Cabbages & Roses co-founder Christina Strutt on style, business & lessons from Vogue

Quintessentially British lifestyle brand, Cabbages & Roses was co-founded by Christina Strutt over 22 years ago with her close friend Bridget Buchanan. Their love of faded roses and comfortable style has not only endured but exploded in appeal all over the world - loved for the prints, the coats, the books and so much more. The brand has graced the covers of Vogue and been worn by The Duchess of Cambridge and Victoria Beckham.

In this generous interview full of wonderful stories and sage advice, Christina shares the fun times at Vogue in her twenties, advice on starting a business with a friend and decorating your home in a calm and considered way, her passion for interiors, favourite roses, and we play favourites...
 
Christina Strutt, co-founder of Cabbages & Roses

Please tell us about your Vogue days in the 70’s…
Vogue in the 70’s was splendid, quite different from what I imagine it to be today, and although we were all terrified of our Editor, Beatrix Miller, she was such a marvellous woman we also had great respect for her, and I think she was one of the best Editors Vogue ever had.  When she died, I wrote a blog about her which you can read here.

"We kept our dogs under our desks, smoked incessantly in the office and sun-bathed on the roof of Vogue House, we laughed more than I have ever laughed since and only marriage and a life in the country could make me leave this joyous occupation."

I worked at Vogue Living in the Features department, which was probably the best job in the world.   I assisted Judy Britain, who was Vogue Living’s Editor and we worked with the greatest photographers of the time and photographed some of the most beautiful and interesting houses in England, owned by an eclectic assortment of lovely owners and monstrous ones.   For some reason I mostly wore OshKosh dungarees with a pale pink Shetland cardigan (two things we have in Cabbages & Roses collections season after season) and a large bow in my hair.   I would prance into meetings at Asprey in Bond Street, or the V&A offices, dressed thus, aged 22 or 23, and borrow thousands of pounds worth of props for our shoots - Baccarat glasses, golden toothbrushes, Christal angel centrepieces.  I had to choose ponies and dogs, priceless antiques, and dinner services from The General Trading Company for shoots in studios – to my eternal shame an entire dinner service went missing never to be found again – I don’t remember getting into trouble for that, but I did get into many a scrape during my tenure there.   It seems unimaginable to let a girl of 23 loose on the glamorous and important world of art and decoration, especially one mostly wearing dungarees. 

On location somewhere for Vogue in the 70's

Before joining Vogue Living, I worked in Vogue’s art department, actually I was the ‘administrator’ of the art department, with Barney Wan the Art Director.   He was the most adorable and talented gentleman I had ever met, the only problem was, I rarely understood a word he said.   He was born in China, moved to Hong Kong, and worked for various magazines all over the world, but he never lost his very Chinese accent.  Even so we worked happily together and he cajoled the most legendary photographers in the world to produce their best work for our pages – I am not sure anybody really understood what he was saying but somehow his genius for art direction was beautifully absorbed.   I adored all my jobs at Vogue and it was there that I made many lifelong friends, including Willow's mama Kate Corbett Winder, and Brigette Buchanan with whom I started Cabbages & Roses.   It was like finishing school, and I am not sure any of us took our jobs as seriously as would be necessary today.   But the pages we produced were wonderous and beautiful, and I think the (mostly) relaxed atmosphere at Vogue House then, showed in the magazine.   We kept our dogs under our desks, smoked incessantly in the office and sun-bathed on the roof of Vogue House, we laughed more than I have ever laughed since and only marriage and a life in the country could make me leave this joyous occupation.

To add to the extraordinariness of working at Vogue, during my time there, in the early 70’s, England was immersed in a coal miner’s strike, resulting in three months, from December to March, where electricity was limited to three days a week, no streetlights, no office or shop lights, no heating.  London was cast into darkness and I absolutely loved it.   During that time my friend Polly Devlin was writing a book, I am not sure it was the ‘Vogue Book of Fashion Photography’ because the publication date does not tally, perhaps it was another book, but it had a deadline looming. She enlisted my help and I clearly remember typing her copy with two candles balanced on a manual typewriter – in the freezing cold offices of Vogue House.   

