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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Bernie de Le Cuona

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Good morning, this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. I am very pleased to say that my guest today is Bernie de Le Cuona, the Founder of luxury, interior textiles business, de le Cuona. To make a living, as she said after a separation, Bernie helped a friend who owned an Indian carpet business inspired by the traditional weaving techniques in India, she started ordering small quantities of fabric from the subcontinent and began an interiors business with a high-end collection, a very small one to start with. Bernie began de le Cuona in 1992 with an ethos of doing things differently. When she launched, no one in the industry was using plain, textured linen or considering the handle of the fabric; I am going to learn a lot today. “It’s very important” she says “for us to offer the highest quality products that are unique in touch and feel.” This is what sets de le Cuona apart. Some fabrics are created using modern techniques and others are the result of rethinking ancient techniques. Having grown up in South Africa where poverty is rampant and recycling is common place, Bernie has put sustainability and the circular economy at the heart of de le Cuona. And also, she says, “it’s important to me to support exceptionally talented crafts people and artisans from South Africa, as well as showing to the world at large, the wonderful talent that exists there.” We’ll be talking to Bernie in a few minutes about all of this, about re-imagining the shopper experience and her plans to retail de le Cuona accessories on large retail platforms. We’ve also got brilliant music in the next hour from, amongst others, Kurt Elling, Ray Charles and Melody Gardot. That is Jazz Shapers today. Here’s Ramsey Lewis Trio with Do What You Wanna.

That was Do What You Wanna and funky it was too, Ramsey Lewis Trio here on Jazz Shapers. I am very pleased to say, as I said earlier, my Business Shaper today is Bernie de Le Cuona – Spanish surname, I have now got the pronunciation right, she’s not going to give me death stares from over there – hello.

Bernie de Le Cuona
Hi.

Elliot Moss
How are you?

Bernie de Le Cuona
Good, thank you.

Elliot Moss
You set up this amazing business in 1992. Tell me about your love affair with fabrics and the like and the very beginning, go back if you will, just a few years to where this thing came about and why we are talking here and why it’s such a well-kept secret. I love this programme because I get to meet people like you who’ve got these big businesses, who are global in their own way and who do fascinating things and I haven’t necessarily come across them myself.

Bernie de Le Cuona
Okay. So, thanks Elliot. You mentioned the South African, the Spanish name, my father certainly came from Spain and his whole family came from Spain but I am born and bred in South Africa. I have been very lucky to live in this country for nearly thirty years but my heart is still African. So, I started the company by going with a South African friend to India and he had a carpet company and the carpet company is really what got me interested, or what allowed me to see how incredibly creative they were in India and also introduced me to these extraordinary textiles that they produce in India, extraordinary silks, the colours, the craft, that’s what really started what I do because I saw it, knew that I was coming back to the UK where I needed to support myself, very motivating, and so I thought I could start a business, this could, I could really start a business in this country and produce something extremely beautiful which is what I always wanted to do.

Elliot Moss
And those very first products, what were they?

Bernie de Le Cuona
So, that’s a funny story because I wanted to produce linen because prior to coming to live in England, I lived briefly in Belgium and I’d seen this incredible cloth which was a linen cloth and I always thought of linen growing up as table linen or bed linen but actually linen on it’s own as a fibre, as a product, is quite extraordinary, it takes colour really beautifully, it’s an incredible fibre. Up until then, people had only used linen as a printed linen, I think we can all remember our grandparents having Sanderson’s linen or Liberty’s linen which had big flowers printed on it, but I thought, if I get hold of this fibre, I can actually turn it into something unique and really beautiful because I’ve seen the properties it has and so I started by weaving it in the middle of India, and that’s a long story too because in those days you had to use Yellow Pages, there was no Wi-Fi, so it as really pounding the streets in Bombay and finding somebody who would take me seriously to allow me to go and watch the weaving. So, taking a train for 24-hours, I arrived at this little village and that’s where I learned how to weave. That was the beginning of it but very quickly I realised that I couldn’t control the quality, in those days the quality coming out of India weaving linen was not what I wanted, I wanted to produce a luxurious product, so very quickly I realised I’d have to move all the production out of India and harness the skills of extraordinary crafts people in Europe and that way I could control it and benefit by the history of weaving.

