Another round of Toast: fashion firm chief on its plans to embrace repairs and secondhand sales | Retail industry

Dressed in soft indigo chambray trousers and sporting a sharp haircut, cool specs and relaxed but enthusiastic demeanour, Suzie de Rohan Willner is a living embodiment of Toast, the clothing brand she leads.

Tanned from days in her Buckinghamshire garden and walking her dog Boots, she is leaning forward over a coffee at a north London restaurant, which is down the road from the brand’s design studio and probably the homes of a good chunk of its fans.

Toast is the brand of choice for many well-heeled people who have concerns about ethical production and the environment.

De Rohan Willner says both her artist mother, who shares her home, and her daughter, also an artist, wear the brand: “Having three generations all wearing Toast is quite something and we are not alone.”

Combining stylish comfort with natural fabrics and links with small-scale designer-makers, the brand is going further on sustainability just as others may be tempted to sweep the issue under the carpet during the cost of living crisis.

Next month, Toast will launch Reworn, where it will sell the brand’s vintage and newly returned secondhand items online as part of efforts to cut the carbon footprint of its fashion and homewares.

Awareness about the environmental impact of the fashion industry has been growing. The Toast preloved initiative will start with 50 pieces including a linen jumpsuit for £68 and cotton trousers for £49.

Unlike the many designer brands that enable their shoppers to resell unwanted items for a financial reward, the idea is that the Toast “community” will hand back unwanted clothing, accessories and homewares because they would like them to find a proper home.

“Customers can trust Toast to do the right thing with these products, whether a lovely dress hardly used or T-shirt at end of its life,” says De Rohan Willner.

She says customers are already selling items via online marketplaces or giving them to charity, but have expressed concerns about what happens to them. That’s why Toast is handling the whole process in-house rather than outsourcing to one of the many operators that have sprung up to help brands with the trend for resale.

“We don’t want to launch this process where customers trust us and for it to end in landfill,” De Rohan Willner says.

It’s the next step in Toast’s circle programme, which started with a free repair service and includes clothes-swapping events at its stores, and Renewed, where damaged items are creatively repaired or reimagined before being resold.

The project has proved a hit, with more than 4,000 items repaired, from mending a moth hole to a coat that was taken apart and resewn.

These items should last and pieces should be handed down through generationsSuzie de Rohan Willner

She says the circle project not only plays to the brand’s ethical credentials but “reinforces the message that these items should last and pieces should be handed down through generations”. With prices for new garments starting at £55 for a ladies’ T-shirt, and knitwear from about £135, this is not a brand many would buy on a whim.

The company has trained two students at its base near Swansea to help sort, examine, clean and repair the garments handed back via the Reworn programme, with items not suitable for sale by Toast made use of by Traid, a UK clothing reuse charity. In addition 10% of the value of any sales of returned clothes sold by Toast will also be donated to Traid to support its educational foundation, Read.

De Rohan Willner says: “We are not sure this is a profit-making channel but do think it’s the right thing to do and we are exploring it.”

Doing the right thing appears to have stood Toast in good stead during the cost of living crisis, and De Rohan Willner appears to be revelling in leading a brand based on craft skills after a corporate career working for some enormous consumer brands.

Born in Surrey before growing up in London, she left the UK with her father at 16 to move to France where she took French studies at the American University of Paris after finishing the international baccalaureate at school in Geneva.

Her first job in the early 1990s was as a receptionist at Timberland, the US footwear brand, where she was spotted by the boss and moved into sales. She then got a job with Levi’s Dockers brand in France before moving to the company’s headquarters in Brussels for 11 years.

She moved back to the UK, where her two children were already at school, after getting a role with Puma in 2008, then became chief executive of FitFlop footwear in 2011, where she stayed for three years before joining Toast.

De Rohan Willner helped lead a revival of the brand, which was founded as a mail order pyjama company by Jamie and Jessica Seaton, a couple of archaeologists turned entrepreneurs, from their Welsh farmhouse in 1997.

The couple sold a 75% stake in the business, which still has a base in Wales as well as a design studio in north London, to the British fashion retailer French Connection in 2000, and the business was then sold to Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen’s Bestseller group, the owner of brands including Jack & Jones and Vero Moda, for just over £23m in 2018.

Sales at Toast, which has 19 physical stores in the UK but sells mostly online, rose almost 23% to £35.2m last year. However, profits slid by almost a third to £1.7m as costs rose when stores began to reopen after the Covid pandemic.

De Rohan Willner says she is not worried about losing customers during the cost of living crisis, but “the world is changing radically and the shift over just five years has been quite phenomenal”.

With shoppers considering every purchase more carefully – from both a budget and an environmental stance – she says Toast’s customers want to “invest in things they can share with family and friends. They are family heirlooms.”


Age “Ancient.”

Family “Four generations living within 10 miles of each other. It’s crazy but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Education “I left England at the age of 16 for France. There I took the international baccalaureate and later graduated with a degree in French studies from the American University of Paris. I stayed in Europe for much of my life after that.”

Last holiday “I recently visited Tel Aviv with my husband. It’s a city we had always wanted to explore.”

Best advice she’s been given‘The mantra I work by is from Maya Angelou: ‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.’”

Phrase she overuses “How lucky are we.”

Biggest career mistake “It sounds cheesy but I don’t believe in mistakes. Everything I have been through has got me to where I am today. My steepest learning curve was my experience at Timberland. I started working at reception, was then offered a sales role and was trained in merchandising. I never looked back.”

How she relaxes “Snuggling up with our dog Boots with my Toast patchwork quilt and a good book. My husband treated me to a Daunt Books subscription. I receive a surprise book to read every month.”

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