Wednesday, 02 May 2012

Designer rules

How did a 50-something mother of five start a £multi-million furniture chain? Rachel Johnson meets Annabel Astor, founder of OKA... and mother of, ahem, Samantha Cameron

Written by Rachel Johnson

When I go to meet Annabel Astor, the co-founder of furniture chain OKA (pronounced ‘ochre’ rather than ‘OK yah’, which is only fitting for this deliberately ‘unSloaney mid-market’ emporium), I manage to go to the wrong Chelsea shop. My iPhone tells me that OKA in Chelsea is on the New King’s Road, so I am 15 minutes late when I arrive in a cab from Parsons Green.

‘It’s your fault!’ I say when she greets me in the Fulham Road showroom, wearing a slouchy black and bright green shirt dress from Diane von Furstenberg and chunky black ankle boots, chestnut hair shiny, her eyes almost disappearing as she smiles. ‘You shouldn’t be so successful,’ I continue. ‘How was I to know there was not one but two OKAs within a four-mile radius?’

We wander through the showroom, decked with all her pieces – from glassware to dining-room tables, the shop combines clever gifty things with big-ticket items – and sink into neutral sofas arrayed with vibrant raspberry velvet scatter cushions. She then asks me if it’s OK if a public-relations person takes notes.

oka benchA Melrose two-seater sofa, armchair and coffee table

‘You don’t need her,’ I say. ‘I’m not remotely interested in anything but the story of how you, a mother of five, aged 50, suddenly became a top Tory tycoon, with stores all over the country, employing hundreds of people. That’s what our readers want to know, not about…’ I pause.

I am determined not even to mention ‘her’… Astor’s daughter, Samantha Cameron, that is. I certainly want to ignore completely the fact that, as we sip our coffee in a showroom on the Fulham Road, Samantha is with the First Lady in the White House, while Astor’s Prime Minister son-in-law is on Air Force One with the President.

And clearly, so does she. So if you want to get all the gossip on Annabel Astor, her shotgun marriage to Sir Reginald Sheffield, her two daughters by him, and how she was taken in by her mother-in-law Enid Bagnold (the author of National Velvet); her second marriage to William Astor, and her three children by him, you will have to go elsewhere. Because that’s all been said before, and what hasn’t been fully told is the story of OKA.

‘There’s no reason why a woman can’t start a whole new life at 50, 60, 70,’ she says, which is a spirit-lifting way to begin. But then she spools back, and tells me how she began, with a jewellery shop called Annabel Jones, and how she felt she missed the boat in terms of growing it into something national.

oka deskWilton armchair and Plaza desk, with chrome table lamp and natural linen drum shade

‘Nothing can stay at the same level in life – it either goes backwards, or forwards, it doesn’t stay the same, and I felt I’d come to the end of the shop’s life. I wanted to see it grow and it wasn’t going to happen. Anyway, at that time, our children were teenagers and holidays were always an issue, as to what to do with them all,’ she says, giving a low chuckle. ‘So we decided to go and build a house in Florida.’

She tosses this out as if any normal couple might decide to build a house somewhere sunny when faced with the challenge of entertaining teenage boys over an eight-week school summer holiday. Clearly, the Astors don’t do things by halves.

‘That’s how it started,’ she says. ‘Trying to decorate a house from another country, going to find things to buy, even looking at American catalogues…’ she trails off. Clearly, what was on offer stateside wasn’t up to much. ‘Even Pottery Barn was all brown.’

So, America having failed to deliver the goods when it came to interiors, Annabel Astor decided to deliver them herself. ‘I knew out in the Far East you could get things made for very little and the quality was fantastic, so I decided to start the company – together with Sue Jones and Lucinda Waterhouse. William [her second husband] lent us a bit of money to test the market. We sent a mini-catalogue to 10,000 people – or was it 100,000? – and we had one container; the stuff literally filled my barn at home.’

oka samAnnabel Astor and her daughter Samantha Cameron at a wedding in Oxfordshire

Annabel is making it all sound easy: after all, she had a husband with deep pockets, a holiday home in Florida to furnish, barns for storage. But it wasn’t.

‘It was bloody difficult,’ she says. ‘It was the dotcom boom, everyone was throwing money at the internet. I went round friends and investors for nine months, with my business model based on mail order, and everyone told me I was out of my mind.’

But she was confident. Even though the children complained that they wanted her chained to the Aga, she knew she had a good idea. There was a gap in the market between IKEA and ‘designer’ style and, as Nicky Haslam, the interior designer, says, ‘Annabel has a very good eye.’

Plus, as a businesswoman, she knew that mail order bypasses many of the fixed costs of bricks and mortar – leases and so on – and lies behind the wild success of two similar middleclass, middle-England companies, Boden and The White Company. ‘Mail order is fantastic. If it works, you can do another catalogue. If it doesn’t, you can close shop.’

After a couple of years, the business took off – it now has a market value in excess of £30m, and 13 stores. And then, six years ago, she sold half the company. With a glance to the PR, and permission granted, Annabel tells me her big news.

‘We’ve just signed a licence deal with a Hong Kongbased company called Li & Fung, and they are huge global Chinese traders. Basically, we’ve opened up a showroom in Shanghai, and companies from around the world can come to visit.’

So, on the strength of unfailingly smart taste when it comes to everything house and garden, three middle- aged women who enjoyed playing shops are going global. OKA, the interiors version of world music, with its Far East, Indian, and exotic accents, colourways and prints, its colonial garden furniture, paisley cushions and campaign desks, will soon be selling its unimpeachably classic take on ‘world furniture’, via franchises, to the world.

It’s an incredible story that should cheer us all.

OKA, 155-167 Fulham Road, London SW3: 020- 7581 2574,

Annabel Astor’s design rules

1. There are no design rules (see rule 6).

2. Always have something ugly and surprising and bright. Remember Betjeman’s ‘ghastly good taste’.

3. Comfort is paramount – that means good bedside lighting, warmth, snuggly rugs on sofas, duckdown duvets.

4. Start with a neutral canvas and build on it.

5. Mix old with new.

6. Tartan and antlers work, even South of the Border.

7. Paintings and photographs, etc, will make your home. ‘What makes your home is what you collect.’

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