LONDON—Five years ago, Kentucky-born London-based Jennifer Manners founded her eponymous design company focusing on luxurious bespoke rugs made in India and Nepal. She has experienced quite a lot of success during the past five years, and has attracted high-profile clients including car aficionado Jeremy Clarkson and actors James Purefoy and Sheila Hancock as well the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport and the Cranleigh School in Abu Dhabi. She was inspired to make a career change in her early 40s in part because of a yearlong design course she had recently taken at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins as well as a short course in Photoshop at the Putney School of Design. For some years, the mother of two young children had worked part-time as a journalist for outlets like the Associated Press but the erratic hours of breaking news and a desire to be her own boss were the catalysts for change. “I only learned I was creative when I took that course,” she said, adding that she designs all of her rugs on Photoshop. The trip to India and Nepal to find suppliers for her handmade rugs was also an inspiration. While there, she realized that not only would the suppliers provide beautifully weaved works for her clients but she would also be helping give work to talented weavers in Nepal (where the hand-knotted rugs are made with Himalayan wool) and India (where the tufted and flatweave rugs are made from New Zealand wool). Ms. Manners recently met with Ginanne Brownell Mitic in her Kensington showroom to discuss not only inspiring stories from her travels but also lessons learned from starting her own business. EXCERPTS:
MANNERS: In Nepal in general, they use a Tibetan knot and that suits contemporary design. So I knew I wanted to do contemporary design. If they had also done flatweaves and tufted rugs, I would have done everything there. In Nepal, it is supporting this bit of an immigrant community of Tibetans who have lived for some generations. It is so peaceful and lovely there. In India, it is completely different as it is an enormous multi-billion-dollar industry.
Tell me about the weavers you use who hand knot these rugs?
Nepal is such a poor country and there is real value in those jobs. And people are proud to go to work and it is backbreaking. These weavers have passed down their knowledge through the generations. The supplier we use has particular interest in providing jobs in an effort to improve the country. He looks after his weavers. There is no free education in Nepal so he pays for the children to be educated and he also offers childcare for the weavers. And I think that was really appealing to work with a company like that.
You came to the bespoke rug business from a completely different career but I assume your journalist research powers were of benefit to find suppliers to work with?
It did take a lot of research on my part. With any industry, there is a jargon associated with it and I made sure I had that jargon that would be respected and intelligible to them. But at the same time, particularly in Nepal, they were really patient and helped to educate me. And it was really down to the Internet to start. When you look at organizations like Good Weave, they have a list of suppliers so that was a starting point. For me entering this field and being small, I needed someone in those countries who were in a similar position to me. So I have narrowed down the list, went to Kathmandu and met with them.
You create the designs and then work with the clients to come up with color schemes and sizes. Was it important for you as a designer to know a bit about the provenance of these rugs and pass that along to clients?
For me interest around the backstory is natural— it’s a journalist curiosity and part of what makes anything exciting. For example, my supplier in Nepal has a married couple who are two of their best weavers but they only want to work together because if they are going to be weaving for eight hours a day, they want to be together. So he will say to me, “they are coming up for availability, if you can get your order to me in this timeframe I can get the couple on it.” We will often, if the customer is interested, send them photos of their rug as it is being made and the people who are making it. Each piece down to the centimeter has been made just for you. It is special for that reason, it is truly bespoke.
As a woman how are you regarded when you go on work trips to India and Nepal?
The idea that I am a woman, well, it does not register to them in Nepal, [at] least in the rug industry. There is a sense —and being six feet tall I tower over them— they are so grateful. In India, I find I am respected a lot more if I travel with my brother, who has gone with me before. I am taken a little bit more seriously. They do these rug shows twice a year and walking around the show it is a completely different feeling. There is just this undertone that can be uncomfortable.
I hope [in India and Nepal] they will evolve with women’s rights. But when things like this do happen I will stop to explain how it is in my country. The more they can learn from our approach to women’s rights then it might help them. I tell them that the men in my life think it is a brilliant idea that I have my own business. That being said, I deal with almost no women in India. When I am invited into the home in India I am treated like a man in that I am waited on. And I am well regarded by women, a respect that I am doing business.
What advice would you have for women who want to go into business, maybe even making a mid-life career change as you did?
I do believe strongly in the phrase “you are not given the dream without the ability to make it come true.” I did not spend years researching how to do this business or doing a lot of analysis on it. I did it because I loved it and I wanted to do it. I did not think that much about whether it would work. But if you do something you love, it works in some way. Whether or not it is a financial success, it is a success in some way—I profoundly believe that.
All photos copyright Jennifer Manners Design