If David Cameron seems at his most impassioned when praising British entrepreneurs, it’s because he has two women very clearly in mind. One is his wife, Samantha, who joined the management buyout of Smythson of Bond Street then sold it again for a fortune. The other is his mother-in-law, Annabel Astor, who left school aged 16 and set up her own jewellery store, then sold it. When doing up her Florida holiday home 12 years ago, she couldn’t find furniture she liked — so she set up a furniture mail order service. It grew into Oka Furniture, which has just opened a gargantuan flagship store on Fulham Road. Lady Astor’s aim is to achieve a £100 million valuation.
Like all retail entrepreneurs, Lady Astor has created a fantasy world. Her shops don’t just sell tables and chairs, but a lifestyle. We meet in the basement of her new store, an unlikely but undeniably gorgeous mixture of Asian ornaments, English chests of drawers and kitchen tables that look like they’ve been in a family for generations. ‘Our concept was England over hundreds of years, a blurring of different periods and styles,’ she says. ‘In Germany or France you’d find a new idea would come in, and out went all the old ideas. In England that never really happened: people cling on.’
This is Oka’s definition of British style: not the Little Englishness of Laura Ashley but a world of heirlooms and empire. New furniture that doesn’t look new. ‘That’s an inheritance in England, it’s always been the case,’ she says. ‘Things like that have kept together more, I suppose by inheritance through the eldest child.’ The idea of primogeniture chic is an unusual one but, judging by Oka’s tills, highly successful. It has even given rise to the phrase ‘Oka Conservatism’: fashionable, without anxiously striving to be modern. A product of Burkean evolution, not Maoist revolution. Proudly British, yet global in outlook. Everything that Astor’s son-in-law would wish the Tory party to be.
But when I mention Oka Conservatism to Lady Astor, she grimaces. ‘We were around before they were,’ she says, referring to the Cameroons. She knows better than to say much more. But she can praise Samantha, whom she took into Smythson of Bond Street — and who stayed after her own failed takeover. ‘Whoever had taken over Smythson would have been mad not to keep her on because she has extraordinary ideas and concepts. She is a true designer, which I can’t say I am! She is brilliant. I think, in a way, she has had a better education than I had.’
This isn’t saying much. Annabel Jones, as she then was, left school with just two
O-levels (French and art). Her family was wealthy enough that she did not need to work, ‘but I come from a family where most of the women have worked. It didn’t seem unusual to me that I would too.’
A friend from South Africa came by some cheap jewels, and they decided to sell them in Brompton Arcade with a loan from the brother of the journalist Quentin Crewe. Her break came in 1969 when the
Daily Telegraph magazine featured some of her gold rings. ‘We just literally had
queues of people lining up and we didn’t have any stock.’ She was 19, and her
business was ‘flying’.
A few years later her marriage to Sir Reginald Sheffield ended, leaving her with two children, Samantha and Emily. She joined Smythson, then owned by John Menzies (she says she ‘knew the Menzies family very well’), as an adviser and left after her failed buyout attempt in 1998. ‘That’s when I came up with the concept of how to furnish a house abroad,’ she says. With two others: Lucinda Waterhouse who handles the stores, and Sue Jones, who does the merchandising and catalogues. ‘We are still friends!’ she says. ‘They are very nice to me. I am such a bossy old boots.’
And her clients? Oka’s brochure gives a clue. The store, it says, is ideal for ‘doing up your Corfu holiday home, country retreat or Swiss chalet’. It reads like George Osborne’s holiday diary. But some items are so keenly priced that even MPs can afford them. During the expenses scandal, Michael Gove was found to have claimed £331 for an Oka Chinon armchair five years ago. and his ex-flatmate, Ed Vaizey MP, claimed £467 for a two-seater Oka
Hurlingham sofa (now £980).
Oka isn’t luxury, the MPs said in their defence, but basic high-street shopping. And if you’ve just acquired a second (or third) property to furnish, it’s a steal — especially if the alternative is paying thousands for a
Fulham Road decorator who does the
choosing. The last few years have been tough to start any business, but Lady Astor is
selling English high-class taste to a new
global elite. And she’s certainly doing her bit for the economic recovery.