"On Sunday nights I ironed my sheets while watching the telly"
The White Company's Chrissie Rucker built a multi-million pound business out of her love for crisp white sheets. Now she's opening a flagship store on Grafton Street
Chrissie Rucker, founder of The White Company.
It sounds so simple – crisp white linen, toppers and fluffy pillows that combine to delivers a blissful bed experience. However, back in 1994 when bedding was still suffering from an 1980s printastic hangover, Chrissie Rucker, who had been working in magazines, struggled to find high-quality white bed linen for her boyfriend Nicholas Wheeler’s new flat.
Chrissie had a background in fashion and design which she studied before taking her first job as an assistant to wedding dress designer Anneliese Sharpe. Wheeler was already an entrepreneur having set up Charles Tyrwhitt a shirt business established under his two middle names. It was 1986, at a time when Thatcher’s London was booming and full of young urban professionals or yuppies all eager to look like freshly laundered bankers. He had used money from the sale of an Aston Martin to set up the business and by the 1990s Wheeler was publishing four catalogues a year.
These new urbanites wanted a design-conscious home to go with their sharp-suited fashion look. The Conran Shop opened in 1987 and paved the way for a new approach to selling homewares.
This was the entrepreneurial environment that Rucker was covering while working on titles at Conde Nast, then on Harpers & Queen which she joined after a stint in the cosmetics business. Using a grant and a £6,000 inheritance from her grandmother she and Wheeler started a mail order business in 1994. Twelve months earlier Kate Moss had turned a simple silver slip dress into an iconic piece of clothing when she wore it to a model agency bash.
Rucker brought to market an idea that was similarly simple. The White Company’s pared-back branding and clever direct selling of pure white bed linen was, like all good ideas, beautifully simple. She then leveraged her blue chip magazine contacts to garner the right kind of press coverage and the orders started rolling in.
But Rucker already appreciated good bedding. Even as a 19-year-old, instead of squandering her hard-earned money on cocktails and clubbing when she moved to her first flat in London, she searched out a set of white cotton sheets from a department store. Not content with new linen, she insisted on making them feel as good as possible. “On Sunday nights I ironed them while watching the telly,” she recalls, folding them to iron them while still warm from the tumble drier. “It makes a big difference to your bed experience.”
And it this understanding of what an everyday pleasure crisp linen could be that helped her build the business from a one-woman operation where stitched her own sheets to a mail order business with just a 12-page catalogue to the multi-channel brand it is today. On a recent Sunday Times Rich List the entrepreneurial couple was estimated to be worth £252million.
Online sales may have replaced the catalogue, but the business also has a thriving physical presence with 60 stores across the UK. Last year she moved Statesside, opening two stores in the US : one on Fifth Avenue in New York, the other in New Jersey.
Now she’s opening her first European store next week at 72 Grafton Street, Dublin, a distinctive premises, that dates back to 1910, when it was a cinema designed by Richard Francis Caulfield, brother of the artist William Orpen.
The company had been looking for a Dublin premises for some time, she explains, because “Ireland has the highest customer base outside of UK and US so was an obvious choice to be our first European flagship outside of the UK and Dublin’s Grafton Street is a premium location perfect for our brand”. The firm also operates an outlet at Kildare Village.
When Rucker first started out, the company sourced all its linen here in Ireland. Now, sadly, with competition from other European and Far Eastern countries, only some of the napkins and all its linen dresses contain Irish woven linen in a product range that has expanded from bedding, still 20 per cent of the business, to include homewares, fragrance, bathwear, fashion and a kids collection. With almost 25 years of bedding expertise at her fingertips she has become a passionate sleep advocate. “The truth is nothing beats sleeping in pure cotton or linen sheets,” she says. “Good sleep starts with a fantastic mattress but it is a topper that will give you an extra layer or sumptuousness.”
She believes is that if your bed experience is heavenly then sleep becomes both a physical and mental escape that can amount to additional hours of quality slumber per week.
At home she maintains that blissful experience by making her beds using a fitted base sheet, which she doesn’t iron, adding a top sheet and pillowcases that she insists are ironed. She then layers a duvet on top and a bedspread atop the duvet. The use of a top sheet, she says, minimises the number of times you need to change the rest of the bed linen.
But that’s not all, says Rucker; pillows are important too. For her a pillow should be soft and mouldable. She has slept on some “awful” ones in hotels, the experience giving her headaches and pains in her neck and has been known to pack her own, especially when travelling the length and breadth of the country, on the horse eventing circuit with her daughters.
Is thread count important? Yes says Rucker but it depends on the kind of sheeting you like to sleep in; crisp or silky. At home she uses 200 thread count sheets. “Everything I buy is used and loved everyday. Good quality sheets get better with age. They will last a long time.”
In a home environment there is a place in everyone’s life for white, she maintains. “White has a serenity that is almost spa-like, and that is a great antidote to the hectic world we now live in. If done well, it is incredibly calm, warm and peaceful and that is a lovely thing to come home to.” Home is a Grade 1 17th Century manor in Buckinghamshire where the neutral interior is very much on message whites and neutrals.
Rucker isn't precious about white, she says. “My bath towels are white and my four dogs jump onto my white bed. Home must be a place you love being and feel happy in. Home is where I have precious time with my family.”
Chrissie Rucker’s guide to bedlinen
Cotton bed linen will improve and soften with use.
To care and increase the longevity of your cotton bed linen:
• always wash before use;
• remove from your machine while slightly damp;
• smooth out any creases and line dry;
• or if you use a tumble dryer don’t tumble until it is bone dry but remove while slightly damp.
If cotton becomes too dry the creases are harder to iron out. Use a water spray when ironing to keep the fabric a little damp, this makes the process of ironing far easier and will help you achieve a truly smart and pristine look.
Always use a mild detergent without added bleach as this can weaken your bed linen and will actually yellow cotton eventually.
Always wash bed linen on its own and never with other items that have zips or studs as these may snag the bed linen cloth.
For bed linen I recommend having three sets. This allows for one on the bed, one in the wash and one in your linen cupboard. This also means your bed linen gets to rest between uses which helps prolong its life.