Suzie de Rohan WillnerThe Toast CEO on slowness as a solution.

Suzie de Rohan WillnerThe Toast CEO on slowness as a solution.

  • Words Bella Gladman
  • Photograph Cecilie Jegsen

Toast first launched in 1997 as a mail-order pajama company operating out of a barn in Wales. Its accompanying vision of a simpler yet richer life struck such a chord that, over two decades later, it’s grown into a global business. Toast’s palette of natural textures, organic colors and graceful lines (applied to a product list that has expanded into women’s clothing, loungewear and homeware) have won the sort of committed fans who treasure archive pieces as much as the latest collection. This year, Toast is launching New Makers—an initiative through which the team will deploy their creative and commercial expertise in the service of five emerging designers. Here, Suzie de Rohan Willner, who joined as CEO in 2015, explains the importance of nurturing talent and extending a “slow” ethos to office life.

Toast makes everything from soap to swimwear. What’s the common thread?
When we talk to our customers, the first thing they say is that when they see Toast, they slow down, whether they’re standing in store, wearing our clothes or holding a piece of glassware. Our colors, the textures and the photography all convey a different pace—something that’s away from the speed of everyday life.

Do you carry that philosophy into the office?
Yes. Once a month in our London office, everyone comes together to sit at the big wooden dining table. The visual merchandising team makes it beautiful with little glass bottles filled with flowers, and we ask young chefs who are starting out to come and serve us lunch. Each member of the management team takes turns to invite somebody—whether an artist or a spiritual leader—to speak to and inspire us. I’ve led many teams over my career and I’m surprised to see how stressed people are now. Mental health is a trend at the moment, but it’s a real issue. The more companies inform themselves, the better for everyone.

What does slowness look like for a very busy person?
My daughter recently said, “You have no divide between work and life, Mum!” She’s right—I’m passionate about what I do—but I carve out time for myself. I go on a retreat once a year. When I get up, I’ll meditate, I’ll do yoga. But it’s about how you roll through the day. I use the beautiful things around me—colorful furniture, Toast pieces hanging on my office wall—as cues to pause.

Given Toast’s simple aesthetic, how do you ensure you’re not repeating yourself?
We love the challenge of taking a simple design and turning it into something that will make our customers feel beautiful. The team works very hard at combining both innovation and longevity. In fact, we started our New Makers initiative so we could champion new designers. We thought, “Let’s go out, choose five people, and take them to market: give them a space in store, give them a space online, profile them, share our expertise.” We benefit, but without taking their profit. We wanted to find people who embrace the simplicity of their craft, because that’s the aesthetic we love.

How do you feel about slow fashion being so popular at the moment?
It’s such a good thing, isn’t it? Toast doesn’t need to shout about having done it for a long time—we’ll just continue along the path that we’ve always taken. We like to offer up thoughts, rather than dictate them. Personally, Toast has brought me to delight in clothes with longevity. As a young woman in Paris, I was a fashion victim; I used to spend every penny on clothes. I don’t do that anymore! Toast runs sashiko [Japanese embroidery] repair workshops, and I now enjoy giving a piece new life.

Do you have a favorite piece from Toast that you wear again and again?
The Kantha gown. It started originally as a bed jacket, but people decided to wear it as outerwear—my mother wears it as a coat. Because they’re made from recycled saris, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. I wear it when I’m out giving career talks to women. I met a lovely customer in York, a physics professor, and she said, “When I’m standing up in front of students, it gives me gravitas.”

This feature was produced in partnership with Toast.


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