Big Interview: Holly Marler, Creative Director, Cath Kidston

Cath Kidston's creative director Holly Marler joined the iconic English retailer last year. Following the recent restructure and re-opening of the retailer's London flagship store, Marler spoke to Retail Gazette about how important authenticity and personalisation is to the brand.

Cath Kidston Holly Marler creative director Liberty Alexander McQueen Temperley London
Holly Marler.

For Holly Marler, her stint at Alexander McQueen in the early days of her career was like a baptism of fire. Not that she’s complaining. If anything, she was grateful for it, especially now as the new creative director at Cath Kidston.

“I only had a year’s worth of experience then, but because I had talent and passion, I was able to create something that people wanted,” Marler recalled.

“We would print rolls and rolls of fabric that we had created, vignettes, storytelling all night, and beautiful flowers going from small to large.

“That process has inspired me from day one. Now I think that when you have the print, what product could it enhance? What could it create?

“I’ve had that thought process from day one whilst at Cath Kidston. Print is at the core of the business.”

Cath Kidston Holly Marler Liberty Alexander McQueen Temperley London
Cath Kidston, launched in west London in 1993, is known for its prints.

Marler joined Cath Kidston in October, a few months after Baring Private Equity Asia bought Cath Kidston’s online, franchise and wholesale business in a pre-pack administration deal at peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.

Around the same time she joined, Cath Kidston announced a transformation plan with a core focus on digital acceleration and global growth. Under the new model, ecommerce accounts for 85 per cent of the business. This meant the closure of all of its UK stores, and a re-alignment of its cost base and structure “to create an economically viable operating model as a brand-led, digital first retailer”.

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect retailers’ trading, Marler said the crisis has helped accelerate Cath Kidston’s ecommerce growth – particularly after it did not reopen its 60 UK stores after the first UK-wide lockdown last spring.

“We were digital-first before the pandemic,” she told Retail Gazette.

Cath Kidston Holly Marler Liberty Alexander McQueen Temperley London
After graduating from St Martins, Marler travelled to Italy to work at fashion brand Jato.

Marler added that Cath Kidston has also witnessed new trends in response to Covid-19, such as an increase in the sale of homeware products.

“Cath Kidston is a gifting brand, and homeware is at the core of the business,” she said.

“When you’re away from people, and you want to think how you might like to gift your grandma that you haven’t seen in months, that inspires you when you’re creating these beautiful gifts.

“Cath herself saw her ironing board on the back of her door, and it wasn’t very pretty, so she created a beautiful floral ironing board cover.

“That sums up the last year for some people who have made their surroundings more beautiful.

“Our homeware and childrenswear is now 45 per cent of the total sales of the business, and that’s been a change for us.”

Marler told Retail Gazette that while Cath Kidston’s prints is instantly recognisable and world-famous, the print has to be authentic. After all, the iconic English retailer – launched by Cath Kidston herself in west London in 1993 – was known for using vintage fabric before designing her own unique prints.

As such, Marler’s main remit as creative director is to oversee the design of Cath Kidston’s expanding in-house collections. And given her training and career background, she is well-positioned to execute it.

Cath Kidston Holly Marler Liberty Alexander McQueen Temperley London
Under Cath Kidston’s new transformation plans, ecommerce accounts for 85% of the business.

After Marler graduated from the prestigious Central St Martins where she studied textile and fashion design, she travelled to Italy to work at fashion brand Jato as an embroidery designer for a year. There, she drew for brands like Gucci.

She then returned to the UK to join Alexander McQueen as a print designer in 2006, spending five years working closely with the brand’s creative director Sarah Burton.

Marler also joined Temperely London, where she worked with founder Alice Temperely as her “right-hand woman”, helping extend the brand’s collection into bridal and eveningwear.

Her most recent role was at luxury department store Liberty where she served as design director for two years, responsible for designing and hand-drawing all the in-store products with the Liberty print, as well as launching a ready-to-wear collection.

Marler said that upon her arrival at Cath Kidston, one of the first things she did was shoot and lead the spring campaign that is due to launch this month.

“I was immediately immersed. I had all the products with me, but it is tricky for a designer because I enjoy being on the floor with my team with all the printouts of the prints and products.

“While beauty may be at the core of Cath Kidston’s product, they’ve got to be entirely functional”

“It’s really important that we get back to that space, even if it’s not the same as before, but as long as we’ve got fabric samples in hand.

“We’ve got all our prototypes, we’re working on how the print would fit onto a bag, or how that tablecloth works on a variety of different tables.

“While beauty may be at the core of Cath Kidston’s product, they’ve got to be entirely functional and useful in the everyday home.”

Cath Kidston as a business has seen many changes over the years, such as a new chief executive, new print designs, new collaborations, and global expansions. Despite it all, it has remained consistent in its artistry. Yet as Marler puts it, one thing that has remained constant is that Cath Kidston trades on its “Britishness”.

She also noted that Cath Kidston has a very loyal fan base, which drives her to ensure the brand remains relevant.

“Post-pandemic, relevance comes in lots of different forms,” she explained.

“For us, we’re design lead, but rather than looking at trends and making sure we follow them, I think that our trend is integral to us and is in the marketplace, which is craftsmanship and hand painting.

“Even 20 years into my career, I still hand paint and it’s something I will continue to do at Cath Kidston, which I think is what makes us personal.

“The fact that people recognise our paintings is what makes us relevant.

“I am constantly looking around me for drawing inspirations, whether it’s seeing a flower on a walk outside, or a puppy.

“Our customers pick up our products because of their prints and that’s what makes us relevant.”

If it’s one thing that Cath Kidston is known for other than its unique prints, it’s the frequent collaborations. Past partnerships include an exclusive one with Disney, along with Snoopy, Mr Men Little Miss, and Fearne Cotton.

As creative director, Marler brainstorms ideas for new brand collaborations and how to communicate them to consumers.

“Collaborations are integral to our overall growth strategy in terms of innovating the brand, keeping it fresh, attracting new customers, as I said we do have a very loyal fan base, but naturally we want to keep that fan base growing and attract new and young customers,” she said.

Cath Kidston Holly Marler Liberty Alexander McQueen Temperley London
Cath Kidston reopened its London flagship store in early December.

Marler confirmed that Cath Kidston is currently working on collaborations with “iconic brands”. While she couldn’t name names, she did say the first one would be launched in March.

“Watch this space,” she laughed.

Just weeks before London entered lockdown via Tier 4 restrictions in late December, which was soon followed by another nationwide lockdown, Cath Kidston made a return to the high street with the reopening of its flagship store in London’s Piccadilly – the only physical branch left trading in the UK. Cath Kidston’s overseas stores continue to operate as franchises.

Nonetheless. the reopening of the London flagship after nine months of closure marked the second stage of Cath Kidston’s transformation plans. The first was to improve its digital presence.

“My role in this transformation plan is to ensure everything is cohesive and curated within the brand’s vision,” Marler told Retail Gazette.

“We decided to reopen the London flagship store because London is important to the brand. We have a London print every season.

“London is our beacon.”

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