Q&A: NIKKI SHER
The head of buying and creative at Toast on Syrian baubles, off-beat colours and cultured customers
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Have you always worked in fashion and interiors?
I started in the industry when I was 21. I joined Arcadia Group when I graduated, then spent a year at Warehouse buying for the American franchise. I’d never been to New York before and when I went, I completely and utterly fell in love with it—so I moved there. I was ambitious; I wasn’t going fast enough, and the fashion industry is much bigger over there. I ended up working for The Limited, which is a big company with huge labels like Victoria’s Secret. When I came back I joined Nicole Farhi as head of retail and buying, and spent nearly 10 years there. It’s a lovely label—all about quality and texture; it’s really very beautiful, much like Toast.
Where do you think your love of this sector comes from?
My mum has been in the fashion industry her whole life—I definitely inherited her genes. She’s 73 now and still works full time. She started as a window dresser in Leeds, but left when she was 16 and came to London. She met my dad when they were in their early twenties and they bought their first store in Cranleigh, Surrey, so right in the middle of the countryside. I worked with her for a while before I came to Toast. It was during that time I met my husband and had a baby. I started at Toast when Ruby was one and a half. I really needed it—I’ve always worked really hard, so without it I was a bit lost. As much as I worship her!
You joined Toast three years ago. What does your role encompass?
I came in as head of buying and my remit was to look at the product and refresh it. It’s been going for 20-odd years and like every brand, sometimes you need fresh eyes to keep it moving forward. I wanted to feel able to wear the clothes and love every piece, and establish a point of view that was different to everybody else’s, while holding on to the values of Toast.
I was—I am—so passionate about the product, I was getting myself involved in how things were shot, who we were casting, how the styling looked online, if the outfits were right, what the windows looked like. I wanted to keep that momentum going, right through to the point of sale. Eventually I was offered the role of head of creative, so it was a natural progression.
What do you look for in a piece?
For us, the key attributes are it needs to be handcrafted—not widely available or mass produced. It has to have an element of social consciousness about it, that’s so key to our DNA: it has to be natural dye, organic, fair trade, or something that’s made with authentic, artisanal methods. There needs to be a story to it. The design team do a lot of site visits, they go on research trips for inspiration and they come back with amazing video stories.
For example, the dressing gowns and jackets are incredible—they’re made from recycled saris and we know the women who make them are paid above average. We’ve got amazing block print tassel throws: the design is carved out on a block and is literally hand printed, so it’s very labour-intensive. You’re inevitably going to get variants, but that irregularity adds to its beauty. We’ve got these lovely baubles coming in for Christmas which are all hand-blown in Damascus in Syria, which they are still managing to get to us despite all the turmoil.
The ceramics are all British-made. There’s a lady we’re working with at the moment, Pip Hartle, who’s based in east London. Brickett Davda—which does a line of earthenware tableware—is based in Brighton and we’ve been working with the lady behind that for about 15 years. We commission lines that are unique to us, but also occasionally buy from an artist’s own collection—it’s not mass produced, so we’re fine if it’s also in the V&A, for example. But everything has our handwriting. It’s a small collection, but it’s very thoughtful.
Do you approach the homeware and clothing collections similarly?
Everyone works from the same concept board drawn up by Jessica Seaton, our brand director. Each designer will translate it into their product category, so we make sure that whatever we’re doing in homeware sits really well with that. Currently, for example, we have velvet in the main collection, so we have beautiful velvet cushions and throws. Our homes are an extension of ourselves—the way we dress is quite similar to how we like to dress our homes, so the lines are blurred. If a Toast customer loves what’s she’s wearing, she’ll love how we’ve curated our homeware.
Everything we do in clothing and homeware is created with the same intention: to encourage people to slow down and be mindful. We’re not about fast fashion. Everything is designed with great care and made with exceptional material and in that way, everything links together.
The Toast aesthetic is distinctive. How would you define it?
We have a very strong colour palette, unique to Toast—we never go with primaries, we always go off-palette and come up with really rich combinations. There’s something quite artistic about it. It’s eclectic—slightly off-beat, but also really wearable, with lots of cultural references. We’ll take a typical madras check, for example—an authentic technique from India—and then we’ll re-colour it. We love colour—we want things to pop, but with something that’s surprising.
When Jess and Jamie started the company more than 20 years ago, they were real mavericks of their time—now everything is about simplicity, functionality and beautiful design: the qualities that Toast was founded on. So it’s still very relevant. We don’t follow fashion, but there are always nods to what’s happening culturally in the world. Everyone feels really immersed in the brand: we’re clear on what a Toast colour is, a Toast shape, and who our customer is.
How has the homeware collection evolved?
It started with nightwear, but over the years it would fluctuate, depending on what was going on at the time and how much travelling Jess and Jamie had been doing. They would never just put things in for the sake of it. Since I’ve been here, we’ve identified areas that are really popular and put a lot of energy behind them. One of those is bedding and everything that sits around it. We’ve got organic ticking stripe sheets that are really beautiful, which are offset well by our solid colour linen sheets. When we go to India and look at throws, we make sure they will dress those sheets, our cushions and everything around that. We’re almost building someone’s bedroom for them.
Who is the Toast customer?
She is intelligent, cultured, discerning—she knows what value for money looks like. She’s got her own style because she knows her own mind, but it’s never over the top. She’s stylish and modern, no matter what age she is. We’re ageless. In fact, we’ve seen huge growth in 25 to 35-year-old buyers. I think times are changing and people are feeling more socially conscious—wanting more from their products than just the materiality of it. They want to understand that there’s a story behind it that’s important. Our products are things to be kept, they’re not throwaway. That translates across both fashion and homeware.
Toast is still reasonably small, with only four London locations. Are they deliberately placed?
We think what we’ve got is very special and want to continue to introduce the brand to a wider audience, but we’ve been very careful about our growth. Marylebone has been having a real moment. It’s gorgeous. It’s such a good position for Toast, with Caravane and The Conran Shop also there. When you walk into Daunt Books, you get that feeling—it’s so authentic, which is how people feel when they walk into Toast. It makes you feel so good, you want to take it home with you. It’s tranquil and creative at the same time. You calm down when you walk into the store—which is exactly what you want in your own home.