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Arts + Lifestyle

From The Desk Of… Suzie de Rohan Willner, CEO Of TOAST

CEO of TOAST, Suzie de Rohan Willner joins us for the latest edition of From The Desk Of…

Launching in 1997 as a small, Wales-based pyjama company, today, TOAST has become a go-to for well-crafted and thoughtful homewares and fashion pieces. At its helm, steering the brand on its circular journey, is CEO, Suzie de Rohan Willner (who has previously held senior positions at Timberland, amongst other notable companies).

We sat down with de Rohan Willner to discuss slow fashion, longevity, and influential figures.

How do you start your days?

I usually wake at 6AM and try to start the day with yoga or quiet meditation, which I have not entirely mastered yet! I take a quick hot/cold shower followed by a body brush as this sets me up for the day, before I take our dog Boots for a brisk walk. Breakfast is a chance to catch up with the family and I am responsible for laying the table. My mother lives with us and I enjoy using this time to chat with her before we all start our day. We might complete the crossword together but struggle to finish in under 20 minutes.

What’s your go-to uniform?

My style is relaxed and easy. I mostly buy clothes that look and feel effortlessly structured yet comfortable. I often wear TOAST from head to toe. My everyday style is a staple such as a loungewear trouser paired with an oversized linen shirt and a kimono-style jacket on top in ikat or double-faced cotton I have kept some of these pieces for years – I just take any clothes in need of repair to our free repair service TOAST Renewal when they need it and this gives them a new lease of life.

Describe your workspace/ workplace…

I split my time between my home in Oxfordshire where I moved to during lockdown, the TOAST design studio in Highbury, north London, and our offices in Wales. I also enjoy visiting our TOAST shops, the closest to me being Oxford.

Identify something in your workspace that’s special to you (and why)…

At home, I work surrounded by craft which inspires me throughout my day. I particularly like a clay vase created by Viv Lee, one of our New Makers alumni, an initiative we run that supports five talented craftspeople each year. Seeing their creations reminds me of the huge effort that goes into the craft pieces we offer.

What are your work place essentials? 

I keep an array of coloured pens in my Ali Hewson pot, and framed family photos close by. A big pile of books has held my laptop up until recently when I upgraded to a laptop stand. I was quite sad to see them go. There are usually fresh flowers from the garden on my desk too, placed there by mum. And of course, my number one work companion, my dog Boots, who is usually resting by my feet.

What is your go-to lunch order? 

If I’m at my home in Oxfordshire my mother puts lunch on the table, a soup usually or a big salad. When I’m at the studio in Highbury I usually grab lunch on the go. I am partial to a Pret sandwich (aren’t we all?).

What time of day are you at your most creative?

I’m a morning person, so for me the earlier the better. I’ve learnt that nothing truly inspired will come out of me past 6PM.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Working with such a talented and motivated team, and helping them develop their careers, is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Getting to meet our makers and the craftspeople behind the TOAST brand is something I also love. We nurture young and up-and-coming talent too through our New Makers programme which provides a platform for young creatives. It’s always rewarding to see them thrive.

… and the most challenging?

TOAST has always honoured the importance of timeless design and quality, long-lasting garments. However, global clothing consumption continues to rise. We are exploring new ways to collaborate with our mills and dyers and more sustainable methods of making.

We also strive to keep our collections tight so we avoid waste and over production. The team come up with so many beautiful designs and it can be incredibly hard to cut, but it is critical.

What did you study at school/university? 

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 France for much of my life after that.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Surrey, but I grew up in London, Berkshire, and France.

What was your first job?

My first job was as a receptionist. I had an amazing boss who noticed I was doing a good job and gave me an opportunity in sales. From there it’s been a winding path to CEO.

What sparked your interest in slow fashion?

My work at Levi Strauss. When you buy a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans you keep them. They’re archival pieces. Works of art. It really gave me a deep appreciation for quality products and longevity in design.

Do you have a mentor or an inspirational figure who has guided or influenced you? 

I am constantly inspired by Pinky Lilani CBE DL – a food guru, author, motivational speaker, and internationally acclaimed champion for women. She founded the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and the Women of the Future Awards, Summit, Network, and Ambassadors Programme.

What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome in the early days as CEO of TOAST?

I wanted to shift the much-loved brand to become more globally resonant – while still speaking to every generation.

What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned?

That if you concentrate on your team and your customer, success will follow.

The best advice you’ve ever received… 

Admittedly I didn’t receive this, but 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.”

What are you working on right now? 

We’re always looking at new ways to reduce waste, as well as reusing our archive of materials and making them available to creatives. I was so excited to see the result of this at Somerset House for the exhibition Eternally Yours – there are so many inspiring pieces on display from artists who have reused TOAST fabrics in unique ways, from sculptural furniture and reconstructed garments to repaired ceramics and kantha-stitched textiles.

What’s next for TOAST?

At TOAST, we try to think outside the box and work in tandem with our customers to live a more conscious and thoughtful lifestyle. We have been making great strides in the sustainability space, but there’s always room to improve. Next year, we will be looking at more creative ways to extend a garment’s life beyond its first wearer and we are intending for 80% of our cotton to be organic. We are also finding ways to make our process even more transparent, by tracing where our fabrics come from right down to the raw materials. We are also looking forward to opening our New Makers scheme again for the fifth year this autumn.

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