Suzie de Rohan Willner, CEO of Toast
Established in West Wales in 1997, Toast trades in slow fashion and home décor that is made to last. More than 20 year after starting—as a small retailer selling pajamas made in Wales—the offering has grown but the ethos of quality and trend-averse items hasn’t changed. Specialising in functional designs and artisan-made products, Toast is one of the few clothing brands to have its own fully functioning pattern rooms, a nod to the brand’s considered approach. Suzie de Rohan Willner, the CEO of Toast, talked clothing swaps, podcast ideas and why she can’t get on board with sports leggings!
Who is the Toast woman? She has a real appreciation of timeless design and values items with texture: emotional, cultural, sensual or historical. I often find myself meeting mothers and daughters or grandmothers and granddaughters in our shops, enjoying a shared passion for individual style. There is something about wearing a Toast piece that slows you down and makes you aware of the details—you notice the skill that has gone into hand-weaving the cloth, or the way the pockets have been lined in a striped fabric. The Toast customer is any age from late 20s to 90s, tends to be a creative and someone with an interest in the arts.
How has the brand’s style shifted while you have been CEO? Over the past few years, the team has sought to bring a slightly more contemporary edge to the collections. Keeping the artistic, Bohemian narrative and the traditional textiles, for which Toast is known, but adding a nod to modernity in the cuts and silhouettes.
Tell me about some artisans you’ve supported as part of the “New Makers” programme and what about their stories stood out to you? Two new makers who stand out are actually two working couples—Takahashi McGil (from our first cohort and makers we now stock) and Popalini and Jezando (from this year). I think it’s fascinating to see how their work has become not simply their trade, but a way of life. As duos, they are both incredibly dynamic and passionate, with an extraordinary sensitivity to their materials.
A shot from Toast’s A/W campaign
Do you think retail and specifically the way TOAST practising retail will change forever after Covid-19? I think Toast has always offered a unique shopping experience—we have a free, travelling workshop on sashiko repair in all our shops across the United Kingdom, a permanent repair artist in our Westbourne Grove shop in London and often offer exhibitions and talks. Involving the local community with each shop is key to our philosophy. We have these wonderful spaces, and we want to ensure they become cultural hubs that are enjoyed by all. We also have our Toast Circle programme, which allows our customers to swap Toast garments and share the stories of their own worn pieces—something that has proved incredibly popular. With Covid-19, we are exploring ways in which we can slowly reintroduce this, carefully and safely. Our physical stores are such calm and welcoming spaces and though they will have to adapt, we see them continuing to play a key role in local communities in the future.
What is a fashion or style trend that you like right now? I think a silver lining of the current situation is that trends have ceased to have such impact. We are no longer insatiably following them because we’re spending the majority of our time at home. This has allowed us all to slow down, and to reflect on our own shopping habits and wardrobe. I’ve been rediscovering cherished items and creating styles that suit me—such as rolled up dungarees, colourful socks and Birkenstock sandals.
And one you can’t get behind? Sports leggings. I’d rather be in easy, voluminous culottes any day.
A view of the A/W campaign at Toast
What are some of the tangible ways the business has pivoted since lockdown? Within a week, the team demonstrated their extraordinary ability to adapt swiftly, thoughtfully and creatively—first by moving all discussions to Zoom and then in a matter of days, by harnessing their energy to produce an impactful plan of action for our team, our customers, our collaborators and our suppliers. Every area of the business has had to move swiftly—for example, early on we shipped mannequins to our technical team so that they could work comfortably from home, our designers created a virtual ‘design wall’ using Miro software so that they could continue to share sketches and fabrics, and our marketing team put in place a meaningful programme of virtual events and workshops.
We are closer as a team than ever before, closer to our manufacturers who we talk to daily and who we’ve been able to help with adapting their own technology, and closer to our customers around the world. Our virtual workshops, which started with 30 participants and have grown to over 100 participants in each session, have given us the chance to connect with our global community – we see particularly high participation from the US, Australia and Northern Europe. We now sell out of places for these workshops raising much needed donations for causes that support our communities whether it be Crafts Council in the UK or No Kid Hungry in the US.
A snap-shot of Toast’s A/W looks
What excites you about fashion and women’s retail? Rentals—I think this is an exciting and innovative idea that will go some way to reducing the vast quantities of clothing that the fashion industry produces, particularly as so many higher-end pieces are often only worn once. I’m also delighted and encouraged by the leaning towards more thoughtful fashion, something Toast has always pursued. We are realising that we don’t need so much and that we are happy to renew, re-appropriate and recycle.
Why Toast, what is the story behind the name? Toast began with a set of six pyjamas and the idea of easy and slow Sunday mornings. The word Toast conjures those lazy weekend breakfasts and the mood and ethos of the brand itself. At Toast, we aspire to a slower, more thoughtful way of life—and this permeates everything we do.
Homeware at Toast
Tell me about some of the other areas of the business—the magazine, the podcast, the events—and why those were important to you to launch and develop? Toast has always been about a holistic offering— something more than the collection itself. Through our magazine we’ve been able to offer contemplative and thoughtful commentary on how we live, and particularly how we live now (interestingly, our readership has grown during lockdown, with readers seeking reflective, longer reads). Because of the success of our magazine we decided to explore the world of podcasts; we are currently on our fourth series and have a substantial following, having been featured in the top 100 on the Apple Podcast Charts.