Elliot Moss

Elliot Moss
Tell me how you, you talked about control and quality, so those early years, how did you then establish control and therefore quality? And then tell me about the evolution because I, just looking around and doing my normal research, my wife and I were looking because we are doing a house up at the minute and go ‘Ooh, those are nice cushions and look at the material’ and I’m ‘Okay, we’d better come off this website quite fast. I’m in trouble’. But tell me about that quality piece that you developed at the beginning.

Bernie de Le Cuona
Well, I think I was very lucky because when I started producing these very sort of soft, tactile linen textiles in India, I then brought them back to the UK and very quickly, obviously I brought these pieces of fabric back and it’s quite difficult to walk around London and, you know, have a few rolls of fabric over your shoulder so I had to turn those pieces of fabric into a finished product, so I got people to help me to make cushions out of this fabric and I sold it, and I took those cushions to designers in London who immediately latched onto them so that was really lucky. Then I started to produce more and more fabric, in India still, but I realised that they couldn’t do the quality that I wanted, or I couldn’t control the quality from where I was in London so I moved that all to Europe which was a challenge in itself because what I’d managed to achieve in India was all handmade and hand-produced and hand-softened which, so I ended up with a really unique product, now I had to replicate that in Europe and that was more difficult because I was using technology and I had to try to get them to use a lot of handwork which of course just doesn’t work in Europe, it’s just no cost effective so I had to come up with ideas like stonewashing and that’s where I first started in Europe. So, stonewashing, we started with stonewashed jeans and…

Elliot Moss
She’s looking at my jeans. They are indeed stonewashed. I think.

Bernie de Le Cuona
In those days stonewashed jeans was all the fashion, a long time ago, I am aging myself. It was all the fashion and I thought because I’ve got this soft, floppy linen which I’d achieved in India and I was now selling and I had a demand for, if I went to somebody who created stonewashed jeans, I could give them the linen produced on these really, really modern looms, they could put it into the machines with a whole load of stones, which is how they are stonewashed, and we could achieve a similar product. So, after a long time and lots of talking people into doing things and trial and error, we achieved a similar product and that’s how I started producing in Europe.

Elliot Moss
And it sounds like to me, you are super inventive, I mean, this is just stuff that you kind of made up, you had a hunch, you tried things, it’s iterative. In terms of the people around you that helped you develop these ideas, how did you find people that, to get into the business, I don’t mean people you work with outside of it, partners and stuff, but actually in, how did you find those people, how did you, what was your criteria for identifying fabulous people?

Bernie de Le Cuona
Well, I think the first thing was, I started on my own and I was totally on my own quite a long time but I think the really important bit was that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about business and I also didn’t know anything about weaving, or the industry, or the country. And, believe it or not, that is quite liberating because as soon as you really understand your craft or your business, you know what the limitations are. I didn’t know what the limitations were so I didn’t have any. So I kept asking questions and by asking questions, I found inventive ways of achieving things like the stonewashing.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my guest today, that’s Bernie de Le Cuona, she is coming up back in a couple of minutes but first we’re going to hear from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this very programme again with Bernie de Le Cuona, I’m getting the hang of it now. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes, or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes or your preferred podcast platform, you can enjoy the full archive. But back to today, it’s Bernie, she’s in the hotseat, it is getting warm in here actually, she’s the Founder of luxury textiles business de Le Cuona and we’ve been talking about you working on your own, it sounds like that was a period of time. The first few hires though, Bernie, however many years it was into the business, did you succeed immediately in finding the right people to help you build this business?

Bernie de Le Cuona
You know, when I first started, I employed two people and they really, really helped me shape the business. To me, it’s all about attitude, it’s about the attitude of people as to whether they are going to succeed or not and I was very lucky to find two people who had the right attitude and both were with me for at least ten years. So, yes, I was very lucky in the beginning to find the right two people. Subsequently, it’s not so easy.

Elliot Moss
No.

Bernie de Le Cuona
You know, finding the right team is a problem I think for any of us business owners.

Elliot Moss
Especially if you are international because now if you are here but then you are in New York and you’ve got people doing things for you elsewhere, inevitably…

Bernie de Le Cuona
Completely.

Elliot Moss
I mean, must be tricky. Fifty people now?

