On 23rd May we were joined by members for breakfast at Dishoom with Jessica Seaton of TOAST, to explore connections between creativity, food and place.

In 2015 we began a series of intimate breakfast events for our members, hosted in the comfort of Dishoom’s Carnaby Street conservatory. We have heard from The Gourmand's Dave Lane, North Design's Sean Perkins, Gorgeous Group's Robbie Bargh, Dishoom's own co-founder Shamil Thakrar in conversation with fellow restaurateur Alan Yau, Tom Broughton, founder of Cubitts and, most recently, Jessica Seaton. 

Jessica, as well as being the co-founder of lifestyle and clothing brand TOAST, is a cook and author of Gather Cook Feast — a cookbook that celebrates the connection between food and a sense of place. Having recently completed the sale of TOAST, set up with her partner Jamie in rural Wales over 20 years ago, we heard from the serial creative entrepreneur about the journey from start to finish, the challenges they faced and her plans for post-TOAST life.

Over cups of chai and breakfast naans, members posed their own questions to Jessica about how she and Jamie established the beautiful and authentic brand vision that has supported the success of the company, and how the business has recently refocused. We ended the session with a look at her latest projects, by exploring her love of food and cooking, and how this connects her to nature and the creative process. 

Here’s what we learned.

YCN’s Ella Reynolds started the discussion from the beginning – the very beginning – by asking Jessica how TOAST came about. Before TOAST, the couple moved to Wales “by accident”, having spent a year there “on a dig” (they both studied Archeology and Ancient History at Birmingham). Having decided they would need to create their own work, they explored their options: “We were kind of hippies… I’d been dying yarn at university, and knitting awful sweaters. We didn’t really know anything about fashion or that world.”

A stroke of luck

Despite (or because of) their naivety, they “packed a suitcase of sweaters” and shopped it around London, hoping for buyers. “No-one bought any,” admitted Jessica. By sheer luck, a fashion team from W Magazine who were visiting Wales to sample its exotic wares requested to see “all the sweaters” and took samples back with them. Jessica and James later received a picture of their woollen jumpers in the window of a Beverly Hills shopfront: “we were dragged into fashion… It was pure luck that knitwear became a thing.” She told us that they continued producing knitwear in this wholesale capacity “for 20 years,” until they needed a change. Enter TOAST.

Staying ahead of the curve

Now in the 1990s, fashions had changed and they “had nowhere to go with the existing business.” Searching for their next venture, Jessica recalled Jamie’s brainwave: “I think we should make pyjamas.” It was, at the time, an untapped market, while also being a “reaction to what [they] had been doing for the last 20 years”: creating and selling “much more attainable” to-order products that people “with our own resources” could afford. With no formal background in design, it was Jamie, “attuned to clothing” and whose “eye was always there”, who took on the design role: “it was a natural thing for him.” Jessica added that, having been a child obsessed with making up “mini business ventures”, she had “business in her blood.” When asked about this working relationship, Jessica was clear on the importance of sharing and combining strengths and responsibilities, describing the way in which the couple would “merge and join and make each other better by combining creative and practical input”.  

The importance of timing

Timing was kind to TOAST, founded in 1997, as it emerged at a time when clothing companies like Boden and The White Company were “changing the face of mail order.” Their remote location also meant they were early adopters of e-commerce (“in 2000!”), something that was easy to build into their business that larger, store-based retailers had to entirely restructure in order to achieve. Around the same time, a move into retail with the opening of a selection of stores presented new, “exhilarating” challenges. Jessica told us how her “head was exploding with so much to learn,” as she described the transition from a book to physical shops: “retail was more difficult for us.” Without the book to “aid cohesion” and neatly tie together a collection (“it’s easy to make clothes look good in a photograph”), it “took about two years to learn” how to present TOAST’s values, products and selling points in their shops.

The brand is, and has always been, rooted in natural fabrics and artisanal materials – something Jessica attributes to Jamie’s “enthusiasm”, “love” and “excitement for textiles.” The elegant lines and simple, timeless shapes that run through every clothing collection at TOAST are reminiscent of ”a tone set by pyjama designs”, explained Jessica, giving “boxy shirts and drawstring trousers” as examples. 

Striking the work-life balance

Talk turned to business again as Jessica commented on “striking the work-life balance” – something that has undoubtedly been at the heart of the TOAST founders’ experience: “work did become life,” she admitted. “When businesses are fun they’re all-consuming” and “it becomes harder and more important to make time to do the good things in life.” She described the process of becoming a majority stakeholder when French Connection first became an investor in 2000. The new investors were clear “from the start” that they didn’t wish to “interfere”, and Jessica claims they let them be “completely autonomous.” 

