We chat to Sam Wilson about her eponymous brand, and how she transitioned from being an illustrator to a product designer, shop owner and wholesaler.
You only opened your bricks and mortar shop in Chipping Campden this year. How did this come about?
We never planned to open a shop. We were looking for space for our stockroom and a studio for the wholesale business, and were struggling to find anything inspiring. When a beautiful, historic shop came up to let in our local town, I fell in love with it. Mark initially didn’t like the idea, as it was in such a bad condition. It did have a large stockroom and the figures just about worked so we went for it. The shop has become a real joy! I love dressing the bay windows and meeting the customers, we get many very interesting people from all over the world in Campden.
How did you go about designing and styling the store? What aesthetic were you aiming for?
We found some old photographs from the local history society of what the shop was like in 1900’s and found them totally inspiring! It was a very beautiful hardware store stocked floor to ceiling with useful homewares. We wanted to retain the original ambience, a kind of old fashioned general store, I suppose. So we stripped everything back to the bare walls. The floor had blue nylon factory carpet on top of the gorgeous original oak and elm floorboards. We were so relieved the floor was salvageable, it really sets the scene. It took us a couple of months of hard graft to scrub up the shop, on very little budget, but we got there and we’re very happy with the authentic and relaxed feel we’ve uncovered.
You obviously sell lots of your own designs, but you also sell other items in store. Where do you source these from?
Our own collection has a vintage, rustic feel so we filled the shop with antiques to use as props to display our products, rather than use classic ‘retail’ display fittings. It worked perfectly and customers started to ask to buy the props so now we go about once a month to antique fairs to source bits and pieces to sell. It takes a lot of time, but it is good fun!
We also buy artisan bits and pieces from trade fairs. We exhibit several times a year at Top Drawer and the Autumn and Spring Fair at the NEC, so whilst exhibiting we also walk the shows in search of quirky things for the shop. We now sell lighting, rugs, wool blankets and old fashioned hardware, like dustpans and beautiful brushes, wooden oak accessories. We try to source products which sit well with our products, like big rustic bread boards and recycled glassware to go with our linen kitchen textiles. It's good fun!
You have an MA in Illustration and started out illustrating for magazines and books. How did you transition to creating your own products and having these manufactured?
Totally accidentally! We moved to Chipping Campden for the great schools for our children a few years ago. I was doing very well as a freelance illustrator at the time, and my husband runs an illustration agency. Campden has a long history of Arts and Crafts, dating back to Robert Ashbee who brought the Guild of Craftsmen from London to Campden in the 19th century. We have a museum in the town telling the story, and they invited me to sell my book illustrations and original prints in their gallery. It went very very well, so I started to get involved in more local arts and crafts events. I realised that not everybody could afford a print so I had some tea towels printed with my linocuts on, that was it, I fell in love with printing onto fabrics. That really was the start. I did lots of local fairs and started printing cards, notebooks and bags too, I had a few mugs printed, and it grew from there. I was so enjoying myself but I was still illustrating too.
I entered Country Living magazine’s 'Kitchen Table Talent' competition and won a free place at their spring fair in London. I also got to meet very established companies like Sophie Conran and Sophie Allport and we got advice from buyers at John Lewis. It was invaluable and it was there that we realised that we were actually creating our own brand. From there we booked a trade show and started to search for manufacturers who could make small volumes. It was difficult and caused a few tears for sure!
As well as your physical store, you also sell online and run a wholesale business. How do you juggle all these elements of the business?
We work long days often into the evening and weekends too! As we grow we have been able to take on some help which has been wonderful! We now have a small team of seven. At the start we did everything ourselves, it is great to be able to delegate some of the tasks we are not so good at. We have a lovely shop manager, so I don’t need to physically be in the shop very often. I just go in one day a week to merchandise and check stock. I also do all the buying. We have also just been able to take on a wholesale manager and a warehouse space down the road from the shop. I am hoping to be able to spend more time on designing this year.
As well as your own store, your products are stocked in over 200 shops around the country. How do you go about promoting your work to other retailers?
So far we haven’t had time to promote ourselves, except by doing the trade shows, 3-4 times a year. We put a huge effort into designing our stands and so far have always done extremely well at the shows, we come back with overflowing order books, it can be a bit overwhelming to cope with getting the orders out. But our little team of helpers has taken the pressure off and as we go into year three of the business we are developing better systems. We are pinching ourselves that so far we have been in the fortunate position of not being able to cope with the demand, although stressful at times, we remind ourselves to be excited about how good that is! We have had a lot of free press from national interiors magazines, and have just won a retail award from Country Homes & Interiors magazine, which we are thrilled about!
With so many facets to your business, how do you find time to design new products?
I snatch the odd half an hour here and there! I always carry my notebook as ideas can often come at random times. The pressure of the seasonal trade shows forces you to have to come up with something new. I am hoping this year, now we have more help to be able to concentrate on developing new designs and products.
What part of running your business do you love the most? And what part is least enjoyable?
I love creating the artwork and choosing fabrics to use as base cloths to print on, and colourways. Drawing and creating linoprints is still a big part of what I do. I have taught myself how turn my designs into pattern repeats and adore working these out. I also adore the shop, designing the displays is so much fun and very creative, I love coming up with quirky window displays, we do a new one each month. I have also recently enjoyed working with professional photographers and stylists, I have learnt so much from them.
Your husband Mark helps you run the business. What is his background and how and when did he start working with you?
We have always worked well together. We set up the illustration agency together and have run it for 12 years. It was just normal for us to expand when the brand started to evolve, Mark started to get involved with that too. He brings different skills to the company, he has a good head for business and working out margins and profit, and how we expand, whereas I am more interested in the design and developing the creative side.
If we were visiting Chipping Campden for the day, where else should we visit?
We have a beautiful Italian cafe called Huxley’s which is a must. They serve wonderful breakfasts, lunches and dinners, the food and setting is fabulous, full of antiques and ambience. We also have ‘The Chef’s Dozen’ a critically acclaimed restaurant. Chipping Campden also has two great art galleries and original letterpress studio and a milliners. We have a museum and a flower academy offering creative floristry workshops. We have two National Trust places on the doorstep - both wonderful - Hidcot Gardens and Snowshill Manor. Also on the doorstep is Daylesford Organic and Burford Garden Centre, both inspirational lifestyle stores.
What are the key elements to running a successful independent store?
Try to be as original as possible and not just another generic gift shop. People will travel along way to a good shop. I have a few favourites, but there are not that many really inspiring shops, we need more! I think the key is to have a strong identity/look, don’t try to please every market and sell too much stuff. Many shops I think are filled with too many brands you barely see them. I find carefully curated shops much more interesting, those who sell a few brands very well with a strong feel for what the shop is about.
What is coming up for Sam Wilson Studio in the coming year?
We have a potentially very lovely collaboration in progress with Highgrove. They have commissioned a bespoke design and we are working together. We are also planning to expand our pottery collection, and are bringing out more fabrics and colourways to pull together our first fabric book for interior designers. Wallpapers too are an obvious step.
Photography by Kasia Fiszer