Bernie de Le Cuona
Yes.

Elliot Moss
How do you cope, I don’t want to use ‘cope’ because cope sounds like there’s a problem but how do you manage them most effectively? When does it work best in terms of getting the most productive output from your team around the world?

Bernie de Le Cuona
You know, it’s really a matter of getting lucky, getting the right people. When I started in America ten years ago, almost ten years ago to the day, we opened on our own in America. I employed two people, one of whom I knew slightly and it was, I was just so lucky because they were exactly the right people to employ, they had the right attitude and they had the experience in the industry. But I haven’t been as lucky everywhere else, you know, it’s trial and error and it’s exhausting, and also younger people think about work in a different way to I did when I started.

Elliot Moss
How do they think about it? Because I always here this, the much berated millennial and I think it’s highly unfair, so I am surrounded by them but what would you say is the difference between a younger person starting at eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old, twenty five year old versus the way you saw the world then?

Bernie de Le Cuona
You know, when I started, you worked every hour and it didn’t matter how tired you were, how long you worked, if you had a job, you really appreciated that job and you gave it your all and you did whatever you were asked to do. Things have changed and I am not saying that was the right way to work either, but the things have changed now, people have a life and, you know, they want to have a life outside of the workplace, it’s just the way things have changed and, you know, technology of course has turned everything on its head because in my day you had to hear about a position going, you had to look in the newspaper, now you are bombarded with people making you offers. It’s a mindset, things have changed, people want much more of a lifestyle and much more of a home life than they did when I started and also in the country I started in, you gave your heart and soul and you really appreciated it when you got a job and you, you know, it’s just different now and things are more global.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of when you are at your happiest when you are working, you mentioned, you sort of alluded to the fact it’s not easy managing people, it’s probably one of the hardest things in a way to nurture someone and also to help them realise their potential and so on. When are you at your own inner peace and at your best? Is it when you are designing? Is it when you are sourcing new materials? Is it when you come up with a new flagship store in Pimlico Road? What is, which bit is it that you love?

Bernie de Le Cuona
It’s such a big question because I love the creative side of the industry and producing something which nobody else has produced which is glorious, love all that bit. But I also love the business of the business and I love the marketing of the business, so I am very lucky to love a whole lot of what I do. The bits I find challenging are finding the right team members that, you know, it really is such a challenge nowadays. It’s quite emotionally draining because I put so much into it, you know, something we were talking about earlier, you put so much hard work into helping, supporting and growing young people and then they feel, you know, it’s just easy to move on so that’s quite challenging, quite draining.

Elliot Moss
We talked about team a bit, your role as the leader in that team, how do you again get the best out of people? What have you discovered, whether it’s somebody who is twenty years old, someone who is a little bit younger than you and everything in between, when are you, what is your most effective leadership style do you think?

Bernie de Le Cuona
You know, when I started and I started without any backing, with very little money, so when I started I couldn’t really consider other people, I didn’t allow myself to because I had to get a job done at all costs so I had, I could really not consider the needs and the home life of other people, whereas now I sit back and I consider other people and their lives and their home lives and their needs and their requirements. So, I give myself the luxury to think about other people and I think when you do, that’s when you get really the best out of other people. Because I know, as I am getting older, my big fear is that the company gets old with me and I really don’t want that to happen so, I embrace young people and we’ve got a lot of young people in the team and, you know, I can’t do this without experience and also without the vision of younger people, I know that. I love working with young people so that helps too.

Elliot Moss
Now that you are twenty six years in, you are the founder, you’ve got a bunch of people, you just talked about the fact you need to get the best out of them. Have you found that your role, you are able to give yourself more time to think, more space as it were, or are you still in the weeds? I want to know how much of a micro manager you really are.

Bernie de Le Cuona
Kind of trying not to be a micro manager.

Elliot Moss
I knew it, I could see it in your eyes. You couldn’t say to me ‘Elliot, I am totally float’, ‘I float in the clouds and I have a visionary idea’. It’s not like that.

Bernie de Le Cuona
I totally don’t float, Elliot. I have got a, you know, but what I have discovered is that if I leave people to get on with what they are doing and mostly because I have no option, like the team in America or our sales manager, export manager in France, I can’t manage their every moment, they are generally more successful than if I am trying to manage every little thing they are doing. So, I know that I need to let people get on with it but I promise you, as a business owner starting from nothing, it is so hard to watch people making serious mistakes and just let it happen, that’s really hard.

