A model, a musician and a ‘mumpreneur’ – Our reporter meets the Winkworth family, who’ve combined their talents – together with a love of luxury and ethical ethos – to start their own homewares company
May 28 2017 2:30 AM
It’s a sunny day in May and the terrace at Monkstown Crescent in Dublin is teeming with people enjoying an al fresco lunch. Beyond the crowd, in the doorway of White & Green Interiors, stand three statuesque women, all sun-kissed hair and toothpaste-ad teeth. “Excuse the mess,” says Sari Winckworth, waving a hand in the direction of a showroom cluttered with boxes. “We’re still sorting through deliveries.”
The ‘mess’ is the White & Green shop that Sari and her daughters Rebecca and Danielle opened last October to support their online luxury organic bed linen business. Herringbone throws are stacked in a corner, pillowcases and duvet sets are being put on shelves, and the sun is reflected by silk dressing gowns as it filters through the windows. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of home décor, as relaxed as its owners.
After nearly 30 years as an interior designer, Sari had noticed how difficult it was to source luxury bed linen at decent prices. “I would buy expensive bed sheets for clients and treat myself to some at the same time. Two washes later, they would be like rags,” she says.
Sari began to look for suppliers and producers of good-quality cotton through which she might begin her own bed linen business. Her investigation brought her to India – and her daughters came too.
Rebecca Winckworth is a professional singer and graduate of development studies at the London School of Economics. As a singer for Celtic Woman and Ragús, and lead soloist with Anúna, she spent three years travelling the world and observing its inequities. She felt that businesses, as opposed to charities, could help close the inequality gap between developed and underdeveloped countries and so took on the role of overseeing the ethical side of the family’s fledgling business.
“While I was studying, I did a placement project in a shoe factory in Ethiopia which was really eye-opening in terms of the way workers are treated. When Mum suggested the idea for the company, I knew there was an opportunity to make the product Fairtrade.
“This means the farmers get paid properly for their product, they can educate their children and live properly and by going directly to the source, we can offer our customers great-quality products at much better prices than other brands.”
Rebecca had spent time living and working in India and she is, she says, “in love with the people and culture”. As the country is the leader in organic and Fairtrade products and a stable economy, it made perfect sense to make India their centre of production. They spent two years visiting and researching the provenance of the product until they finally found a factory in Delhi that was creating the ethical, high-quality cotton they were looking for.
With Sari overseeing strategy and business development and Rebecca looking after supply chain and production, younger daughter Danielle, 22, took up a role in design, along with her mother, while continuing with her modelling career. Years spent in the fashion industry have honed her aesthetic eye.
Danielle was spotted by a model scout friend of her mother’s while she was still a schoolgirl. She went to London, where she was seen by an agent while walking down the King’s Road.
“I don’t think we would have pursued it if it hadn’t been for the huge interest in her,” admits Sari, who travelled the world with Danielle, mapping out her castings and managing her day-to-day activities.
“I was very young and didn’t really know what it was all about,” says Danielle. “But I got to see some amazing places at a young age, modelling for high-profile clients. I guess you learn a lot doing that. Mainly, it’s given me a good eye for design and colour.”
While modelling is fun and instructive, it is not Danielle’s first passion. What is? “Business, funnily enough. I feel like I’ve come home, literally and metaphorically.” Sari is quick to endorse her daughter’s business skills, calling her a “business whiz kid”.
Danielle adds, “I have a wonderful [model] agency, Morgan, which lets me take jobs I can schedule around the company, but ultimately I love what I am doing now, and being my own boss is the icing on the cake.”
Does she miss the international modelling world? Sometimes. “I did an amazing shoot for L’Oréal in Paris with photographer Michelangelo di Battista, which was an incredible experience.”
“What about the Nordstrom campaign in LA?” says Sari, still impressed with the transatlantic work trip.
“Yes, that was pretty amazing. I had just finished five weeks for New York Fashion Week and was exhausted; I thought I was going home, only to be told I had to get on a plane to LA,” she says.
“Oh, it wasn’t all bad,” laughs Sari.
“No, I got to hang out beside a pool in the Hollywood Hills for a day – it was pretty cool. Mum got to come too,” Danielle smiles, nudging her mother as she speaks.
The Winckworths are a close-knit group of women. They share the same home, dogs, company and sartorial style, which is reflected in the business. Although there’s an aphorism about ‘keeping it in the family’, some would argue against the merits of having a family operation.
“Thankfully, we do agree on most things,” says Sari. “We all share a classic, simple style, and that extends to the products we make. They have to be elegant and comfortable. Neutral tones with pops of colour, and that’s how we dress,” she adds, glancing at her daughters, who are wearing various shades of cream, white and blue.”
“We’re not really into trends,” says Rebecca. “We love buying products that will last a lifetime, and that’s reflected in the bed sheets we make.”
When Danielle designs, she thinks about what she would like to wear or sleep in. “I do take inspiration from Pinterest, to which I’m addicted, but ultimately I ask myself what I would want, and that dictates.
“Our scarves came about because we were wrapping ourselves in the cotton throws all day long and realised we would love a scarf in the same material and colour.”
It’s a philosophy that underpins the business and the women’s personal lives. Sari explains, “Everything we do has a reason and it’s never too complicated. Life’s stressful enough.”
