Kidston is bent over her new wood sideboard, gently worrying away at the rich honeyed surface with her fingers. “It’s unstained wood and will fade to that lovely worn white if you scrub it down with bleach and water, she says, still rubbing as if it might magically blanch at her touch.This is classic design sentiment from her. Nothing should be too “done” in the Kidston aesthetic.
We are standing in the dog room in Kidston’s new home, a glorious Cotswold- stone sixteenth-century manor, a recent and much-hunted-for acquisition for Cath and her husband, record producer Hugh P., set in a sun-drenched valley that undulates provocatively away from the lawn, framed by towering oak and beech trees. The Gloucestershire countryside stretches unbroken to the horizon.
The slate floor and whitewashed walls, she explains, will soon house dog baskets and framed pictures of dogs. Rut for now the room is devoid of furry friends. She is eagerly awaiting two puppies, one a lurcher, the other a Sealyham terrier. Kidston followers will already be familiar with Stanley, her previous golden-brown terrier, with his skewed curls. He featured large in the Cath Kidston world, alongside the kitsch floral ironing boards and sewing kits (there are Cath “Stanley” pepper-and-salt shakers on the kitchen table), and was her constant companion. His death in May left her bereft.
“I feel very strange without a dog,” she sighs gently. “And the routine… I think a dog is great to stop one being too selfish, don’t you? What I always loved was coming back from work and taking Stanley for a walk.” You sense this house won’t be whole
— or properly home — until those dog baskets are full. In the meantime, she is relishing the decorating task at hand; interior design was her first career before she took on conquering the world with her roses-and-chintz essence of Englishness.
My tea, in a trademark spotted mug, grows cold in the kitchen (complete with comforting black Age and simple Shaker- style white kitchen cabinets), as I am given the tour. It takes an hour, such is Kidston’s enthusiasm for sharing detail and her loquacity regarding decorating contacts. We move from the airy drawing room, with Farrow & Ball-painted walls, piled with interiors books and back issues of Country Life, to her bold office in “tomato soup” red and a grand old staircase lined with eclectic prints (she has been collecting art since the age of 18). Suspended above are three giant cheap Chinese shades bought on Amazon: “So like those you used to find in nurseries,” she adds.
The house is filled with antique furniture — both inherited pieces and flea-market finds. In the study, red hairs, a yellow lamp and touches of blue combine in one of Kids ton’s favourite colour combinations.
Right: most of the paintings are from Kidston’s own collection, which she began when she was 18. “Whenever I had money I bought pictures,” she says. Below, biographies and design books are stacked in the living room pinpointing with typical exactitude the soothing whimsy the shades invoke.
For those who yearn to ape her style (and why wouldn’t you? Her taste has produced an empire with annual sales figures of 89 million and 131 stores worldwide), a few hints: she likes layering reds and pinks; she has always been drawn to a red, yellow and blue canvas. “This needs to be messed up” is a favourite comment. As we pass through rooms, many freshly painted and carpeted, she impatiently scuffs her toe, roughing the thick wool, shuffling bedspreads and rugs. Comfort is key, always. There are hot-drink and hot-water-bottle stations throughout the maze of rooms, and she is a master of print. I count more than eight different wallpapers, from budgies to stripes to Kidston’s own Paris Rose and Boat.
To adopt fashion parlance, it also seems to be necessary to master layering. Fabrics differ in every room, from Claremont to Lelievre and Volga Linen, many others ferreted out from unique sources (the hunt, you gather, is half the fun): tufted Moroccan rugs in oozing rich oranges (from internet company Molly Hogg Design); thick, heavy curtains in the sort of wool normally used to make soldiers’ uniforms, from the British brand Hainsworth. Or, my favourite, the chaise-longue in her dressing room that she quilted with Zara Home bed throws in bubblegum pink.
You sense this house is Kidston’s giant artistic canvas, a lifetime project. “I can keep doing bits and pieces for years, and I find it so rewarding,” she says simply. And for those who think Kids ton aspires to the housewifely, sink-bound life (her modern brand of Fifties nostalgia has sometimes invited criticism), think again. “My favourite thing,” she exclaims with a flourish, “is a row of new dishwasher machines. Isn’t that good? I’ve got three. I’m really happy.”
There was no formal training to set her on this path. “At I thought, ‘I’ll just get a job and earn a living.’ I didn’t know I could go and study textiles after school, for instance. So much is about confidence, don’t you think?” But the seeds were there; her aesthetic began with her father, she says, as we pause to observe the gracious, light space of her duck-egg-blue bedroom, similar to the pale blue of her childhood bedroom. “He didn’t like perfect taste — he thought it was dull. I guess I was brought up with that.”
At 25, she was hired by Nicky Haslam, a turning point in her career, she says, which until then had been a litany of jobs — many of them, tellingly, in retail — dressing windows, plumping cushions. “Nicky was amazing to me. He was so encouraging. It dawned on me, the whole thing of maybe I can get on and do something’.”
Back downstairs in the study, we settle into two adjacent lush velvet red chairs just delivered from Christopher Howe in Pimlico, our feet propped on matching faded chintz footstools. “This is where we spend our life, watching telly,” she grins, sighing as she nestles further into the plush cushions, long legs with Mitford-esque ankles stretched out in front.
There is an understated effordessness to Kidston that makes it very easy to be in her company, be that her informal dress sense or her breathy, polite delivery: very English drawing room in tone but never arrogant or imperious. She politely canvasses your opinion, and although she listens for an answer her brain is already impatiently hurrying ahead to fix the problem.
“The interesting bit is always the next bit,” she says. “I am inspired by nostalgia, but I don’t want to live within it. I like taking those memories and thinking how they can be applied for today.” Every statement of achievement in her life — be that her business or this house — is balanced with natural self-deprecation. She talks of leaving her idyllic childhood home in Wales and finding herself in London without the faintest idea of what to do with her life. And yet, one hazards, there was a core to Cath already formed, a strong sense of who she was, and her taste, which only required time and exploration to find their right expression. You see such a strong imprint of her everywhere — be that her wardrobe, her home or her business — and this is the key to her global success, this strong perception of a unified brand, the person driving it, personalising it.
Cath and Hugh split their time between their exquisite Chiswick townhouse (which was featured in Vogue s October 2008 issue) and weekends here, sometimes accompanied by Kidston’s stepdaughter, Jess, for whom she is currently planning a twenty-first birthday party. The idea is to create a mini festival VIP area on the tennis court. “Fun, no?” says Cath, violet eyes lit up at the thought of another creative project.