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Winifred meets online clothes retailer Johnnie Boden

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Winifred Robinson | 11:17 AM, Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Johnnie Boden and his dog Sprout

When it comes to influential British design, Johnnie Boden ranks alongside the late Laura Ashley - both began by scribbling ideas for a few items at the kitchen table, both have left scarcely a middle class home untouched by their tastes. Vintage floral prints, once very Laura Ashley, are now very Johnnie B.

The You and Yours team bid to interview Johnnie Boden months ago and then finally a week ago, a date with Johnnie was fixed to meet at Boden HQ in West London, 9am sharp. We were warned he had only a brief window of 20 minutes and if we missed it, that would be that.

It's easy to mock Boden and people often do usually because of the daft little jokes that crop up all over the catalogues, sometimes in the labels on the clothes as well as online. Models in the catalogues provide answers to whimsical questions including 'What gets your knickers in a twist?' and 'What's the biggest fib you've ever told?' The front cover of the new spring offering is entitled '696 new reasons to be gruntled'. The company headquarters, a giant hangar of a place endeavours to continue the spirit of fun. It sports a picture of a Jack Russell in sunglasses and a big sign: 'Boden: ugly building beautiful clothes'.

We arrived 30 minutes early. The PR Josie took us to wait in a room where the new collection was displayed. She told us she's always worked in fashion and couldn't resist showing the items off; there were silky shift dresses in muted colours, some of the more obvious Boden signature bright vintage-style prints, and bold necklaces, with huge silver baubles suspended on silken, coffee-colours strings.

The man himself walked out to greet us as we emerged from the lift. Johnnie Boden is tall and slim but not skinny, with ruffed up auburn hair and an even-featured, open, pleasant face. He's posh - Eton and Oxford - and very friendly and polite if a little shy - there's quite a bit of looking down to start with. When the interview began, he hunched over the microphone to answer my questions and began with his eyes shut like someone who is thinking really hard. I stopped after about two minutes to check if he was comfortable and he assured me he was, just concentrating 'because I sometimes put my foot in it, make remarks that journalists seize on, and get myself into all sorts of bother'.

There's no point recapping the full interview here, you can listen online. It's an astonishing story of how someone with no fashion training or experience decided to start designing and selling clothes by mail order and ended up dressing Middle England. Boden has now moved into the USA and Germany. France will be next. His range for women, men, children, young teenagers and most recently, expectant mums, seems to go down a storm everywhere he tries. 'We spend a lot of time planning for failure, each time we try something new,' he told me, 'but it just hasn't happened yet'.

Just one more confidence to impart; it may have compromised impartiality but I wore a Boden frock - a green number printed with purple and pink roses that my husband bought for me for Christmas. It was my personal charm offensive. He didn't mention it until the interview was done and then as he left us muttered, eyes lowered, not at all flirtatious but just like the wholesome family man of the Boden catalogue dream: 'You look great by the way'.

Reader, I liked him. As the kids say today: 'What's not to like?'

Winifred Robinson presents You and Yours on BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    Strange to learn that he started out by designing men's clothes. Apart from a few nice floral shirts now and then, Boden's menswear collections are almost always utterly dull in comparison to the lovely women's clothes. Even the teenage boys are served better than the men. I do wish they'd be a bit more inventive and creative - conservative striped shirts can be bought anywhere, and who wants to wear chinos nowadays?


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