All three of her daughters were my bridesmaids, when I got married in 1980 - Daisy now a freelance writer and journalist, Bay Garnett now champion of sustainability in fashion as well as author, stylist and editor and Rose Garnett, now head of BBC Films.   They were divine little girls wearing ghastly apricot pink Laura Ashley frocks – I have never stopped apologising.

How did working at Vogue Living inform your styling work and love of homes and decoration? 
I think subconsciously it informed my love of homes very much.  Although at the time I lived in a room in a beautiful, shared house – my landlord was the legendary photographer Christopher Simon Sykes – I had a lovely room but the only piece of furniture I could afford, apart from a bed, was a cardboard round table with a Laura Ashley tablecloth. My Pride and joy and the first piece of furniture I bought.  It wasn’t until much later when I had a home of my own, did I understand how important one's surroundings were.   Having imbibed the classic styling and ingenious design of the houses we featured, I think this is what has educated my eye.   I far prefer homes to fashion as home is probably the most important facet  in one’s life apart from family and friends, and as I age, clothes very much take a back seat in my life.   There are many houses fixed firmly in my memory of such beauty and as diverse as David Vicary living in  Kilvert’s Parsonage in Wiltshire and the London home of Manolo Blahnik, a private zoo called Mole Hall – it was at a shoot here that Tony Snowdon complained to Beatrix Miller that I ‘turned what was supposed to be work into a cocktail party’ and he asked that I never attended a shoot with him again.  I worked with him many times after this, and he always denied this story.

Houses and interiors are my passion and if I were allowed to invent a ‘thing’ it would be that I would be allowed into any house I liked -  much like the National Garden Scheme – I would like a National Poking Around Strangers’ Homes Scheme.

Imagery from
A Life in Fabric by Christina Strutt, published by CICO Books (£35) Photography © CICO Books & Living Life Beautifully by Christina Strutt and Nancy Alsop, published by CICO Books (£30) Photography by Simon Brown © CICO Books

What made you decide to launch Cabbages & Roses over 20 years ago? 
At the time, I was working as an interior decorator, and could never find the type of fabrics that I loved - worn and faded florals – apart from small scraps in markets and junk shops, whenever I saw pieces I would buy them immediately - but there was never enough to make much more than a cushion cover.   My friend Brigette Buchanan’s house was always full of such beauties. I am not sure exactly how we decided to make our faded passion into a business, but after many long chats dreaming of what we could do, we scoured the telephone directory and Yellow Pages, the internet had yet to be invented, to find a printer that could achieve a ready faded, slightly worn-out print. It was named ‘Bees’. The reason for its name was because during our first ‘business’ meeting we were invaded by what the Bee man described as the largest swarm of bees he had ever encountered.   

We were thrilled by its gentle beauty, its versatility and charm.  It was immediately turned into cushions, aprons, skirts, frocks and eiderdowns. It was clearly what people wanted and with just this one print Cabbages & Roses was launched.

Imagery from A Life in Fabric by Christina Strutt, published by CICO Books (£35) Photography © CICO Books & Living Life Beautifully by Christina Strutt and Nancy Alsop, published by CICO Books (£30) Photography by Simon Brown © CICO Books

What customer did you have in mind when you began?
I think people like us, who wanted nostalgic faded prints to wear and decorate their houses with.  We didn’t really have a plan, we just wanted to create things that we loved. Now 23 years later our customers are so diverse, something that makes me very proud, and it is almost impossible to design for any one group.   I really would like to please all of the people all of the time, however, all I can do is design for me – would I like to own it?  Is it extraordinary? Is it beautiful?  Is it unique?

Tell us about starting up a business with a friend. What are your tips?
The very first thing one should do is work out an exit plan, and both should know that if necessary they can depart without friction and with ease.   Brigette and I had the best time starting Cabbages & Roses, and knowing that our very long and expensive telephone calls and shopping trips were suddenly tax deductible was an added bonus.   I have never had such fun and we didn’t really consider it as work as we were both doing what we would normally be doing ie shopping for beautiful things, making lovely clothes and furnishing our houses.   There comes a point though, when having fun takes a secondary role, and annoying business-ey things have to be attended to.   Neither of us are particularly fond of accounts and keeping receipts and understanding income tax and suddenly this became the primary focus.

