Meet the owners
Specialising in one-of-a-kind gifts in a rainbow of vibrant hues, Ark Cambridge is the perfect place to pick up unique treasures, as owner Jane Richards explains:
How did Ark begin?
We opened a little shop in Norfolk Street back in 2001 selling vintage furniture. We travelled all over the country in a big van, even heading across to France, to collect vintage furniture – which I really loved. I’m from a fashion design background and always wanted to add a bit more of a design element to the business, so we expanded into interiors and furnishings – and then I went on to have three children (now aged 9, 14 and 16) and to be honest I couldn’t continue lifting and carrying chests of drawers and wardrobes!
How did you diversify?
We started selling different products, so we were the first people to sell Cambridge Satchels for instance. Then we became the biggest stockist of Cath Kidston outside of London, which was amazing. We moved to bigger premises on St Mary’s Passage and had a floor dedicated entirely to Cath Kidston. Obviously, they then came to Cambridge and opened their own shop, so we lost them, but that was fine – and I think that’s the beauty of independents – that we can be really adaptable. That’s what we’ve had to do with the pandemic, and that’s what makes independents good, different and interesting.
Your strapline is ‘gifts for interesting people’; what inspires your choices?
The products have to be unique, which is harder and harder with the age of the internet, but if they are available in a big store, we don’t want them – and we try to buy British, where we can. We sell everything from unusual door knockers to beautiful leather rucksacks, including accessories, homeware, children’s products, and jewellery. Our current bestseller is our 100 per cent cotton towelling-lined dressing grown.
How did your sister business, Ark Colour Design, come about?
We love vibrant colour and buying British, which largely inspired our wholesale company, Ark Colour Design, which launched four years ago. Our manager Amy, who used to work for me at Ark, has a fine art degree, and we decided that because we couldn’t find enough British-made products for the right price, we would make our own. We handcraft small leather goods, such as gold-plated keyrings, purses, and clutch bags, in 20 vibrant shades, all manufactured in Scotland. The bestsellers feature cheeky motifs; our ‘boobs’ and ‘willies’ designs are bought by our international customers in their hundreds; they just make people laugh!We also do lots of bespoke ranges for the V&A and have one of the bestselling products in the Liberty stationery room. We have lots of international buyers, from as far afield as Australia, and Canada.
Do you still get passionate about finding unique products for Ark?
It is still exciting, and buying is something you really can’t teach; it’s just an instinct. We buy what we like, and that’s it! We usually source from all over the world, but currently there are no trade fairs, so we can only view international products online, which really isn’t the same. We are hoping the trade fairs return in September.
What are your hopes for the future of Ark?
I hope that the city continues to support independents. It’s really important because across our two businesses we support 14 local families, we sponsor a local football team, and during lockdown we gave goodie bags to all the paramedics in the local station. I think small businesses like us can make a difference – and that’s what it’s all about for me now; giving back.
Love Cambridge are working with Velvet Magazine to showcase some of Cambridge’s best independent businesses, read their latest issue for more local interviews like this one.
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