with six nanny-free children, a portfolio of businesses, and an insistence by the couple that they are involved in every decision about the look and feel of Pedlars).

Charlie provides an enthusiastic tour of the shop: there's the new/old classics – Dualit toasters ("Caroline and I have had one since our wedding, 23 years ago, still going strong"), Wesco bread bins ("we're their biggest British retailer – no idea why, they last for ever"), Anglepoise lamps ("ecological before their time – it's so many lamps in one") – but where Pedlars is a bit different is that it throws carefully selected antique and vintage pieces into the mix and – unusually – in vast quantities.

A 1950s industrial Michelin desk – how many do you want? The framed, original destination list from the front of an old Routemaster bus – they've got 50,000 of those. Smith railway clocks from the 1940s; 1970s health and safety posters; art deco Argentinian coloured glass seltzer bottles, ditto. It's quite a USP.

And despite starting a brand-new business virtually on the eve of the current recession, Pedlars and its USP is everywhere. There are now four covetable concessions in Selfridges nationwide; a shop in the middle of Notting Hill's prime retail real estate just off the Portobello Road; 70,000 subscribers to their catalogues; loyal celebrity fans (Gladstone insists on discretion in print, but they include a glamorous television chef, some Britpop royalty, a prime-time chat show host and a well-known feature film director). There is also a holiday home available to rent, and not just any old self-catering cottage, either – Balbegno Casetle is a 16th-century, historic monument-graded farmhouse in Kincardineshire, Scotland, and is exquisitely (yet accessibly, one feels, before checking the prices of what's on display) styled to reflect the Pedlars look. Then there's the 40-cover organic café attached to the company's award-winning Welsh farm shop, near Chester, which uses and sells Pedlars kitchenware, and a country pub. And their Christmas tree farm is the fourth-largest supplier in the country. There's talk of a television show, and a book is in the pipeline.

And yet just three years ago, Pedlars was selling children's clothes by mail order. Things were ticking along quite nicely until, one day, the Gladstones – she a former designer at Laura Ashley, he a one-time band manager and music industry executive – sat down to design their following season's range and had a light-bulb moment. "We decided," says Charlie, on a bench outside the Notting Hill branch of their shop, that "we didn't essentially like clothes". What they did like was the "stuff", as Gladstone describes it – homewares – which they'd been using to style up their clothes shoots. They liked buying things, then selling them, and getting people to design things for them. And, especially, getting up at 5am while on holiday to traipse around antique fairs in remote fields – kids in tow. So they decided that's what they'd do.

But how do you transfer a passion for junk markets into the sort of bulk sales they seem to be built around? Gladstone (Charlie still, as Caroline is in Scotland at their main home – they have a home in London, too) begins reminiscing about his most memorable purchases. There was the guy whose number another guy had written on a scrap of paper in a market in Burgundy. Gladstone arrived at the man's house to be met by an enormous dog and a "terrible, terrible smell". But the man had a house full of "stunning" vintage stationery, and Gladstone was prepared to part with €8,000 to take it from him and load it into his "antique dealer's Volvo" on the spot. The Routemaster story was similar, only it took place on the Isle of Man without the smell or the dog. And he's just taken delivery of some wooden panels from an old fairground ride. "Don't know what we'll do with them yet – they were just beautiful things. Had to have them."

And, yes, there are the Jamie Oliver similarities, he suggests – few fingers in many pies. But in terms of accessibility, Oliver perhaps has on his side that he's a boy from an Essex pub. Not only do the Gladstones have two inherited farms, one including the castle in its deeds, but Charlie is also the great-great-grandson of William Gladstone, the former British prime minister. "We're lucky to have inherited the farms," he concedes, "and to have the confidence that comes with a good education [he went to Oxford, Caroline to Cambridge], but we work bloody hard," he says. "And we're not making a profit from Pedlars yet – won't be for a good few years. Antiques is the only business where you have to pay for everything before you sell it."

On the ancestral angle, there's also quite a lot to live up to, perhaps? He pauses. "No. Not at all. I am proud of the legacy but don't feel any pressure. My great uncle was Cecil Beaton and I was always much more interested in him. And I think, while that wasn't exactly frowned on, there was some disappointment from my Gladstone family... that I was more interested in the arty, bisexual friend of the Rolling Stones.

"I know exactly what I like, and what I don't," he continues. "With Caroline and I there's never any, 'Hmm, maybe we could make it work if it was nicely lit or styled well...?' There's no grey area. I think Conran worked like that as well. I used to find it quite hard to say to people I didn't know, 'Look, I've got really great taste and I can show you some really great things'. I have this slight image of some of my friends throwing sponges at me and saying, 'Get off your high horse, you pompous twit' – but what I've realised is that that's what people like about us. And," he admits, "we probably are selling our lifestyle." As their company tagline says, "stuff we love that you'll love too" – yes, even if we can't afford it.

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