Cath Kidston, feminism and femininity

19th August

The women’s section of the Guardian has recently been debating the value of rebranding feminism to make it more appealing and relevant for today. Journalist Laura Marcus noted that an important political movement would be diminished by being “packaged and sold by marketing departments” (tell that to Obama). She continued “the only thing that should be branded is cattle – or people who persist with this ridiculous, annoying way of reducing everything to consumer choice”. It’s a good point, but as a candidate for becoming a brand-ee, I would humbly venture that coverage of Cath Kidston’s business results has been a little sexist…

Kidston has seen profits increase from £2.9m to £4.6m in the year to March, with sales increasing from last year’s £19.2m to £31.3m. All this against a downward trend in the homeware retail sector. And she is, as they say, big in Japan. The success has been attributed to consumers’ nostalgic yearning for home and hearth in the recession, but I’m not sure that’s quite it – I think it’s the fundamentally cheerful aesthetic of her designs which has strong appeal in these dismal days, and the opportunity to buy into a lifestyle brand which is “pretty” rather than slick and cold.

Whether one personally likes her work or not, there is a real talent to creating such a strong and recognisable signature look, whatever the pattern or product in question.  But her work is regularly and patronisingly dismissed as “pinnie porn”. I recall Sir Terence Conran and his like being accorded a little more respect for their success.

There are probably a few women who dislike Kidston’s design aesthetic for selling a particular brand of stereotypical femininity, but I’d imagine they would also credit her for her self-made success and for beating the downturn when many others have failed. Gender politics aside, I would guess Kidston’s success brings her brand two challenges: how to rise above the inevitable cheap copy-cats, and how to maintain a premium cachet as her products gain ever more mainstream momentum. Either way, her results can only be cheering.

2 Comments

  1. Laura Marcus

    August 20, 2009 11:11 am

    There is a huge difference between a political movement and Cath Kitson’s stuff which, as it happens, I really like but can’t afford. And I DO think it’s a nostalgia thing; Laura Ashley tapped into exactly that market in the early 70s with her florals and floaty dresses that were a throwback to supposedly simpler Victorian times.

    You say tell that to Obama about my point on marketing and politics. Well, he’s coming a bit unstuck now isn’t he? He is reaching the limit of marketing versus real politics I’d say. Real politics takes on the battle of universal healthcare versus privatised healthcare. It needs quite a bit more than marketing I’d say to make that argument and get the necessary bills passed in Congress.

    This is why it’s an insult to talk about politics or political parties as brands. It’s about a lot more than choosing a blue or a red colour, a circular or a rectangle logo. It’s about real choices, not consumer choices. And the lives of 50 million Americans denied decent healthcare depend upon it. 

    So while, yes, Obama may have got himself elected by stealing the clothes of the marketing men and “branding” himself in a certain way, it won’t amount to a hill of beans unless he really does deliver real change to those who desperately need it most.

    THAT’S the difference!

    And consumer choice as a social barometer? In such a model, how do you cope with people too poor to be able to make ANY consumer choices? 

  2. Tales of the recession. Part 1: Cath Kidston « Stuart Smith’s Blog

    August 22, 2009 4:16 pm

    [...] agree with the anonymous contributor to the JKR blog that calling her contribution “Pinnie Porn” is to unfairly demean her. You [...]

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