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December 1, 2010 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Cath Kidston

First published in Third Way magazine, December 2010.

When I was growing up, my brother and I would spend our days in dappled sunshine, floating paper boats down the stream at the bottom of the garden and making dens out of floral bed sheets. At teatime we would run into the kitchen rosy cheeked, to find our mother in a pretty pinny cutting us generous slices of her homemade Victoria sponge… At least I think that is how it was. My brother’s memories are somewhat different. He says we spent our childhood giving each other dead arms, spilling Ribena, and arguing over whose turn it was on the ZX81.  He only remembers my Mum making butterscotch Instant Whip whilst wearing a vinyl apron with a picture of a man’s hair chest on it. (My Dad gave the apron to Mum one Christmas – hilarious.) Sadly my brother’s version of things does sound a lot more familiar. In fact I think it is safe to conclude that I am suffering from nostalgia for a life I didn’t live, and I know who is responsible for this delusion – Cath Kidston.

According to a recent survey (by the National Magazine Company) Cath Kidston is the seventh most influential woman in Britain. Seventh place seems rather high for a women, whose main area of influence seems to be whether the ironing boards of the middle class are decorated with polka dots or rose buds. Except since it first began in 1993 Cath Kidston has sold an awful lot of ironing board covers and her company is now estimated to be worth a hundred million pounds.

Cath Kidston’s distinctive prints have been put on everything from tea cosies to peg bags, dome tents to wellingtons. Her designs feature old-fashioned roses; cheerful bunches of cherries and Ladybird Book-like illustrations of ballerinas, sailing boats and cowboys. (Note no Indians, nostalgia can be edited to be politically correct it seems.) Whilst very few of Kidston’s customers will have experienced firsthand the old-fashioned lifestyle her patterns evoke, her vintage-floral-with-a-modern-twist products have a cult-like following, snapped up by Worcester Woman, yummy mummies and Japanese teenagers alike.

This eye for retro styling has been vital in creating her empire of 42 shops worldwide, the key factor in building the Cath Kidston brand has been her uncanny knack to choose products that play off the relationship between the female consumer and guilt. Cath Kidston understands that if your average middle-class woman spends a hundred pounds on a Liberty print scarf, it is only a matter of time before any of the excitement she felt making the purchase and any of the delight she felt about the design will be replaced with the guilt of buying something indulgent.  However if the same woman spends one hundred pounds on pretty but practical things, she can justify her spending and not feel guilty.  Cath Kidston products are the perfect match for guilt free spending. Everything is either the mundane made pretty – Provence Rose hanging shoe tidy anyone? Or pretty things made practical. For example, one of the company’s best sellers is the oilcloth handbag, this wipe clean epitome of Kidston’s practical style is popular with both nursing mothers with spewing babies and women in their 30s, who don’t have kids but from time to time do like a kebab with chili sauce on the way home from the pub. (I am in no way speaking from experience…cough.)  Kidston’s insight into her customers’ buying habits explains why in 2009 despite the recession Cath Kidston was able to report 60% pre-tax profits.
Kidston’s critics have pointed out that she isn’t doing anything that Laura Ashley didn’t do before her. This seems churlish as Kidston publically sights Ashley as one of her heroes, and because there is no doubt that retro styling and rose-tinted versions of the past have always been and will continue to be the currency of design and fashion. (As King Solomon said about fashion in Ecclesiastes “round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.”)  Soon enough Cath Kidston’s mock fifties florals and Enid-Blyton-without-the-racism references will be gone and replaced some other retro inspired home wares fad. My brother and I are pretty hopeful that those jokey vinyl aprons with a picture of a hunky man’s torso on them come back, so we can sell Mum’s on eBay.

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