OKA's new flagship store in Chelsea

Katie Law meets the entrepreneurial trio behind multi-million-pound business OKA as they open its biggest store to date
They come across as upper-class ladies who lunch. You know the sort - pushing 60, looking good, with gracious manners and the confidence that their class brings, along with family homes in the country, dogs to walk and flats in London.

Annabel Astor, Sue Jones and Lucinda Waterhouse are three such ladies - except they don't have much time to lunch.

Energetic and entrepreneurial, they run the multi-million-pound business OKA, and this month are opening its flagship store - a colossal 14,000sq ft over three floors in the Fulham Road.

Here they will display the complete range of their successful homeware in room sets: from Girl About Town and Oxford Town House to Scottish Lodge. The idea is to encourage their time-poor customers - of either sex - to come and see the look in situ and buy the lot at reasonable prices without risk of getting it wrong.

'We wanted big sofas that would fold to get through narrow doors, space-saving dining tables that would extend'

This week they can be seen dressed in overalls, unpacking cardboard boxes, stacking and joking as only old close friends and relatives can (Jones is married to Astor's brother).

Astor may be the chief executive and ringleader but she insists the business is run democratically. All three certainly have business cred: in 1967 Astor set up her own jewellery business, Annabel Jones, in Knightsbridge; Waterhouse, a horticulturalist, ran a business selling upmarket fake flowers and Jones worked for 10 years with designer Jasper Conran.

Lucinda Waterhouse, Annabel Astor and Sue Jones
Lucinda Waterhouse (left), Annabel Astor (standing) and Sue Jones have jointly made OKA a success
Astor and Waterhouse also have grown-up children. Astor, who has been married twice, has five - including Sam Cam, of course - while Waterhouse has two sons. Grown-up their children may be, but these women remain enthusiastic home makers. The original idea for OKA grew out of their search for better solutions at home.

"We couldn't find the furniture we wanted - big sofas that would fold in half to get through narrow doors, space-saving dining tables that would extend (their Petworth dining table seats 18 and is a best-seller at £1,439), slimmer dining chairs to squeeze in a crowd (the £153 Echo chair is another top seller)." So they pooled their money to start a mail-order business.

A couple of years ago, they went through the financial fire and sold a majority shareholding to FF&P Private Equity. Today, turnover is £14 million a year and they send out a million catalogues.

The OKA look relies on a clever mix of traditional colours - deep reds and soft beiges - with sleek finishes and practicalities such as easy-to-wash slip covers, while the popular Chinoiserie range (which includes the new £995 Peking TV cabinet) hints at being heirloom inheritance. Bold colour is also a new direction for the brand.

The target audience is aged 35-plus, while the average spend is £260 - although, says Astor, "many of our customers buy complete room sets for second homes or their London flats".

Pink and yellow small bowl, £16
Pink and yellow small bowl, £16
And, of course, the OKA ladies have London flats, too - in Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Fulham. "We live the life, so we know what we're selling," says the PM's mother-in-law briskly.

The young and upwardly mobile want the look, too. "We're doing a lot of bachelor flats; after all we're not too frilly or feminine." Home life continues to play a big part in their lives. Astor jokes that her son and his wife have moved back in with her while their own house is being finished. Nor are husbands left out. The new shop has a "Bored Husbands area" where they will be able to sit on comfy sofas with the papers and coffee.

OKA, 155-165 Fulham Road, SW3 (020 7581 2574). Opens on September 27, 2010. For a free OKA catalogue, call 0844 815 7380 and quote HPES910.

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