An early business plan for Cabbages & Roses

In starting a business play to your strengths, and if accounting isn’t your forte, employ someone who can do it for you. Take time to take stock of what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve, do this frequently so you both know you are on the right track and not distracted by things that aren’t relevant.   Very quickly business can overwhelm you and often it is at this point you become vulnerable to business advisors, who promise the world and actually achieve nothing apart from a huge fee.  You will know better than any advisor what it is that you want to achieve and ask yourself the questions they would ask you.   

1.  What is your USP. Know it and stick to it.

2.  Where do you want to be in a year.    

3.  Where do you want to be in 5 years.    

4.  Do you want to make money or create a brand

These were the questions I was always asked by the business boys – and it never really went further than that.

I would say:  

Be original, if you can’t be original be better.

If at all possible don’t borrow money, expand within your means, slowly and carefully.

Keep an eye on your plan and if you diverge make sure that divergence is in the new plan so you know where you are going.

Above all keep your shareholding intact, this was advice given to me by James Dyson, and I am now glad I heeded his counsel.

You started with homewares and moved into fashion - tell us about this and the overarching style link between interiors and clothing… 
Strangely I don’t see a link between homewares and fashion, though many  fashion houses are now doing homewares.   We do it because first and foremost we were a homeware brand, with a smattering of fashion.  When we joined the clothing group Jigsaw, they were keen that we expanded the fashion part which of course we did.  We kept the ratio of home and fashion even after we became independent, mainly because it seems that the clothing is more lucrative.   I expect the link between the two is me – I can only design things I love and I feel that somehow what I perceive as beautiful in a flower, a frock or a fabric with have the ‘well Christina loves it’ element?  There is a definite divide in our customers, which is to be expected I think, those that know us for our clothes and those that know us for our homewares and fabrics. And those that straddle both camps. There are only so many times that you can change the curtains or the cover of your sofa, but to have an array of C&R table cloths, and napkins, duvet covers, bed throws and cushions would be rather pleasing – changing them with the seasons just as we do in our shops.   A wardrobe is ever-changing and evolving and it gives me no end of joy to see people still wearing clothes they have bought from us 20 years ago.  

How has the business changed and could you share any learnings and brand highlights?
The business has changed hugely, since my daughter Kate and her husband Christopher Howells took over the running of it in 2018.   I am completely hopeless at business, they however are innovative and creative, measured and actually excellent at managing Cabbages & Roses.  Only when asked this question do I stop and reflect on just how extraordinary our path has been with as many highs as there have been lows.  Strangely it is the lows that spur me on, that make me protective and ambitious for Cabbages & Roses.   The highs must be taken as they come but must never become laurels to be rested upon – highs as well as lows pass.

The highlights have been numerous:

Brigette and I falling in love with the first fabric we created at the very beginning of Cabbages & Roses; Being featured in Vogue Magazine so early on in our career.  Selling shares in the business, but better still, retrieving 100% shareholding.  Victoria Beckham wearing our pyjamas in Vogue and loving them so much she asked if she could take them home. The Duchess of Cambridge choosing to wear a Cabbages & Roses shirt in the 100 years anniversary of Vogue.  Sophia Coppola writing to thank us for pyjamas that she bought from us.  Opening our first shops in Tokyo. Signing licencing deals with Uniqlo and Wacoal. Publication of all our books especially Green Housekeeping which has sales of over 36,000. Moving from London to Bruton.
 

 

The Duchess of Cambridge and Victoria Beckham wearing Cabbages & Roses 

 

The Cabbages & Roses flagship store in Bruton, Somerset

Cabbages & Roses is a quintessentially British brand - loved by customers at home and abroad - where do you ship to outside of the UK mostly?
We have amazing and wonderful customers all over the world, in Europe France, Italy and Spain, the USA and Australia and Japan, where we used to have several shops. Now South Korea seems to have taken off in a big way mainly with our fabric.   The business life of Cabbages & Roses ebbs and flows it is full of surprises and always such a privilege to be known in countries that I have never even visited.  Since we gave birth to this wonderful brand, there have been wars and financial crashes, recessions and more wars, somehow though we seem to weather the storms and retreat into our own little world and continue to thrive.

