Paul Vowles of Woven

Fresh out of Loughborough, Paul graduated from a textile course (“as about 12000 people a year do”) and intended to work as a designer. A masters degree and around 20 years later, he finds himself at the helm of Woven: an East London based design house for home interiors. Merging traditional production methods with the sourcing of contemporary design innovators and selling in the modern market space of the internet, Woven is not just watching the trade change but helping lead the way.

Having once sold a range of products to Designer’s Guild as a freelancer and then been recruited as the head of design at its prestigious Kings Road store a couple years later, Paul understands how to apply grassroots training knowledge to managing, developing and progressing a brand: entwining a consciousness of the whole process into the production plan. We roll out the red carpet for him and talk cushions, rugs and the general business of ethically loomed comfort.

How Woven materialised

After he did his master's degree in design theory and management, Paul's career flipped from being a designer to heading up projects, retail, whole businesses: "I was working with what is now an national brand that at the time was trying to get into home interiors, helping with product strategy, web visibility and a basic business plan but they never followed through with the tactile flooring bit of it. I thought about that for about four years after as a really interesting business for online - 10 years ago the internet wasn't what it is now and there was certainly nobody selling rugs," he recalls.

In the early years it was just an idea in the back Paul's mind, but then it became a business plan of its own which soon became a launching position, "Which is when the risk came - having to develop infrastructure and securing property. At the time I was working for Ralph Lauren as the head of their European home division, so there was a period in which I sacrificed salary and position for a start-up, but it paid off."

Tufts of wisdom

"The first six months was terrifying because you don't know anything about anything, the second six months was probably the most exciting time of my life because that was when the brand came to market and consumers started to actually engage," says Paul, lighting up at the memory of launching. He has concrete experience to back up solid words of advice for those on the crux of starting up: "Don't be scared, if you think you have a good idea, follow it through and work out what your objectives are in a strategic sense: how are you going to grow and who are the end users? There are a lot of talented people who have great visionary ideas but they don't know how to scale from a very small foundation or ask for help in the early stages when they should be thinking about it. Once you've launched it's very hard to change a business' direction because everything is digitised - that's why a lot of small businesses fail in the first 18 months."

Memories of making

"I can remember getting in trouble at school when I was six or seven and being sent to detention which was at the time held by the art teacher. She let me do whatever I like, so a really vivid memory I have is of making a zoo - it was on top of a giant box and it was everything from cages to animals to trees to ice cream trucks. I volunteered to go back every day and stayed late to finish it off for three weeks, and it ended up becoming part of the school show."

Paul's childhood interests grew as he did: "So I was always a very tactile, crafty person and lent towards manipulating things - being a woven textile designer meant I could work with structures; how to create a pattern or dye yarn a certain colour. That has always been a base to my knowledge."

Bartering in the online bazaar

"The world of online retailing is changing - 5 years ago consumers had very low expectations of retail but now something crazy like 1 in every £10 is spent online. 5 years ago you could be relatively small and your voice could be heard pretty easily because there weren't so many people in the market, today the likes of Tescos, Sainsburys and John Lewis no longer sell their core product - they sell everything to everybody at every price and therefore smaller companies find it much harder to have a voice."

Nevertheless, Paul has it sussed and has realised how best to tap into Woven's market: "We're moving to a point where people are much more social online and networking platforms have a much bigger part to play than they ever have - and a lot of big retailers have no idea of how to move with the tide. For example, designers don't use Facebook - it's for family and friends, it's not used by professionals for expressing their opinions on an item they're trying to put out there, whereas Pinterest and Twitter are an everyday part of life for most design companies now because they bring new customers, new thought processes in terms of marketing and new creative awareness through knowledge sharing." 

The human touch

While social networking could not exist without the web or without the folk who use it - it's the relationships built across the platform that make it a key player in business: "Today I can find a whole bank of new people by simply looking at interactions online - you can't just search for them on Google.  In the last 4 months I've found great young designers that in the past I wouldn't have even been aware existed unless I was going to every single design show. And for every designer I know, they'll have a community of 500 around them.  So at Woven, we encourage our designers to talk about the process behind their work and engage their network in the story, who by association start to follow us," reveals Paul, going on to stress how important it is to build those connections offline too. "Social is 80% of the key to getting your vision out there and the other 20% is good PR - being aware the editors have timelines to get products featured, so you need to be thinking a whole 4 months in advance and you need people who know how to communicate with media in a meaningful way - sending pretty pictures is not the answer and neither is sending an email. You need to create relationships on the ground, whether it's small face to face interactions or some other way."

