Wilmslow-based décor company Clarke & Clarke celebrates its 15th anniversary
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 January 2015
MD Lee Clarke reveals how he's gone from selling fabrics out of a suitcase to a turnover of £20 million
For someone who says he just ‘fell’ into the world of fabrics, Lee Clarke hasn’t made a bad fist of it. He’s gone from selling materials out of a suitcase to running one of the most recognisable and successful home furnishings businesses in the country, if not the world.
The quality fabrics and desirable wallpapers of Clarke & Clarke are the staple of home décor retailers and interior designers across the UK and are in huge demand in places as diverse as the USA, China and the Ukraine.
And the sought-after mix of traditional and contemporary designs are all created in a converted former church in Morley Green, near Wilmslow. ‘We wanted to create a nice place to work,’ says Lee. ‘It’s near the airport, near the countryside – and just ten minutes from where I live.’
But it has taken 15 years to get to this point. Lee, 44, began in the fabric trade after leaving school. ‘It’s what I’ve always done and I don’t know anything else. It wasn’t a family tradition, I just fell into the trade by accident.’
He bought discontinued lines of fabrics and seconds from established brands and exported them around the world. ‘I was basically a travelling salesman, selling out of a suitcase.’
In 1999, he and his wife, Emma, formed the company Globaltex, working from a warehouse in Manchester. ‘We started very small. That started the whole thing going, turning fabric into cash, and it worked very well. But it’s always been my dream, my vision, to have the Clarke & Clarke brand.’
They gradually bought better fabrics and developed the brand until today they supply thousands of stores and interior designers around the world. ‘It’s very different today that it was 15 years ago. Then, we had piles of fabric in a small warehouse and now we sell beautiful products. It’s also more enjoyable now and is always what I wanted to do – I’ve always liked quality fabrics and wallpapers.”
The company’s head office is in Lancashire, but the design magic happens in Cheshire. ‘One day Emma and I were heading out to The Cheshire Smokehouse in Morley Green when we passed this old wreck of a church. I saw it was for sale, made the call and bought it.’
The conversion to working studio was finished 18 months ago and while they have kept the stained glass windows, the inside is largely white to better show off the work by Lee and his three designers.
‘I class myself as a designer, although I’ve no design background. I’m the managing director but not one that just sits behind a desk – I’m more creative than that. I have a good eye for design and colour, but more importantly,I know what’s going to sell. It’s okay coming up with fantastic designs and crazy colours, but at the end of the day you have to sell the product.’
He owns up to blue being his favourite colour, but says he appreciates all colours and styles. ‘We live in an old house but we’ve decorated it in both classical and contemporary styles.’
He and Emma, also 44, live there with their two children, Cosima, aged ten, and Clementine, aged six. After taking time out, Emma now has a creative daily role in the business. ‘Like me, she’s got a good eye for these things and knows what she likes. Fortunately, we like the same things, so we don’t fall out!’
The other family member of the business is Lee’s older brother Duncan. A former engineer, he lives in California and, when Lee decided the time was right to expand into the USA five years ago, big brother was only too willing to help.
‘The States was a tough nut to crack, but when I told Duncan my plans, he said “I’m your man”. Now we’re selling to over 2,000 interior designers there – it’s doing really well.’
Back in Blighty, Clarke & Clarke’s latest collection boasts florals, stripes and checks in traditional hues of chalky blues, pastel pinks and metallic neutrals alongside bold zigzags, tribal patterns and plain textures in contemporary brights. The company has also teamed up with Roberts Radio to produce two limited edition vintage-look radios decorated in Clarke & Clarke designs, selling for around £200 each.
Turnover in 2013 was £20million globally and the first half of 2014 has been ‘very positive’, says Lee. ‘We’d like to branch out into areas related to home décor and produce our own furniture line, cushions, rugs and so on,’ he says when asked what the future holds. ‘And although we’re selling in 70 countries across the world, there are still some to crack, such South America and Brazil in particular.’
There’s no doubt that Clarke & Clarke will continue to decorate homes around the world for many years to come, not least because of Lee’s enthusiasm. ‘I’m a perfectionist – I drive myself crazy! We can continue to get better, I love what we produce and am passionate about what we do.’ n
To view their full collection visit www.clarke-clarke.com