How Chrissie Rucker overcame dyslexia to turn The White Company into a lifestyle behemoth
Chrissie Rucker has dyslexia and can't do sums, but that didn't stop her from turning an idea for a white-coloured interiors line into a brand. Now, 25 years later, The White Company is a major lifestyle and fashion success story, writes Bairbre Power
As light-bulb moments go, Chrissie Rucker's inspiration for a new business was unusual to say the least, borne out of an idea to impress her boyfriend, Nick Wheeler, and help him do up his first home.
Nick is now her husband, the couple have four children, and Chrissie's 'other baby' is her brand, The White Company, which has grown from its initial interest in bedlinen and homewares into clothing, footwear, home fragrancing, a sleep scent collection, spa-quality beauty products and a children's clothing range.
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The Little White Company is pretty ideal from a business point of view in honing the affections of potential customers of the future. Indeed, the customer base for the children's range is immense and her clothes have been worn by two royal mini style icons, namely Prince George and Princess Charlotte. This year, Chrissie (51) celebrates 25 years of her company and what might have seemed a harebrained idea at first - decorating and kitting out a house all in white with a neutral palette - has paid off handsomely.
Starting with a 12-page mail-order catalogue financed with a £6,000 inheritance from her grandmother, Chrissie now has over 60 stores, a very busy online business, and is on the Sunday Times Rich List. This month, she opened her third store in the US and chose the Hamptons to spread her decor philosophy.
When it came to selecting a location for her first European flagship store, Chrissie chose Dublin, based on the sheer volume of online orders from here. A year on, her Grafton Street store is a calming oasis, testimony to the serenity of white and the power of a good night's sleep. Clearly her aesthetic and love of white, and textures over pattern, has not been lost on Irish customers.
"I love the perfect simplicity of white. It has this magical, ethereal, spa-like quality, making it such a peaceful colour to live with, which, in our hectic world, is a lovely thing to come home to," says Chrissie, who worked on magazines like Brides, GQ and Vogue for several years and was assistant health and beauty editor at Harpers & Queen before acting on her hunch of "wouldn't it be great if there was a company that just sold white things?"
"Crucially, I wanted to create a range of beautiful white items for the home that bridged the gap between being both beautifully designed and much more affordable," she continues. "The breakthrough moment came when I found my first factories who were already supplying designer brands - and I realised that by selling directly to the customer, I could offer this same quality but at a much better price."
As you might expect, her London house and second home in Oxfordshire are all about the soothing nature of white. There are highlights of natural tones and a sofa in the softest shade of slate grey velvet. When I enquire about the risk of white being stark or cold, Chrissie explains: "In a predominantly white home, choosing warm whites for the walls and layering in soft textures is key. I love to add in natural elements and pile on texture - a soft rug underfoot or a diaphanous drape at a window can soften and transform a room.
"Natural materials such as weathered wood, slubby linen or marbled slate, connect us back to nature and add interest. I love to bring some outside in too; a fig tree in a bright, airy space or lovely big vase of simple greenery or flowers adds life. Finally, cosy throws and the small yet peaceful flickering flame from a few scented candles always makes a home feel extra special."
The walls in her homes are painted a warm white or very pale grey. "The house feels airy," she says. "There's lots of natural sisal or added textured rugs on top of oak floorboards or natural stone. Most of the tables are wooden. There are open fires, sofas have soft textured cushions and throws, and there's a fig tree in the kitchen.
"We love entertaining, but I'm a great believer in prioritising having a relaxed and enjoyable time with family and friends, rather than being stuck in the kitchen producing a complicated meal. I love to lay the table and run several small holders of simple flowers and candles down the middle. I keep flowers simple, I often mix just one type of white stem with rosemary or mint or even just use four to six small bunches of eucalyptus - it's very simple but looks great."
Upstairs, the beds are made with white linen and dressed with textured white bedspreads and cushions in either white or neutral shades.
When it comes to her clothes, Chrissie prefers simple and understated pieces that are "cut well to flatter".
"I tend to choose beautiful fabrications and textures with a palette of white, ivory and greys, with black as a foundation," she says. "I love a modern look without being too cutting edge. I stick to shapes that I know work for me and look for pieces that are going to last and hang well to flatter my shape. I use texture instead of pattern."
The latter is a key point in the philosophy of The White Company, which marks its 25th birthday by publishing its first interiors book in September, featuring 12 very different homes decorated with white and neutrals.
A soft, neutral bedroom scheme is a soothing space, says Chrissie, but as a working mum, she knows she needs to spend at least eight hours beneath her white linen bed sheets each night.
"Over the last 24 years, we've learnt so much about sleep quality and how vital it is to our wellbeing, mood, ability to cope with a busy life and long-term health," she says.
We spend a third of our lives in bed so she believes it is important to invest in that. The optimum temperature for sleeping well is 18°C, which is actually quite cool, so she recommends keeping the heating on low and windows open in the summer. Darkness is important for the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, so if you can, she suggests lining your curtains with black-out lining or investing in a black-out blind.
Chrissie also tries to be screen-free for at least an hour, preferably two, before bed. Scent can really help create the ultimate sanctuary, she says. "If I have a warm bath and read in bed for 20 minutes, I sleep really well. I also keep a notebook by my bed, so if I suddenly think about something that's important, I can write it down, rather than worrying about remembering it the next day."
On the subject of her dyslexia, Chrissie admits: "To this day, I can't add up to save my life. It can really hold you back at school but I think, in a way, it's a gift. It means you come at things from a different angle, you think of things in a different way, and it often makes you a naturally more creative person."
It can also open your world to new possibilities. What Chrissie lacked in arithmetic during her schooldays, she made up for in equestrian pursuits. The entrepreneur rode competitively as a child and, years later, she is just as passionate about horses and riding.
"Horses are great levellers," she says. "The experiences it gave me are still such a huge part of my DNA. It taught me that when you have a bad day or fall off, you just have to get back on, try not to make the same mistake again and have another go. My three girls ride today and our weekends are often spent with a 5am departure in the horsebox - and I hope they are all learning to just get back on too! Some of our most beloved ponies, Coco, Fella and Benji, have all come from Ireland."
What about business advice for people who might have a light-bulb moment, like she had? "Be crystal clear about your brand, what your brand is and what it isn't," she says. "Put it at the heart of everything you do and take real care not to dilute it or let it lose its identity. Always think and experience your brand as a customer. Listen to your customers and act upon that information. Being part of a passionate and united team is the best feeling in the world. Know your own strengths and weaknesses and surround yourself with the best people for your business.
"And clear longer-term goals with your team and work towards it together. Each year find five things that will make a big difference to your business and focus everyone on delivering these brilliantly. It is a gift to have your own business, believe passionately in what you do, love and enjoy it and remember to celebrate the good times."