Designer relationships

Woven has a strategy of always looking for the next new design concept and working with young British designers, collaborating with between 6-8 companies or individuals at anyone time. "Supporting graduates and small designers supports us - there are a lot out there with myriad ideas, thoughts and visual language that they haven't got a clue how to translate into commerciality. So we help them on that journey and don't stifle them with very restrictive licensing agreements, so they can actually grow. This morning we met a potential new designer - generally it's a very honest, handshake sort of conversation and then we move on to visiting the studio to see their work and how we can develop it," says Paul.

Ones to watch 

"We've been working with local designer Michelle Mason and London Transport on an exclusive cushion collection that was shown at Clerkenwell Design Week. It was based on tile designs from around 100 years ago that were produced specifically for London underground tube stations, we've retranslated them and created a contemporary colour palette - they're made, printed, packaged and sent out from London." 

Other 'people to look out for' on Paul's radar are Lorna Syson (designer/entrepreneur who set up with help from the Princes Trust Business development loan and has since seen her British countryside inspired patterns grace the best interior boutiques around the world) and Ella Doran (award winner and fellow of the RSA organisation, Ella is from East London and transforms her photography into patterns for home interior products using digital printing technologies and 3D texturing). "Meeting such a broad spectrum of people really gives you a very good understanding of trend." 



A comeback trend wish (and please go away prayer)

Talking of trends, Paul has a few opinions on the topic: "One that I want to see make a comeback is Ercol furniture and it actually already is, it's been around for about 100 years and is a very very specific British design personality. But 80's melamine black ash furniture needs to stay on the bonfire, and Ikea!"

Home comforts

And does he let his work life dominate his home life? "I think because I work with design and colour all day long, my own personal space is slightly muted with a sense of Scandinavian simplicity, although my house is also full of very large art posters and Polish film posters, which is where I draw the line on visual aspects. It's not my taste as I am drawn to colour but it's a mind cleanser." 

Weaving an ethos into the brand

When asked who Woven's market is, Paul is adamant that the question is invalid for almost all companies in today's day and age: "You can't pigeon hole consumers anymore, in the past it was very easy to categorise them according to the classic groups of income but that doesn't really apply today because people don't really live within those parameters. Just because you're on a low income that doesn't mean you don't desire experiencing good design - you may prioritise it to spend more of your disposable income on it," bringing him on to the quintessence of the company. "So we don't have a specific audience but our ethos is good design for a fair cost and we leave it up to the customer to decide what that means to them - we have a range of products at different pricing levels because that's what they're valued at in terms of what's gone into them - we don't add an outrageous mark up just because we can, that's inappropriate."

Additionally, Woven's warehouse distribution is in the Midlands, which is an enterprise development area. "We're supporting that because unemployment is very high and we're training people through apprenticeships schemes," Paul says, adding honestly - "also warehousing in London is insanely expensive!" 

Rug provenance and principles

With no production of rugs in the UK, Woven has had to look abroad for the brand's core item. A positive supporter of British production, Paul doesn't see this forced move as particularly negative thanks to a chain of people in the supply line who ensure quality control standards: "We work with our own factory in Delhi, monitored by independent regulators like GoodWeave - which is an organisation that isn't just about philanthropy but also about controlling what goes on on the ground with a code of practice for workers, ensuring there is no child labour and no use of inappropriate production techniques. I regularly monitor development, workers and conditions myself as part of our process and have been to India maybe 4 times in the last 4 years. And the owner of the factory is a very ethical individual that only employs men - it sounds bizarre but it's ethically appropriate for the place - by only employing men you remove the risk of child labour being introduced into the making of the product by accident or otherwise, as women aren't present to bring a child into the work place."

He goes on to explain that women and children in those circumstances are being supported by the factory with a foundation school that provides an education all the way through to high school. "There's a bursary programme for graduates as well, which is quite unique in India. That's why we use this factory," he says, expanding: "India is romanticised as this magical place but it's very real: it's an extreme version of poverty but also an extreme version of opportunity." 

Spinning local collaborations

Sitting out on Containerville's canal-side gravel yard with the sun beating down on him, Paul is feeling the physical and figurative manifestations of being in a hotspot: "We're currently working with 4 designers that are less than 10 minutes away, with their offices literally a stone's throw. In terms of being in the centre of London design, our office is certainly where the industry's new world is appearing - this is where the cutting edge is - not in Chelsea."