You are a seasoned author of many books, your latest ‘A Life In Fabric’ is a wonderful celebration of your unique heritage brand with some excellent advice on bringing colour, texture and pattern into the home. What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give someone starting out on a home redecoration about choosing fabrics?
Go about it calmly – redecoration and renewing furnishings is an expensive occupation – so make sure what you choose you will love for a very long time.   If you are not capable of making your own curtains or sofa covers, get It done professionally, not only for the beautiful job they will do for you, but it will add re-sale value to your furniture or curtains – I love the way that it is now absolutely acceptable to own or buy second-hand furnishings, we often sell our beautifully made display curtains once they have done their job.  I tend to start with a colour – I love monotones because they feel calm and unconfused – and from that choice the rest will flow.   Even at this stage in my life, when I have decorated and designed many, many, houses, I still yearn to employ an interior decorator just to have someone else’s take on what I love.   There are several that I would adore to give free reign in my house – Emma Burns (@violetburns) of Colefax & Fowler, or Pia Maclean (@piamaclean) or Penny Morrison (@penny_morrison_ltd) – just like ‘Changing Rooms” with taste.

In this edition of The Seedling, we are celebrating roses. Please tell us about your love of roses - what are your favourites?
The roses I grow in my garden have been with me for about 30 years, I have no idea of their names, but the thrill, year after year when those fat blousy blooms re-appear regular as clockwork gives me great joy.  I tend to keep them in the picking garden though I have just planted two new ones to grow up the wall of our courtyard, James Galway – a rich, fat, multi-petaled repeat flowering rose of great beauty and a fragrant rose called The Generous Gardener – I do hope they thrive.  Another rose which I love but gets rather bad press is an Iceberg rose, I have several and they are very forgiving of my neglect and flower continuously throughout the summer into early autumn, they are such a good picking rose.  During a storm in the spring, I lost my beloved Kiftsgate rose, which was enormous and grew through a pear tree that bore no fruit.  It broke my heart, but it seems to be re-sprouting though there is no pear tree for it to lean on.  Roses must be the most pleasing plant to grow - all they ask for is a prune, a bucket of manure and off they go.

What are your favourite pieces from the current Cabbages & Roses collections of clothing and homewares?
You have caught me at the very beginning of our new season, Autumn 22. Our timing does not coincide with the rest of the fashion world and our clothes are sold in the appropriate season – ie late!.   So by the time this is being read, the new season’s clothes will not have been photographed.   However, by the end of September the whole collection can be seen on our website www.cabbagesandroses.com  there are bold and striking shapes and a great deal of beautiful recycled fabrics. It is quite a different collection and although it was designed a year ago I think It captures the spirit of today.   The pieces are unique and will last a lifetime, hopefully giving joy at each wearing.

The last of the sale will be online but my all-time favourite is the Merlin Dress coat in blue check organza – I own one and am completely in love with it.  The fabric is an exquisite silk organza - floaty and elegant.

The Merlin Coat dress in checked organza and side view of the short Emmy coat in striped linen

As the seasons change we move from our beautiful bright white printed linens to the natural based prints.   

What’s your best seller?
Our coats, each season, they are always the best sellers.

Who would you most love to see wearing Cabbages & Roses?
Everybody

What’s next for Cabbages & Roses? 
A new shop in Milton under Wychwood in Oxfordshire, opening on the 30th of September.   A new fabric collection.   A new Autumn Winter collection of clothing.  

And what’s next for Christina Strutt?
A holiday perhaps, though I am not very good at switching off.   It will have to be with someone who can teach me how to holiday.

 -

Let’s play favourites -
Flower - Narcissi in the spring, sweet peas, Lilac and roses, cow parsley, and ammi
Scent - Lily of the Valley
Travel destination - I will let you know when I have gone somewhere…..
Place in England - Home in Somerset
Book – Diary of a Provincial Lady E.M Delafield
Podcast - Hmmmm haven’t quite understood podcasts.   Perhaps Desert island discs from long ago.
Wellness ritual - I try and swim every day and sleep 8 hours (not consecutively!)
Colour - Red.   White.
Music - Everything on my playlist which hasn’t changed for about five years. 
Muse - Willow Crossley.   Cathy Kasterine.  Belle Daughtry.   Violet Buchanan.  Paula Sutton (Hillhouse vintage) Millie Brady, Lucinda chambers
Season - The beginning of all of them. 
Restaurant - Osip in Bruton
Meal - Chicken Pie
Era / decade - 50’s and 60’s
Quote - Never, never, never give up.