Simple, natural and confident, Heal’s SS20 collection is the closest the retailer has yet come to meeting consumer demand, says its upholstery lead, senior buyer Kris Manalo, in conversation with Paul Farley …

Although cabinet furniture isn’t far behind, upholstery remains Heal’s biggest department. As we speak, revenue is up +12% YoY – a remarkable achievement given the economy, and a sign that the 210-year-old business has lost none of its verve.  

Heal’s SS20 collection speaks volumes about the brand’s values. Natural, sustainable themes permeate a line-up of organic shapes, stripped-back palettes and understated craft. This latest evolution is warm and tactile, yet modestly assured – not unlike its creator.

With buying roles at Habitat, Tom Dixon and The White Company behind her, Kris fulfilled a lifelong ambition to join Heal’s in April 2016, and quickly made her mark. 

“When I joined, the upholstery range comprised plenty of well-made, traditional models – but they all just seemed to cater for a certain type of middle-aged customer,” says Kris. “There were lots of greys and blues!”

She immediately set about making “tweaks and changes”, travelling to Milan to propose a collaboration with designer Russell Pinch “over ice cream and tea” – which resulted in Wallis, a sleek, compact sofa with a feminine touch. 

“[Ambrose] Heal’s maxim was ‘if in doubt, innovate’,” Kris explains. “So we did.”

Wallis, in fabric by One Night Eight Five

One year on, Heal’s AW17 line featured Matera. Kris designed and delivered this premium leather contemporary model – sales of which were just shy of £1m in its first year alone (it remains a bestseller). 

That launch also featured the simple yet flexible Richmond. “The promo photo reflected pure opulence, and had Richmond against a teal background,” says Kris. “It really resonated. It was shared widely (so Instagrammable!) – and inspired our competitors the following season.”

Heal’s was entering a new creative era, with Kris among the architects. “We came from a land of greys and safe, reliable colours, to having a voice and making a statement,” she reflects.

Forever young

Yet consumer tastes (and trends) rarely stand still for long, and some disconnect remained between Heal’s and the wider audience. 

“Despite our progress, we were still missing much of the Millennial target market,” says Kris. “Like all good retail, it comes down to listening to your customers, and understanding who they are. This age group appreciates design (some of their demands were covered by our concession partners, but not so much by our core range).

“Our customers also want quality, and are willing to invest a little bit more. Many will come in-store with a budget in mind, then be so impressed when they see a model in situ that they trade up – it’s an emotive thing. But we always try to reach out to people that aspire to Heal’s vision, but may not be quite there, budget-wise.”

Kris feels that Heal’s has addressed the demands of younger shoppers better than ever in its SS20 collection, which speaks to the need to achieve comfort in smaller spaces (embracing the growing rental market), and champions sustainability – by employing FSC-certified timber and 100% recycled yarns on the updated Mistral sofa, for example.

“The throwaway culture concerns me,” she says. “If you’re going to bring a piece of furniture into the world, it needs to be built beautifully, and stand the test of time. A lot of our customers would rather save up for something they’ll particularly love and cherish than buy into fast fashion.

Heal’s Mistral has been updated for today’s consumer with Designers Guild’s Tejo, a 100% recycled fabric

“Sustainability is more than a trend, it’s here to stay – and we’re continually asking ourselves how we can address the subject in a more mindful way. Mistral was always successful (mid-century styling really delivers in every area we stand for), it just needed reinterpretation.”

Offering a fresh line of fabrics – including smart velvets, smart linens and recycled yarns – the SS20 collection not only offers more flexible pricing, but fills the gaps within Heal’s range, believes Kris, and reinforces that the retailer “really understands what people are after. We are constantly working to meet our customers’ needs”.

Talent show

Kris’ creative/commercial skillset didn’t come about by accident. She studied printed textile design at Middlesex University, before honing her craft at Conran, where she managed the brand licensing design team and would engage in inspirational group sketching sessions. 

As outlined in our interview with Heal’s CEO Hamish Mansbridge in last September’s issue, the business encourages its buyers to fulfil the design role when possible, and to trust their instincts when shaping an offer – and this approach suits Kris just fine.

“There’s no design department at Heal’s,” she says, “but that lets the buying team be a bit more flexible. There’s this illusion of a massive buying team, but it’s actually really small – yet there are so many opportunities. We’re all happy to roll up our sleeves and get involved in different parts of the business.

“In-house – working closely with Sabina [Miller, head of buying] – I’ll propose a strategy based on market trends, and formulate a fit, shape and price point.”

Although Kris will then design many of the models herself, collaboration is commonplace. Heal’s famously works with some of the best in the business (Russell Pinch, Matthew Hilton  and Rob Scarlett are just some of the creatives behind the collections) to develop lines that reflect its values. 

Kris also name-checks Lucy Kurrein, the London-based designer behind Heal’s Isola chairs. “Lucy has a fantastic attitude to design and innovation,” she affirms. “She’s worked with the likes of Matthew Hilton and SCP, but she’s so unassuming and humble. It’s great working with her.”

And Kris is always on the look-out for fresh talent and further collaborations. As well as scouring the likes of imm cologne, London Design Festival and Milan (“the main fair is a bit of a monster, I prefer to check out the satellite shows”) for fabrics and emerging trends, Kris likes attending those smaller events which give up-and-coming designers a step up. 

Matera chaise

“I get a real buzz out of attending events like the Royal College of Art (RCA) graduate summer show,” she says. “They’re great for building design partnerships, and uncovering the seeds of something materially innovative. I love working with new designers to develop commercial products.”

Many of these emerge through Heal’s Discovers, a showcase which takes place during London Design Festival each year, and tasks a select group of young designers to create models for production (and eventual sale). The initiative has helped the retailer recruit some noteworthy talent over the years – including Russell Pinch, Kirsty Whyte and Tom Raffield.

Making friends

To realise these designs, Heal’s draws on a relatively small supplier base. In upholstery, Kris works with a handful of British and Italian manufacturers.

“It’s best to keep supply focused,” she says. “We like to work with companies that share our core values, are honest yet flexible, and are in it for the long run. Of course, we’re always mindful of the volumes that we do with each, and of putting all our eggs in one basket. I’m always looking for new opportunities – they’ve just got to be right for our long-term strategy.

“Our dream scenario is being able to work together on every aspect of development, from concept and production to market. 

“They have to be sympathetic to what we’re trying to achieve. Our designs all feature a nod to British and Italian contemporary, and traditional classic style. They’re quietly confident, with discreet luxury elements and little design details that ensure differentiation. Quality runs through everything, and will never be sacrificed in the name of price.

“Ultimately, everything we do has the Heal’s touch – and I don’t think it’s ever been more closely aligned with what people want.”