Adapting to expansion

With greater investment it became clear that Jamie and Jessica were not equipped with the skills to further the business and, in 2015, they hired CEO Suzie de Rohan Willner whose role, as Jessica described it, has been pivotal in restructuring TOAST: “it was a necessary step to make the business self-sufficient and have a life after us... We always wanted to build a brand.” Suzie’s legacy was to commit the brand’s values and identity to paper, into a digestible format that could be shared with and understood by existing and potential investors. In the past, Jessica explained, “investors found it hard to understand what we were doing.”

Investment with a view to longevity

With an ultimate view to selling the business, “all of the creative bits” were moved to London in a “horrible but absolutely necessary” transition to safeguard the longevity of the brand. Suzie restructured and stabilised the business by bringing in new senior management, to a point at which the brand was "basically running itself". It was then that “the stars aligned” and Jamie and Jessica "felt that it was the right time” to sell and start a new challenge. Danish wholesalers Bestseller, whose expertise in e-commerce and international retail appealed to the couple, bought the company for £23 million at the end of April this year (they “behaved very honourably throughout the whole thing!”), in a move that will ensure TOAST will live on as a brand. Unlike with a private equity firm, driven by short-term yields, Bestseller “won’t sell it. They’ll grow it, look after it and nurture it. It’s in safe hands.”

Pursuing new passions 

Fresh from the completion of this sale, Jessica is enjoying the “amazing” freedom “to do anything now.” She told us that she “purposefully didn’t make any plans for the future” and has “been busy sorting out life.” However, that is not to say she is not busy with her solo projects, such as a potential follow up to her first cookbook, Gather Cook Feast: Recipes from Land and Water. She says this project came about “through a chance meeting with a literary agent who was a fan of TOAST.” Although begun as a joint venture, Jamie soon relinquished any involvement (“Jamie doesn’t actually cook!”) and Jessica spent “four years from beginning to end” exploring, researching, photographing and writing about the cyclical, seasonal nature in which food relates to landscape and place. “I loved everything about it.” Although not in a rush to complete another, she added: “I love writing and learning about food.”

Finding the right people

Asked to reflect on the “proudest moment” of her working life, Jessica replied, “I don’t know about moments but I am very proud to have created this thing called TOAST… It’s been a wonderful journey.” Again, she was hesitant to list a specific person or place who had inspired her along the way, but made sure to credit CEO Suzie with making the business “less amorphous”, complementing the way in which she and Jamie had always worked on “urges and instincts” and “making sense of the brand.”

The process of 'scratching'

Jessica also mentioned American choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp, whose process of “scratching” (“Without the little ideas, there are no big ideas. Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you.”) inspires Jessica’s own creative processes of searching through books at random and making a note of anything that registers emotionally: “anything that gives you a jolt inside.”

Nature and landscape have also informed much of TOAST’s thematic makeup: “the natural world,” said Jessica, “I don’t see it as something separate. We are all part of the natural world. As humans, it’s about valuing the world we live in. At TOAST we would say ‘we’re about depicting the beauty of the natural world.’”

The value of seeking expertise

Is there anything Jessica wishes she had known? “Tons!” She says that seeking expertise (“get off your butt and find someone who knows something!”) was key to TOAST’s success. “It’s never too late to learn things.” Looking back, Jessica told us that it was only through “sheer force of personality” that she and Jamie were able to maintain the core principles at the heart of their brand’s identity, throughout its evolution. Later on, it was Suzie’s ability to translate and “articulate it in that tangible, portable way” that people could understand. Knowing that these values would continue to be instilled made it easy to say goodbye to the brand last month, “like watching your children go off to university.”

What's in a name?

A member put this question to Jessica, who explained that the word came from a “feeling”: “we knew we were making pyjamas and we knew what it should feel like. That word popped into my head and it felt right.” The decision to write it in upper case came from Jamie, with a view to its graphic design: “it felt quite structured and modern.” Jessica added that, aside from “the obvious association with breakfast, we wanted it to be honest, simple. Like toast. Toast is a humble thing. It’s not a croissant!”

A final question from the audience asked Jessica about that interest in sense of place, which she has referenced in each of her ventures. She described a standout location as a trip to Argentina in 2004, inspired by “a programme on the telly about tango.” Jamie was inspired by the romance of the Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires, which would inspire a whole collection, through which “a whole thread of Gauco” ran. Taking a whole team to various locations around the country, including a shoot on a glacier on the Argentine-Chilean border, was an “extraordinary” experience.

Legacy

Jessica and Jamie’s legacy is clear: they are unbound by rules, driven by “passion and gut instinct” and committed to the “sense of freedom” that she says customers “tap into with enthusiasm”: “we cannot make people feel free if we are not free.”

All photography David Townhill.