Had you always wanted to start a business?
Totally, I was one of those kids who played shop from as young as I can remember. I was always making a stall in the garden, or trying to sell my mum’s grocery cupboard back to her. I started my first business, a design company, with a friend when I was 28. But I didn’t open the first Cath Kidston store until I was 34. Before that, I’d worked in shops and galleries.
I had no confidence when I was young; fear held me back for a long time. I was always very creative and thought: “If you’re creative, you’re probably not a business brain”. But that’s such a myth.
Who inspired you?
When I left school my parents were very unambitious for me. They thought I’d go to London, work somewhere and then probably marry somebody – that’s the way it was in the 1970s.
But I had a lovely cousin, Belinda Bellville, who was a dress designer. She was very talented and had a cool company called Bellville Sassoon. She was, in a sense, a role model. I used to go and stay with her and watch her go out to work. She was fun, creative and interested in everything. And, when I came to work in London, Belinda was very supportive. She was someone I could aspire to be like.
But the big turning point came when I got a job working for a decorator called Nicky Haslam. He was just a brilliant, supportive character. He allowed me to do so much stuff, when I hadn’t a clue. He is the person I’m most grateful to, because he gave me some confidence. I needed that, otherwise I would never have started.
You’ve spoken publicly about your dyslexia before, did that play a part in your business?
For a long time I didn’t know I was dyslexic. My mum didn’t tell me until I was 24, she said: “I didn’t want you to think you were odd”. I’d come from a different generation. Now I get contacted by kids who explain their form of dyslexia to me, and often I think: “Oh, that’s me, I never knew that was dyslexia”.
At school, I could always manage subjects that I could visualise. In maths, for example, I could visualise fractions but I found algebra complicated because I couldn’t understand the purpose of it. When branding a creative business, it’s a real advantage to keep one’s eye on the bigger vision. I find the bigger picture exciting and the very small detail exciting, it’s the middle bit I struggle with. If you are dyslexic, I think finding the right people to work with is important. I always had a good accountant and I needed people to organise the ideas.
What’s been your proudest moment?
When I started Cath Kidston vintage wasn’t fashionable, so my business was out of synch. For five years I ran the interior design business alongside Cath Kidston. That paid all the bills and subsidised my shop. It was a struggle doing both, but there were people whose style and taste I really rated who were supportive of the Cath Kidston brand. I thought: “I’ve got to hold on to this and hope that the timing [for vintage style] comes through”. Then, one day, I was reading the paper and something was described as being “very Cath Kidston”. That was surreal, and such a big moment to think: “OK, it’s something that’s defined”.
What’s it like having a business named after you, particularly when you’re no longer the boss [Kidston remains a shareholder, but no longer has a role in the business]?
When I started the business, I never knew it would grow, or I would never have called it Cath Kidston. I’m not someone who wants to be famous, for me, it’s slightly embarrassing. It was before the internet [was widespread] and people looked you up in the phone book, so I used my name because that was linked to my interior design work. But I had a very clear understanding that once I’d sold my business, I’d sold my name.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
I would have been braver younger. It took me a long time to step away from a job and the safety and security of a regular income. There are many more things I’d like to do in the future and it’s a case of fitting everything in.
Actually, I quite fancy doing another small business where I can get my hands dirty – if I were to start something, it would be in design. I’m beginning to get itchy now. I miss the routine of work, the office banter, the people – it was just such a joy.
Do you get lots of requests for advice now?
A lot and I like trying to help if I can. I take on about three or four small businesses at a time. Otherwise, I try to do things like today [Kidston was speaking at an event for The Budding Entrepreneur Club].
For me, it’s all about the passion for an idea. I do find a lot of people are just excited to try to make a lot of money. If you’re going to do that, you’re likely to be disappointed. When I set out with Cath Kidston, I remember thinking: “I will have really done well if I’m earning £30,000 a year”, which back in 1992 was quite a lot. So I wanted to earn enough not to be fearful about cash, but my actual goal was to do something original and feel proud of that idea growing.
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