Elliot Moss
But you do let it happen?

Bernie de Le Cuona
I think I do now. Not totally, I can see you don’t believe me, Elliot.

Elliot Moss
I do believe you. I do, I promise, I do, I do, I do.

Bernie de Le Cuona
I can’t totally ignore it but I do try to let people learn by their own mistakes and watch it happen and then try to support them when it happens and put them back on track.

Elliot Moss
Aside from that, there is also obviously the role of a Founder and the passion and the love, the love that have for this child which is still your business and the vision that comes with it is, I imagine the super structure as it were for all these different little things going on and I am thinking really about your view of sustainability and things where your business can make a proper impact by doing things the right way. Tell me a little bit about why that’s been important to you and because again this isn’t as sustainability has become very fashionable but it feels like you have been doing this since the beginning?

Bernie de Le Cuona
It’s just, you know, sustainability is really in my heart and soul because if you were brought up in Africa in a place like I was, people re-used things all the time, they recycled things all the time, they used sustainable and recycled, it was just in your heart and soul because why? You couldn’t afford not to. I remember the first time I went to India and I saw people recycling cigarette butts and I thought ‘What the hell. Why would they possibly do that?’ but they had to because they couldn’t afford not to. So, I think that we have damaged the world to such, the earth, to such a degree because we can afford to. I think if we couldn’t afford to, we wouldn’t have done it in the first place. But now, because of where we are, I don’t think any person or any business can afford to ignore sustainability. I think it’s just a big thing which we all, we have to live by and as a company, we do our very, very best, I think we are quite far down the track in lots of areas, but we do our very, very best to be sustainable and not to damage the earth for the next generation. Next year, in the Spring, we will be launching a totally organic collection of linen fabrics and the reason why I say organic, it’s a big deal saying it’s totally organic because linen, from the farm to our warehouse, goes through about five different stages and each one of those stages, for example the growing, the spinning, the dyeing, the finishing etcetera, etcetera, each one of those companies that does those different processes needs to have what they call a GOTS certificate, G.O.T.S, so that’s global organic. It’s expensive to get and because I work with small companies, very often family owned companies, family owned companies that employ crafts people, genuine crafts people, this is quite a big investment for all of them so, I have been involved in the development and the investment to achieve this organic collection which will launch in Spring.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant. Spring 2020.

Bernie de Le Cuona
That’s it.

Elliot Moss
Not far. We’ll have our final chat with my guest today, Bernie de Le Cuona. Excellent, 10 out of 10 for me. Plus play a track from Melody Gardot, that’s all coming up in just a moment. Don’t go anywhere.

That was Melody Gardot with She Don’t Know. I’ve got Bernie de Le Cuona just for a few more minutes and we’ve been talking about the trickiness of finding the right people, managing young people, the importance of inventiveness, the importance of quality, the importance of sustainability and that heritage, that South African reality, the context for you has really, it sounds like it really has defined you and when you said it’s in your heart, I think your heart is also your head and I think that’s a really, really good thing. Just tell me a little bit about how you want to reinvent the high street as it were, because we are in the middle of a revolution on the high street where it is diminishing in importance, where it’s really hard to make it work and yet there you are, investing a lot of money in a flagship store. Just tell me about your take on what you want to do on the high street.

Bernie de Le Cuona
So, in terms of the high street, I think, you know, at the moment we really are in flux, in the UK and Europe we’ve got Brexit looming, in America we’ve got the American/China thing going on. So, the whole world is in flux and retail showrooms are all closing down and I think, I think that the reason retail is closing down, it’s technology, number one but I also think it’s the older companies who aren’t prepared to move on. I think this is a good opportunity for somebody to make a statement and open a retail outlet because people aren’t and I also think our industry, it’s the time for our industry to be able to service consumers and not keep it so very much closed shop, keep fabrics to the professionals only. I think we really, really need to open it up. We are going to be forced to open it up, should I say, to the consumer because, you know, if you watch television, there are all these stories about how you can do it yourself, interior design stories, you know, we can all do it ourselves, there’s Pinterest, there’s Instagram. People want to do it themselves so I think it’s really important to open up the industry. It feels to me like it’s an end of an era but the new era hasn’t happened yet and we are in this sort of gap so I thought it was the right time to make a statement and open a retail outlet.

