Sunday, 15 May 2016 13:47

The "store with the blue door"

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The original artwork for Crabtree & Evelyn shop front The original artwork for Crabtree & Evelyn shop front Artwork by Peter Winder. Other pictures provided by Crabtree and Evelyn, South Africa

 It's 20 years ago that Crabtree & Evelyn South Africa's CEO Michele Higginson brought one of the most iconic brands in the luxury industry to Cape Town's Waterfront.

She had been enamoured of the brand since 1980 when as a young girl she visited her aunt in London who lived very close to the very first Crabtree & Evelyn store, situated opposite a church in Kensington. 

When that mysterious blue door opened Michele felt as though she had been transported into fairyland. The store meandered back "for ever", she said, not in a straight line but weirdly veering from side to side and full of the most delightful sights and smells. Downstairs was a rather spooky storeroom and a kitchen and flat upstairs. It was all very Hogwarts and the plush carpets and sculpted roses on the pressed steel ceilings imprinted themselves indelibly on her mind.

Recreating that first impression in Michele's own stores in South Africa became a passion and she revisited the Kensington store whenever possible, staying in the upstairs flat (which is also rather spooky, she says). Sadly it is no longer there.

Crabtree was the first standalone luxury brand in South Africa back in 1996 and two years later a Sandton store followed.

Today Michele runs five stores in the country, three in Joburg, one in Cape Town and one at La Lucia in KZN.

The Design Quarter Crabtree & Evelyn tearoom is now the only one of its kind in the world. There had been a tearoom at Stratford-on-Avon, run by the vicar's wife, but it had sadly closed down, she tells me over a plate of the DQ tearoom's legendary cheese scones slathered in butter and a fragrant pot of "Early Grey".

Michele talks about the man who inspired her: Cyrus Harvey (in picture gallery, below), eccentric movie mogul, opera lover, fanatical gardener and a devotee of Welsh corgis.

Cyrus, who had a soap fetish, opened up a shop at his theatre in Boston and produced over 95 soaps, many of them inspired by French and Swiss 19th century soaps. He was fascinated by ingredients like glycerine and all things botanical (hence the "Evelyn" addition after English botanist John Evelyn), and soon the soaps expanded into bath and shower gel lines.

From the beginning, Michele says, the brand was intricate and complicated as well as eclectic, thanks to its visionary founder, which made it stand out.

She met Cyrus in 1996, the year he sold the brand, at a cake shop near her "store with the blue door" in Kensington.

"I loved the fact that he was so mad. He had a jolly good look at my legs while we were talking - and wore a Panama hat. The biggest piece of advice he gave me was: 'My dear, you must find yourself an hotel account."

She duly did, after a chat with one of her biggest customers, Peter Bacon, the MD of Sun International at the time, who told her: "I want to have your products in my hotels". Michele subsequently bagged the account for The Palace, the Table Bay, the Royal Livingstone and Zimbali for 10 years.

Cyrus travelled to England in the early 1970s and hooked up with Peter Windett who illustrated all the products, including the famous blue door which is still on the blue and white vintage stoneware in the Design Quarter shop and archived visuals. 

Many original botanical illustrations also adorn the walls of the tearoom which has a cosy, bright and happy feel and there is a vintage recipe book, also illustrated by Peter Windett.

"People need to know what to expect in a Crabtree shop," says Michele. "My staff and I work all day creating that experience for customers. Our sole aim in life is to please our customer."

The Crabtree brand has been at many crossroads during its existence and will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2018. Cyrus would have been happy to see how Michele has made the brand flourish in South Africa, teaching her many media friends and customers about the heritage of the brand.

"It's not about lavender and roses and tea with Aunty in the garden any more," says Michele, who wants her customers to embrace the new and modern outlook on the brand while giving them the five-star treatment and wide -eyed experience of her first encounter.

"I keep that exclusive feel of the 90s when there were only four stores in London," she says.

Crabtree and Evelyn is the kind of brand which is expensive to make. "Their jams are stirred by hand in open copper kettles in the English countryside in Somerset, I know because I have been to the Crabtree & Evelyn Jam Facility," she tells me.  "They still grow their own strawberries: one field for colour, one for taste and one for texture."

It sounds like a fusion of Willy Wonka and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

The last 20 years have been a huge learning curve. "A lot of people did not know the brand but the ones who did know it were very excited. The stores in the UK were very traditional and dark with wool carpets, and we tried to replicate that. We had a navy wool carpet in Cape Town - and a red one in Joburg in 1998. That carpet with the Crabtree logo was the most expensive item in the shop!"

Michele is a perfectionist and says she would not be able to do her job otherwise.

'It takes ages to get my stores to look just right, it is a big part of what we do, we merchandise and display. Crabtree is very fussy about window displays. Cyrus's original ethos improves people's experiences".

Michele's stores are light, bright and modern, with the most delicious smells emanating from them. She and her staff are experimenting with fragrance layering, pairing for example the rose-impregnated Evelyn Rose fragrance with Persian Thé. The old favourites are still there, though, like the Queen's favourite citron biscuits and the triple milled Jojoba soap which Her Majesty uses.

So what is she doing to celebrate the brand's 20-year milestone? "We are thinking of throwing a Big Fat Party, like we had at our tenth birthday. It will definitely be a dance party, with maybe some twerking and krumping, not la-di-dah at all, but we still have to discuss the where, when and how!"



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