Jane Austen, buns, Beau Nash and Roman remains. These are just a few of the things that you might associate with Bath, the spa city that is the quintessential middle-class destination lying a few miles to the east of its larger and more knowing local rival, Bristol.
Tourists pack the streets of this compact metropolis for no better reason than that everything looks well-preserved and feels, very, very civilised. Walk around this Unesco World Heritage site and it’s easy to be persuaded that you are back in the 18th century, here to take the waters alongside the dandies down from London.
Refined dandification plays a fair part in summing up what Bath is all about: whether in terms of the city’s fabric or the people who live here or visit. This is not the sort of place where you are going to see many people sporting Adidas trackie bottoms or ho-hoops (large golden hooped earrings) in combination, perhaps, with a Croydon face-lift. Perfect therefore for that most middle-class of retail brands Cath Kidston.
Beloved of the Notting Hill set, Cath Kidston is a fashion and homewares retailer that trades on an innate understanding of its customers. Anybody buying from its stores will be part of a select group whose members would probably claim that taste rather than money is the determining factor when making a purchase.
There has been a Cath Kidston branch in Bath for a little over a year and last month the shop relocated from its small, 600 sq ft (55 sq m) unit, to larger premises close to 3,500 sq ft (325 sq m). This may not sound like the biggest shop that you are likely to encounter as you wander around the city, but it is at the top end, in terms of size, for this retailer.
It is also instantly recognisable. Cath Kidston may only have been around for about 15 years (it celebrates a decade and a half of trading next October), but despite having only 16 UK outlets, its shopfronts are distinctive and hard to miss.
There is something almost quaintly old-fashioned, with a whiff of nostalgia, about the tone of sky blue that has been chosen as the brand’s signature colour. When this is coupled with the red handwritten-style logo, the store exterior feels almost like a contemporary take on the Edwardian period. The design also gives the outlet the sense of being a shop rather than a store – the scale is domestic.
The windows allow views into the interior – but not too far. One of the points about the floral-bedecked interior is that almost every space is used and while there is a sense that you are stepping into your upmarket auntie’s parlour, what you are being offered is a masterclass in visual merchandising as well as a semi-home-spun ambience.
Much of the way the store appears internally is down to the thinking of one man: Andy Luckett. He is visual merchandise director at Cath Kidston and is responsible not just for making the stock look good, but also for the store layout, according to managing director Jo Stavely. “When we open a new store, Andy knows the range so well, that he’ll put together initial drawings which he’ll then present to Cath and me and we might add some commercial touches, but pretty much he gets it spot on,” she says.
The new Bath store is spread over two floors – ground and first – and is in one of the city’s oldest buildings. This goes some way towards explaining the highly assymetric ground floor where it is initially quite difficult to see to the back of the shop as the queues at the cash-wrap area at the front obscure sight lines into the interior.
Adapted to love
What is apparent, however, is that although there is a very definite Cath Kidston store design, each branch operates as something of a one-off in terms of the way the brand is adapted to the available space. Practically, this means that the Bath store’s ground floor has a servery-counter-style till point with a line of top-lit open backed niches that serve as a form of topless canopy for the area. Within this are the first indications of the attention to detail that characterises much of this store.
Pride of place goes to a soft-toy vignette, with coloured glassware and children’s toys either side of this. The white counter itself has a back wall that has been covered in pink wallpaper from which floral paper bags have been hung. It looks like an old-fashioned haberdashery department, although Cath Kidston might dispute this interpretation of the design.
Look away from the cash area and everything is white wood or wallpaper. And every surface has been merchandised, whether it’s the floral oven gloves and table linens – “core items for Cath Kidston,” according to Stavely, or the floral picnic accessories found at the back of the shop.
Floral seems to define much of what this retailer is about with the modus operandi seemingly being that if it is on sale, make sure it has a floral motif. When asked what the brand stands for Stavely is temporarily stumped. “Some people might call it a modern Laura Ashley,” she ponders. “We have been thinking about getting someone in to define the brand proposition. 50 per cent of the range is floral. But more than that and it doesn’t look good.”
Head upstairs and the first thing that is likely to strike a shopper is the way in which much of the building’s original structure has been left intact. The very high ceiling is supported by a series of dark wood beams and directly beneath this is a large floral bed that has been accessorised with a white wood breakfast tray, spotty crockery and the inevitable soft toy. Behind this, the white clapboard walls have been painted pastel pink and an open-fronted blue wardrobe contains white cotton nightwear. All is homely.
Also worth noting is the masterclass that is taking place on the Cath Kidston way to fold a towel. It is a measure of the level of care that is lavished on the way things are done that this is thought worthy of spending so much time on. Apparently, the folds should not show, which means that there is a specific way in which the towels have to be handled.
Also on this floor, as elsewhere, is evidence of the eclectic approach that is taken to fixtures and fittings. Stavely says that she and Cath Kidston, the founder and major shareholder, come across stores that are closing and proposition the owners for the fixtures. This explains the plain wood fixture bearing the legend “Quality Babywear”, looking like a little piece of 1960s department store history, which is found on this floor.
Stavely says that in an ideal world the retailer would like to expand to between 30 and 50 stores in “all the major cities in the UK”, but that finding suitable sites remains a challenge. Another store is set to open in the near future in Clifton, Bristol, and Tunbridge Wells in Kent is being considered. To help things along, retail pundit Yaron Meshoulam has recently joined the company’s main board, acting, among other things, as the voice of Cath Kidston’s second biggest shareholder, David Fitzsimons.
Clearly, this is a retailer with a truly national ambition and a strong brand to match. For the moment, however, Jane Austen’s thoughts on the city in her novel Northanger Abbey seem somewhat appropriate: “Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath.” Certainly not Cath Kidston.