Elliot Moss
If we were having this conversation in three years’ time, what else, I mean it sounds like your, I think you are right, your take on the changing, the volatility that we are in and the unpredictability that we are in, the only way to get ahead of that is to do stuff and you are doing stuff and I think you are right, retail is under threat, the old world of retail. In three years’ time if we were talking, what would you be looking back on and going ‘Elliot, that was a good decision’?

Bernie de Le Cuona
Well, I think, you know, just opening the retail outlet. In three years’ time I hope to be part of a platform like, shall we say, Net-a-Porter or something like that because I think it’s really important to do and very few of our industry, people in our industry are doing it. I think I’d like to say, you know, I’ve been in the forefront of the sustainability march in our industry, I believe we are now and I hope that was a good decision because it’s quite an expensive one, you know, carbon neutral shipping and all that sort of thing, it all costs money so I hope that I’ll be looking back on that and saying that was a good thing to do and then in my own right, I also hope that we won’t see the end of wildlife, I mean you know, rhinos are going to be extinct in three years if we carry on the way we are going, lions in ten years and giraffe in ten years, you know, elephants in twenty. Because remember, in sustainability is so important for so, so many reasons and I hope we can help a little bit. In thirty years’ time there will be 3 billion more people on this planet so, we all have to take note and hopefully, when we meet again, Elliot, I’ll say that the little bit we’ve done has helped towards save our planet.

Elliot Moss
It’s been lovely talking to you, Bernie, thank you for your time. Just before I let you go and shoot off to invent another beautiful design.

Bernie de Le Cuona
Thing.

Elliot Moss
Thing. And I am just reading here, your signature paisley is archived in the V&A. Well, that’s not bad either if I’d just been able to even put my name just to that one thing. What is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Bernie de Le Cuona
Well, it’s Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World because it’s honestly how I feel about the world and, you know, the first time I ever listened to a trumpet was Louis Armstrong with What a Wonderful World and I was memorised when I heard it and quite honestly if you have ever looked at a photograph of him, his face just makes you want to smile so, that would be my choice.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant.

That was Louis Armstrong with What a Wonderful World, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Bernie de Le Cuona. She talked about the importance of attitude of the people that work for her and finding those people and how tough that was but when you find them, you’ve got to really let them go and do their thing. She talked about loving many things in her role, the creativity and so on but really, basically the love of the love of the business which was really important. And she talked about being thoughtful around the environment, about sustainability being important and that importance coming from the fact that she was brought up in South Africa. All brilliant stuff. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers. Have a fabulous weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Bernie de Le Cuona founded de Le Cuona, a specialist in luxury interior fabrics almost 25 years ago. She is one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in the interior textiles industry.

She built a global luxury brand from humble beginnings and 26 years later the business has c £10 million annual turnover.

Bernie carved a niche in the previously staid linen interiors market by exploring, developing and re-engineering production techniques to introduce a new category of linen fabrics. Today de Le Cuona produces the finest natural textiles for interiors, available globally.

de Le Cuona currently employs 50 people worldwide with headquarters in Windsor and New York and showrooms in London and New York and is represented in 34 showrooms worldwide. The new flagship store opened in London’s Pimlico Road in 2018 and her signature paisley print is archived in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

Interview highlights

I thought I could start a business in this country and produce something extremely beautiful, which is what I always wanted to do. 

I really didn’t know what I was doing. 

I didn’t know anything and that is quite liberating. 

I didn’t know what the limitations were so I didn’t have any.

I kept asking questions and by asking questions, I found inventive ways of achieving things.

To me it’s about the attitude of people as to whether they are going to succeed or not

It’s trial and error and it’s exhausting.

I can’t do this without the vision of younger people.

I love working with young people.   

I try to let people learn by their own mistakes and then try to support them when it happens and put them back on track.   

Sustainability is really in my heart and soul.

I don’t think any person or any business can afford to ignore sustainability. 

In thirty years’ time there will be 3 billion more people on this planet so we all have to take not.

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