Coco de Mer founder Sam Roddick talks to Kat Slowe about her charity work, her plans to develop the business and her relationship with her mother, Body Shop entrepreneur, Anita Roddick.
I want to be the good and I want to be the bad,” says Sam Roddick, founder of ‘erotic emporium,’ Coco de Mer, and daughter of former Body Shop icon – and activist – Dame Anita Roddick.
Roddick’s business, Coco de Mer, currently operates a website and two central London stores. Founded in 2001, it is notorious for selling high end erotic lingerie, accessories and apothecary products.
It has not been an easy decade for Roddick, whose mother died in 2007. Despite a growth in turnover year-on-year, her company was reported to be struggling in 2009, necessitating a cash injection of almost £200,000 from her father to cover losses. But it still comes as a surprise to discover that the Coco de Mer offices are situated in a house basement, just around the corner from Hampstead Heath overground.
As she sits at a table, tea clutched in hand, Roddick’s finances do not appear to concern her – indeed, she appears to have far more important things onher mind. For, while she does enjoy the pleasures that money brings, Roddick – like her mother – is a fervent campaigner.
“It just has to be balanced,” she explains. “I want my Alexander McQueen shoes without slavery. Not much to ask for. I want my mobile phone. I am going to buy my mobile phone… Just don’t include the rape.”
Successful campaigns of Roddick’s include convincing Camden Council not to license burlesque, which could have forced fans of the dance to attend strip clubs, and a battle to end sex trafficking.
But Roddick’s next fight could be her biggest yet. This year, she is set to take on the mobile phone and electronic companies, as she seeks to improve the social conditions of people living in the Congo.
She says: “There are certain minerals that are in our mobile phones and electronics, which create the heartbeat of the telephone. And those minerals that sort of make it whirl around, and pulse, and pump, are attached to the Congo.”
According to Roddick, illegal armies are flooding the borders of the rainforest, which is the size of Western Europe. She claims that whole communities are being destroyed and are seeing their natural resources pillaged.
“Women and men, and children, are all being raped, because rape is cheaper than bullets,” Roddick alleges. “That is what is going in our mobile phones.”
Coco de Mer’s campaign arm Bondage for Freedom will be launching a big movement to try and raise awareness, and to change legislation in the EU regarding how corporations trade with these mineral companies. Though part of the business, Coco de Mer’s campaigns are not designed to drives sales but reflect Roddick’s driving passion to create positive change in society.
“It doesn’t drive sales but it does drive loyalty – I hope,” says Roddick. “But, I don’t know. Sometimes people are just into spanking, aren’t they? They are not into spanking politicians or spanking themselves. I am sure it is a lot more to do with me than how it benefits the business.”
In running a business with an ethical dimension, Roddick is following in the footsteps of her mother, the beloved Anita Roddick. Anita founded the Body Shop, a cosmetics company producing and retailing beauty products that shaped ethical consumerism. The company is often touted as the first to prohibit testing on animals and to promote fair trade in third world countries. Much of what Roddick has done was inspired by her mother, but she explains that her parents, who built a business were often very contradictory in their advice.
“Both my parents,” she says, “because they built a business together, completely differed in their advice. But somewhere between the contradictions lies the truth. Design and finance always have to battle – if you don’t have that tension, you have got something seriously going wrong.”
Roddick claims that she never rebelled against her parents or their political views. However, as a dyslexic with a natural creative bent, her attitude towards education was a different matter.
“I was very rebellious at school because I actually thought it was a load of crap,” she says, “I was so dyslexic, I was bored.”
Roddick’s greatest moment of rebellion, she reveals, was running off to Vancouver, Canada, to be a Freegan. For those not familiar with the term, a Freegan is someone who rejects material goods and essentially lives on ‘nothing’. Roddick obtained food from organic shops, which at the time gave away their out-of-date stock for free. She bartered for essential items or bought them from money made by selling objects she found in dumpsters.
“You live your life out of urban hunting and gathering,” Roddick says. “Each household has like huge skips, so you have four houses joined together to have one skip and that’s basically where you put your junk. So, if you go to very wealthy areas in Vancouver, you can get furniture and new crockery sets, because rich people don’t tend to give to charity, they tend to chuck it in the bin.
“That is what I found in Vancouver. I got a photo enlarger that cost thousands. We sold that. It was like the Generation Game. You could make quite a lot of cash off it. You could sell it for cash and get a few of the basics, but you are not engaged in earning a wage in that sense, because you are living off refuse.”
While she lived in Vancouver, Roddick got heavily involved in grass roots campaigning, focussing on various anarchic movements. However, her attachment to the cause quickly waned after she became disillusioned with the attitudes of her fellow activists. Roddick’s background caused her to view with disfavour their blanket hatred of the establishment, which she considered was unwarranted in its narrow outlook.
“After a while, it was quite interesting because it was almost so left it became politically right,” she describes. “The groups that I was kind of on the fringe with, they were very polarised in their opinions, like ‘every banker is a bastard’, whereas I know bankers who are really good people… They were deeply narrow minded and deeply judgemental, and deeply ran their social circles with a lot of fear.”
“It ended up with the same degrees of taboos shifted in a different place, as you would in a very, very conservative, Christian, Bush republican kind of community. And you just thought, ‘forget this, I am so liberal,’ and I shifted my politics quite majorly.”
Roddick’s parents were very supportive of her plan to set up her own business. Before launching Coco de Mer, she hosted a kind of ‘experiential’ party in order to introduce people to the concepts and obtain market research. Her display included a variety of sex toys and sensual boxes that you put your hands and feet into.
“My mum, she like found it hysterical,” Roddick says. “I invited my grandmother. So my grandmother was like 85 years old going, ‘oh my god, I don’t understand this, this is disgusting’… My mother was just like, ‘I love this,’ because obviously she had taught me well, how to break taboos but transform it in a way where you take people to a loving place.
“My dad is equally saucy to my mum. He just loves taking his mates in there and laughing at their reaction. He has bought half the shop, which I am in denial about.”
Business is now performing well and not just because Roddick’s dad has bought up half the stock. Lingerie, which makes up the company’s largest category at 20 percent, has seen significant growth, with sales at the Draycott Avenue store in South Kensinton up by 17 percent so far this year. Roddick has plans to further expand the Coco de Mer’s own brand offering and will be launching a new bridal collection in January next year.
The entrepreneur will be opening a new store in Santa Barbara, California (where her sister lives), in August. She also has plans to expand her online presence, evolving the website eventually into a ‘living museum’ for sexual liberation and a ‘voice that people can gain access to’. In addition, loungewear will be making a return to the store this year with the re-introduction of Coco de Mer’s kimonos.
It is astonishing, though perhaps significant, to discover that in the decade she has been operating the business, Roddick has received almost no complaints over the nature of her company. Other than two complaints in South Kensington, made on religious grounds after a nun was placed in a shop window, reception has overall been positive. Roddick has her own theory to explain this.
“Most narrow minded people still have sex,” she says, “and they are still entertained by it. They are probably having more sex than liberal people who probably get more offended by sex. They will be thinking, ‘should I be spanking? Is that an act of violence?’ Whereas, somebody right wing is going ‘yes sir, no sir’, which is my theory of why there are so many Tory MPs in our shops. We have them all… and policemen…”