Vintage British homeware firm Cath Kidston blooms
LONDON, England (AFP) – The world of Cath Kidston is instantly identifiable, full of bright colours, cheerful prints and nostalgia for an imagined English way of life -- and has made the homeware company one of Britain's global success stories.
A cult following for the vintage-themed bags, clothes and kitchenware, particularly in Asia, helped the company break through the ??100 million ($155 million, 117 million euro) sales barrier this year for the first time.
It is a milestone for the brand as it celebrates 20 years since Kidston, an interior designer with connections to the English aristocracy, opened a "glorified junk shop" in west London.
There are now 118 Cath Kidston stores, more than half of them outside Britain. It's a particular hit in Japan where there are more than 30 stores, while there are a dozen in South Korea and the company has plans to boost its presence in China and expand into Singapore and Indonesia.
"They love the Britishness of the brand -- the quirky, quintessential British nature of us. They love the practical nature of our product," chief executive Kenny Wilson told AFP.
"And like customers around the world, they just love the distinctiveness of our print design."
Kidston was a pioneer of vintage style, and stocked her first shop with second-hand items that she transformed using updated English heritage designs.
Her first creation was an ironing board cover in what became a signature rose print, and the 1,000-strong product line now includes everything from tea cups to towels.
They are decorated with hand-drawn designs of flowers, spots and strawberries, as well as cowboys, jolly seascapes, London buses and Buckingham Palace guards.
"Our signature look is colourful, cheerful, witty, but never too fussy, too pretty or too twee," she has wrote in a book marking the 20th anniversary.
The image Cath Kidston projects of England, of country house kitchens and rose-filled gardens, bears no resemblance to most Britons' lives -- but that is part of the appeal.
The company was one of the first to cash in on the desire for "glamping", or glamorous camping, offering floral print tents, gumboots, umbrellas for style-conscious festival-goers.
"I love the vintage feel, the floral fabrics are really homely and they are also good quality," said Rose Baylis, a 33-year-old nurse and mother of two from Oxford.
At an outlet in Tokyo's hip Shinjuku district, 23-year-old office worker Kaori Nishida picks up a lunchbox, and a parasol to beat the Japanese capital's sweltering summer heat.
She told AFP she liked the "pretty designs -- they're not radical or avant-garde. It's attractive without being glitzy."
The kitsch look is not for everyone, and for many, Cath Kidston is the antithesis of cool.
Her critics say she promotes a rose-tinted view of 1950s domesticity that is affordable only to middle-class consumers who have the cash to spend ??16 on a floral cookie jar.
But the company is thriving in an economic climate that has felled many bigger retailers. Last year the British business grew by 21 percent, and Asian sales grew by almost 53 percent.
Kidston built the company up slowly, fearful of accumulating debt and of diluting the brand -- she designed a floral print for Ikea but would not let it use her name.
She sold a majority stake in 2003 to allow the company to grow, and now 54, remains full-time creative director.
Initially it overstretched itself, opening and then closing two stores in New York and Los Angeles, and the firm now focuses on the key markets of Britain and Asia.
Bags remain the big sellers. A backpack in the 'garden rose' design is one of South Korea's top selling fashion items after a number of celebrities were spotted wearing it.
"The affordable luxury positioning fits the budgets of a consumer base which appreciates luxury items but cannot always spend money on high-price products," said Antonia Branston, analyst at Euromonitor International.
The success of the company is reflected in the sheer number of cheap, knock-off Cath Kidston products which fill street stalls across Asia -- and even at home.
At London's Camden Market, floral print and polka dot bags are on sale carrying a remarkably familiar white label with red Italic writing. Only they read "Colour Life", rather than "Cath Kidston".