Don’t let the name fool you, de Le Cuona is an interiors brand that is British born and bred (largely). For them, luxury is a case of sourcing decor using the finest fibres from around the world before spinning them sustainably and finishing them authentically, be that on an original loom or embossing natural linen with antique rollers. But where did it all begin and perhaps more pertinent, why?
The original tastemaker—Bernie de Le Cuona At the beating heart of this textile and soft furnishings brand is its founder, Bernie de Le Cuona, who founded her eponymous label more than a quarter of a century ago. Having moved from her native Pretoria in South Africa, it was during her time in Belgium that her fascination with fabric began. She came across some beautiful vintage linen and found herself keen to learn more about its origin and extraordinary versatility—commonly found in the material’s texture, tone or use. It was here in Belgium that she met a master weaver who told her to always start with the highest quality of fibre—the piece of design advice she cites as being the best she’s ever received.
As she travelled on, she gathered inspiration from cultures far and wide—which led her to colour palettes she may never have otherwise dreamt of—prints too, and even the fibres themselves. Her first order was a modest quantity from India. She didn’t borrow money or attempt investment, but instead self-funded her young business and taught aerobics alongside to make ends meet. Their unorthodox techniques of laying rolls of fabric over logs and beating them to achieve incredible levels of softness appealed. And so began her quest, as creative director of newly founded de Le Cuona, to create the richness of Indian cloth closer to home.
Designing for a collection
From de Le Cuona’s very first assortment to today’s releases, new ideas are never a timed search but come and go on an almost constant cycle. Looking out of the window of founder Bernie’s Georgian townhouse house in Windsor (where the business is also headquartered) can provide her with a daily dose of fresh thought that she can channel into a new collection. Travel is her greatest source of inspiration however, with trips to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg or France’s Royal Gardens of Versailles igniting her imagination many a time.
Being somebody who is not so much about chintz, nor austere minimalism, much of the fabrics in de Le Cuona’s collection are about comfort and natural beauty. Washed linens (yes, the rumours of tumbling them with golf balls are true—a technique that Bernie insists on to create a distinctly soft handle and visual texture), fine cashmere and vintage-looking paisleys are a mainstay but so are newer creations such as nappa leather borders on her cushions and eel skin upholstered occasional tables.
It can take anything from three months to design a new fabric or even years on rare occasions. “I don’t do fabrics like the rest of our industry. I’m not knocking them, everybody has their niche, but we don’t print, and we only weave,” Bernie told the Financial Times in an interview in 2018.
Navigating the storms
Like most businesses, de Le Cuona experienced its first choppy waters with only its second order. Having decided to source fabrics from India, her shipment weathered an actual storm—a monsoon—that resulted in the textiles arriving damaged and unusable. From that moment on, she pledged to focus on European farmers and mills where their journey would be less fraught with danger and her carbon footprint lowered too.
In 2008, the financial crisis caused by the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsing, saw much of the market slow to a grinding halt as shopping habits dropped dramatically. In a fight or flight situation, de Le Cuona decided to up its prices and target the higher end of the luxury market in an attempt to survive. Inevitably, they lost some of their following along the way, sadly pricing them out of their collections, but simultaneously stepped onto a new stage—one of unparalleled and the faultless luxury that can only come with a greater financial investment—with an audience ready to applaud its efforts.
Later, with the opening of the new de Le Cuona store on London’s Pimlico Road, the brand began selling direct to consumers too, rather than solely to interior designers (admirers include Nicky Haslam and Ralph Lauren), architects and other luxury resellers. Bernie launched an edit called Shop the Studio where she amassed many a handcrafted piece from embroidered cushions and cashmere throws to smaller items of upholstered furniture including tables and stools with luggage said to be arriving in the not too distant future. De Le Cuona has sailed, it seemed, into shores serene and unspoilt.
Becoming a sustainable pioneer
In conversations about environmentally-conscious brands, de Le Cuona is one of those names that crops up time and time again. Indeed, when Bernie founded her company over 25 years ago, she had her sights set on the world’s natural resources as her go-to, favouring sustainably sourced cotton, flax and silk over man-made alternatives. In fact, de Le Cuona will only ever add in synthetic figures if they add strength to match a specific fabric’s intended use. Otherwise, it’s nature all the way with collections always starting with fibre quality and sustainability rather than price.
Having a close relationship with all who are involved in the production of her textiles was crucial to de Le Cuona’s consciousness. It was her highly select choosing of which mills to work with that meant Bernie and the rest of the de Le Cuona team could truly understand the source of their fibres and be introduced to the farmers, ensuring they were only working with fibre grown in a way non-toxic to the planet. She too favours finishing techniques that call on Mother Nature rather than chemical processes, such as collaborating with a French company that makes distressed jeans to aid with her desire to design a shabby woven linen. They simply tumble the textile in a washing machine with pumice stones—no other intervention needed.
“As a purveyor of a luxury product, I know that it is crucial for consumers to know the provenance of the products—where it comes from, how it is made, how natural it is. We need to tell those stories. We are not 100% there and it will be challenging, but this is our commitment. I believe we are trailblazers in the interior textile business on this front,” explains the founder. An admirable balance of both customer and environment first.