iLiv - the Lancashire firm who created the internationally renowned Swatch Box design
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 June 2014
One of Lancashire’s unsung success stories is becoming a major international force in home furnishings, writes Roger Borrell
Perhaps it’s too fanciful to imagine a time when Mongolians with a taste for interior design sit in their yurts sipping yak’s milk tea in surroundings that come all the way from Lancashire.
But if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be for lack of effort. A company in Preston has quietly worked away in the background to become a big noise in stylish fabrics and home design.
If you buy ready-made curtains from any one of 600 up-market retailers, including John Lewis, then there’s a fair chance you shut the world out each night thanks to the SMD Group, based on a small business park in Fulwood.
The company was the creation of Spanish entrepreneur called Salvador Monllor, who started small by importing fabric from his homeland to be turned into continental quilts in Blackpool.
Since 1987 it has developed and grown to the extent it now has an office in Shanghai and exports to more than 20 countries. The USA has eluded them so far, but you wouldn’t be surprised if they cracked it across the Atlantic.
However, its roots remain planted firmly in Lancashire. When Señor Monllor went back to Spain to weave fabric just outside Alicante he left Jason Kenworthy to run the UK side of the operation.
In 2002, Jason, who lives in Lytham, headed a management buyout and he is now chief executive. ‘I came in as a junior straight from school. I deferred my university place for a year and started working for Salvador while doing a part-time course at Bispham Tech. I was loving what I was doing so I wrote to the university telling them I wasn’t taking up my place. It was months before I plucked up the courage to tell my parents!’
They supported him but insisted he got a business qualification while working for SMD. Before long, he was running the show. ‘We were selling around the world at a time when the rest of the UK industry wasn’t exporting very much. We were making tons of mistakes but, importantly, we were learning from them and we were making funky products that everyone seemed to like.’
Among those early challenges was responding to rapidly changing trends. Styles that had once been popular suddenly went out of fashion and sales dipped. ‘It hit us like a train that the trends had changed,’ Jason recalls.
SMD took the unusual step of inviting about 200 retailers to travel to Preston to take part in brainstorming sessions and gradually a brand emerged. Patterns were back and the result was a collection of fabrics and designs called Swatch Box, which rapidly grew into an international favourite selling as far afield as China, New Zealand and Singapore.
However, the lesson had been learned – keeping up with trends was paramount. The next chapter in the Swatch Box story was inspired by a visit Jason made to the University of Central Lancashire’s textile design show.
‘During a break I wandered into the fashion school and got some first hand experience of the raw talent they have there,’ he said. The students were given the challenge of finding a concept that would draw together all strands of interiors fabric requirements in a one-stop brand.
Working with the SMD team, they came up with iLiv, which has been one of the success stories of the UK soft furnishings industry. It consists of 12 collections of fabrics, curtains and homeware – including wallpapers – that can be mixed and matched.
It makes life simpler for people who become overwhelmed when trying to change the colour scheme of rooms by providing them with different pieces to an interiors jigsaw. ‘The need for the this came home to me when we watched a man and his wife in a store,’ said Jason.
‘The chap started to look disinterested, then he became frustrated and in the end he told his wife he didn’t have a clue and they left, agreeing to spend the money on a holiday instead’
The iLiv brand has helped to keep annual turnover at the £20 million mark and provides employment for more than 100 Lancastrians, including a highly talented team of designers.
But it is also making positive changes abroad. Much of the fabric comes from mills in Pakistan, India and China and Jason and his team are conscious of the need to monitor working conditions, something highlighted by the collapse of a rag trade factory in Bangladesh last year.
‘A big part of the role of our Asian team is to ensure the mills pass a set of ethical standards,’ he said. ‘Hours must not be excessive, there must be fire extinguishers, clean drinking water, kitchens and we check to ensure conditions aren’t cramped.
‘We don’t smother them in red tape but we drill down into their books and we prove to them that it doesn’t cost a lot more to operate in an ethical way.’
The Preston team spends a lot of time travelling to trade fairs around the world and much of their attention has been on the Chinese market. ‘It’s a market where people are rapidly becoming more affluent and they are becoming more interested in soft furnishings and where British brands are trusted.’
While on a trip to China, the SMD team realised the phenomenal potential in that region. ‘Mongolia alone is just huge,’ said Jason. ‘That’s going to be one very exciting market.’