The American luxury lifestyle brand storming the Cotswolds
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If you’re expecting to talk furniture with Gary Friedman, the charismatic chairman and CEO of American homeware brand RH (formerly known as Restoration Hardware), you’re in for a surprise. He talks at the rate of a rapid-fire Kalashnikov, and regales with stories of Leonardo da Vinci and architecture without mention of the brand’s homeware designs. But all of these influences feed into the brand’s retail concept, “a curated world of luxury living, travel, dining and design services”, developed around high-end “galleries” – the company is known for its takeovers of distinct city buildings (“if we can’t find one we’ll build it”) to create experiential destinations that feel more like condominiums than stores.
One writer described its 90,000sq ft, six-floor go-to in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District – a $100mn vision of soaring atriums and glittering chandeliers crowned by a buzzing roof-top restaurant – as where you can “get inspiration for your mega-yacht while eating American food”: customers can expect to pay from around $2,195 for a wood dining table from a product line of furniture, lighting, textiles, rugs, bathware, décor and outdoor, as well as baby and child and teen products, sourced from makers worldwide.
Friedman, a retail veteran who famously took the Williams-Sonoma-owned Pottery Barn business from a $50mn tableware business to a $1bn-plus furniture brand as its president, has transformed the fortunes of Restoration Hardware, the American company founded in Eureka, California in 1979 and rebranded RH in 2012 when it was floated on the New York Stock Exchange. When Friedman joined the company 22 years ago, “it had a $20mn market cap and was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy”. As of 2022, it employed some 6,200 people and recorded revenues of $3.59bn – although this figure represents a 4.48 per cent decline year-on-year. RH has experienced a plunge in stock prices as it navigates a slump in the housing market, and Wedbush analyst Seth Basham has said the brand faces “continued pressure”.
Friedman acknowledges these challenges but is ploughing ahead with a new growth chapter for the business – part of an overall business strategy to “climb the luxury mountain” in taking the business from mid-market to luxury purveyor. This month the brand opens its first store outside North America, RH England, The Gallery at the Historic Aynho Park (formerly Aynhoe Park), a sprawling country estate in Oxfordshire. The move will be followed by a roll-out of galleries in London’s Mayfair, Milan, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Düsseldorf and Sydney over the next two to three years.
“We’re trying to build the first multi-category, fully integrated luxury home brand in the world,” says Friedman. “Luxury brands tend to be born at the top,” he adds of what has been a challenging strategy. “It’s very hard to reposition a brand because it’s like repositioning a human. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. We faced bankruptcy for the first 10 years and there were a lot of people who said we couldn’t do it, but we’ve been at it for 22 years now and we’ve reached a tipping point.”
RH’s focus on showcasing design within an architectural framework aims to position it as a place- and tastemaker. “Everything we do comes through the lens of architecture. It’s why we restore historical buildings – they’re statements of great thinking and our investment in them elevates and renders the brand more valuable.”
Aynho, nonetheless, is a huge departure for the brand. “We needed to do something for our first international gallery that would say who we are and what we’re capable of. We have other buildings that we are working on: old palaces in Milan and Madrid, but this had to be unexpected,” Friedman explains. Of the risk of buying a country estate, he says: “Most people would say we’re nuts opening our first European store an hour outside of the capital city, but we knew Aynho Park was right the moment we saw magnificent architecture and a country park with roaming deer.”
Formerly the family home of the collector and historic-building restorer James Perkins, who established an art-design studio amid the Georgian splendour, Grade-I listed Aynho has undergone careful restoration. “I found myself constantly joking that we needed permission from the King to change anything,” Friedman laughs.
Regardless, he and his team have been mindful to respect the people and traditions of their new home. “We kept James’s magnificent staircases, his 10ft statue of Hercules and his unicorn! I paid close to a million for everything because they’re so incredible. When you walk in you’ll be staring directly into the eyes of the unicorn and beyond that there’s an incredible green onyx fireplace from Mexico surrounded by sconces and urns. There’s also a portrait of James, his wife Sophie and their children at the gallery because they are part of Aynho’s history.”
Details of RH’s product offering are focused on rarity and exclusivity. “About every seven or eight years we pivot the entire company. Our product line is going through the biggest transformation. Aynho will be the first place to see this new elevated product line, which is being flown in from all over the world: sofas made in Italy and tables carved out of Italian travertine plus a beautiful case-goods collection from Vietnam,” he reveals. “I found these places on a Jeep tour. Several English artisans were already making very high-quality goods in small quantities for showrooms in Europe and the US in the $2mn to $5mn range; we’ve built up big business with them, purchasing between $50mn to $150m from many of them a year.”
He’s also used the space for more immersive experiences. There will be an exhibition dedicated to Sir John Soane (selected in partnership with the London museum), who remodelled the house in 1798, and an entire room to one of his favourite designers, Anouska Hempel. Lady Weinberg is not only designing a series of collections for RH but became so embroiled in a taste test of caviar during a visit to one of its restaurants when they met that Friedman eventually took Hempel’s advice on the presentation of dishes for the venue. “I’m a huge fan, and would always ensure my whole team stayed at her hotel, Blakes, whenever we were in London. I remember we’d go to each other’s rooms just to look at the décor.”
Hempel says she’s put together a “multi-piece collection” representing her design vision – past, present and future. “There will be garden furniture, a lighting collection and pieces curated from my previous works.” Of the caviar, she adds: “As a hotelier at heart, service and styling is part of my nature, so I was thrilled to be asked to do a private tasting. Having 11 people around you while you are individually picking caviar pearls was hilarious, especially with chopsticks!”
Hospitality plays a major role at Aynho, as it does at many of RH’s galleries. There will be three restaurants at the site, including The Orangery with its “live-fire” concept (the same concept at its New York guesthouse has just been listed in the Michelin Guide). “We blur the lines between residential and retail and home and hospitality,” says Friedman. “If you’re going to invite someone into your home you are going to need to offer them something to eat and drink.”
Friedman hints he’s already been looking at properties in the Cotswolds for his next “RH Guesthouse”. The business launched a hotel concept in New York City in September 2022, complementing a hospitality offering where customers can also charter its luxury yacht or rent one of its private jets (“Bernard Arnault came on a tour last week,” Friedman smiles). Interestingly, the NY guesthouse rooms do not contain a stick of RH furniture. “That’s the thing that twists people’s heads around, but we have a 90,000sq ft showroom for that. It’s about demonstrating what is possible from a design and architecture point of view,” Friedman adds.
The RH climb continues. “We have to be careful how we go because if you dislocate too many customers you’re in trouble,” Friedman concludes. “We’re in a good position but at a point where we say: ‘Where the air gets thinner, the odds get slimmer’. So we stick to our values.”
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that The Gallery at the Historic Aynho Park is in Oxfordshire rather than the Cotswolds