It comes as no surprise that their home in the Wicklow countryside is an extension of the brand – country classic with plenty of personality and accents of colour; the doors are always open, there’s lots of light and laughter, and, in Sari’s words, “nothing too precious”.
The girls’ childhood was not spent doodling but instead designing their dream houses. “We’ve Mum to thank for that,” they laugh.
“There were always house plans and fabric swatches lying around.”
Since opening last year, the company has exceeded its targets with a net of €100,000 in the first seven months, but the first year in business has not been without its challenges. It’s been wonderful, busy and exhausting, they admit, and difficult at times.
White & Green may only be budding but it’s clear their foray into the business has been a vigorous one, each of them navigating the industry with laser-like focus. “Since the age of 12, I’ve been knocking on doors, going to auditions, trying to break into the music industry,” says Rebecca.
“Finally, 10 years later, I made it. Talent and luck will get you nowhere in this world, only blood sweat and tears.” In a few weeks’ time, she is off on a worldwide music tour. Any free time she has will be dedicated to White & Green and finalising the film White Gold, which she is making about the cotton industry with South African film-makers the Collins Brothers, soon to be showcased at international film festivals this summer.
Danielle and Sari, meanwhile, are exhibiting at House 2017 – the high-end interiors show running at Dublin’s RDS this weekend – as well as finalising designs and orders for their new products. “We’re excited to be launching a new babywear range: towels, dressing gowns, throws and a new travel set, which will be great for corporate gifts.”
Clearly defined roles in the company mean they each have their own remit, occasionally overlapping but not getting in each other’s way; sharing the same vision and ethos for the company. On the subject of risk, they glance at each other before giggling. Have I stumbled upon a private joke?
“This was what tripped us up on Dragons’ Den,” says Sari. Weeks previously, the girls took on the investors of RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den. They were unsuccessful in winning the investment of the Dragons but are wearing it well.
“We took on board everything they said and came away with a much clearer direction for the business than when we went in,” says Rebecca, who led the pitch. She wasn’t nervous, but then, this is a girl who, only a few years ago, sang for Bill Gates, Chris Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow and Penélope Cruz at a small concert in Bono’s house. Dragons’ Den was duck soup in comparison.
“[Budget Energy CEO] Eleanor McEvoy suggested we look at expanding internationally and we’ve plans to do so in the US, UK and Germany in the near future,” she adds. So, are they risk takers? “Well, we like to think so. Measured risks, perhaps,” Sari says. “Alison Cowzer asked us if we could identify the risks of the business. I misunderstood what she meant and said I didn’t think there were any, when of course there are; if she had said ‘challenges’, I would have answered better, I think.”
The Dragons are notoriously tough negotiators, often adopting the ‘negging’ approach with business owners – a strategy used to pick holes in the business, undermining the subject’s confidence to bring the negotiating price lower. It didn’t seem to work on the Winckworths, who all stood firm in the face of tough scrutiny.
Weaknesses in the business were noted and admitted by the women. “We know we need support and guidance in certain areas – it’s why we decided to go on the show,” Danielle says, before being interrupted by Sari, quick to add the positive parting comment from Gavin Duffy: when chided by a fellow Dragon for giving the women a hard time and “getting out of bed on the wrong side”, he admitted he hadn’t slept on White & Green sheets.
Joking aside, they are all in agreement that the technical side of the business is the one with which they often struggle. That, and keeping up with demand. The next step is hiring more staff. They’re learning “hard lessons” as they go.
Just several months into the business, they ordered 1,000 gift boxes from India during monsoon season. When the boxes arrived, they were mouldy and damp and had to be disposed of. “We will never make that mistake again,” notes Rebecca, rolling her eyes. “We had no insurance so it was a big, expensive lesson.”
Working and living together means White & Green is a constant topic of conversation. Doesn’t work talk get a bit boring? “Yes!” they answer in unison. It’s all about balance. “We get outside. We love hill walking and get out to the mountains with the dogs whenever we can for hikes. Our personal and business lives are very much intertwined, and that can be difficult sometimes, but we are starting a new rule – no work talk on Sundays,” Danielle says emphatically, before looking to her mother and sister for endorsement. “Aren’t we?” she urges.
“We’re going to try,” answers Sari, who considers this an important piece of advice for families entering business together. “Get your rules in place before you start the company, know exactly what each of you are doing and know your limitations: if there’s a gap in expertise, ask for help and do it from the beginning.”
White & Green’s hallmark is its beautiful, luxurious, yet comfortable and keenly priced products – prices range from €55 for sheets to €119 for knitted throws – all tempered with a personal touch that comes from a family-run business. Production is hands-on and 100pc organic and Fairtrade. This appears to be a mainstay in the company’s evolving aesthetic and success: conserving its ethical identity and allowing it to hover higher and hold itself apart from its competition.
“Success for me is when a customer rings us up to tell us how delighted they are with the product and what an amazing night’s sleep they got,” Sari says. “They also go away knowing they got a quality product for a reasonable price and the farmer was not exploited.
“We are making people happy every day – what more could you want from business and life?”
This leads me to ask the question: is there anything that keeps them awake at night? There’s a pause, then all three chime together: “Nothing! Our sheets are too comfortable.” If ever there was a company tag line…
White & Green will be at Stand D2 at House 2017, running at Dublin’s RDS today and tomorrow, May 27 and 28. See house-event.ie; whiteandgreen.ie
Photography by Fran Veale