A story of textile trade accounts & pattern books

A tough part of starting out as an interior designer is finding suppliers and setting up trade accounts. How do you find reputable suppliers for textiles and once you’ve found them, how do you get an account and, with any luck, a juicy trade discount?​

I had a horrible experience when I first set-up on my own as an interior designer.

There was a particular textile supplier that I wanted to have an account with. I contacted the sales manager for my area, and we scheduled a date for him to visit. I was excited to meet my local rep and decide on the pattern books that I would buy for my very own design practice. It felt like such a big step. 

But two days before our meeting, the rep sent an email to say he couldn’t meet with me. No explanation. This was not a postponement, he was cancelling. I felt a bit panicked. How could I use the fabrics, and run a business, if he wouldn’t meet with me?

The hidden workings & politics of trade accounts were about to become clear to me.

I managed to get hold of my rep on the telephone. It transpired that an ex-boss (a local Interior Designer) had contacted all of the trades and suppliers she knew and told them not to work with me. I was gob smacked.

As a young business starting out this really knocked me sideways. Ironically, whereas previously I had just wanted to bring in a little business on the side, it lit a fire under me, and made me determined to make an enormous success of my business – so I suppose, in the end, she did me a favour.

What I learnt from this experience is that, if there is an interiors showroom or an interior designer in close proximity to you, you may not be able to set-up a trade account with your chosen textile supplier.

I have never really understood this approach. It would be like a greengrocer only supplying one restaurant in a street. Surely it is what the chef does with the fruit and veg that makes a restaurant stand-out and attracts the customers? Shouldn’t we all at least start out with the same raw ingredients?

I understand that interior showrooms spend a lot of money on pattern books, and this should be reflected in them receiving a better trade discount, a recognition of their commitment to the brand, and in this way giving them a competitive edge. However, to not allow anyone else in the vicinity to have a trade account has always seemed bonkers to me.

So, how does it work?

As a potential new account, you would need to speak to the rep for your area, who would check whether there were any other businesses operating in your locality.

You need a trade reference (or 3) to set up an account. When you are starting out the first account is often the hardest – as who do you use as a reference for them?!!

In my experience it is much easier to get an account with a furniture or flooring company, or a paint supplier (such as an account at a Dulux Decorator Centre or Brewers store). You can then use these companies as a reference when setting up textile accounts who can be trickier.

Many suppliers will start you on a proforma agreement until you have built up a credit history with them. Suppliers will sometimes, but not always, require some commitment on pattern books or offer a book club scheme.

Don’t be disheartened. Not every brand is closed off to new accounts and it is often down to the discretion of the local rep. If you can, meet with a rep in person at a trade show or exhibition. Book an appointment ahead of the event and spend a decent amount of time with them. If they understand that you, and your business, are serious, they will be much more open to you having an account. This is where a professional website and business cards come in handy.

Even if you can’t get an account, I have never had a supplier refuse to sell me something! If you want to use a brand where you don’t have a trade account, approach them once you have a fabric purchase in mind for a project, and at the point of ordering ask if you can have a trade discount.

Initially, this might not be the full whack, but it will be a start. Once you have placed business with a company, they are more open to you having a trade account in the future and getting a better trade discount.

Maintain a good relationship with your local rep, ask them to visit you and show you the new ranges, or visit them in the showroom. Keep your rep updated on potential new projects and you may soon find that their discretion falls in your favour. It’s all about building healthy business relationships.

But do you need pattern books at all?

I definitely thought when I started out that I needed to have a studio full of pattern books to be a ‘professional’ interior designer.

Starting out, I worked for an Interior Designer who held pattern books for about everyone from Ian Mankin, Panaz, Harlequin, Linwood, Prestigious Textiles, Romo, Warwick – all the mainstream suppliers. One of the highlights of working for her was when the reps would come in and show us the new collections, and she’d order all the new pattern books. I was a little bit in awe. 

So, when I eventually set-up on my own, one of my first tasks was to establish my own samples library. This is where I made some early, expensive, mistakes. 

I got very carried away when I met the Harlequin sales rep. This is the brand that I saw most often advertised in magazines and felt getting an account with them signified my professional status! A store had recently closed down, and Harlequin had taken the pattern books back – and the rep offered me a whole host of books at reduced price which I took with glee!

My keenness was also fuelled by the previous experience of not even being able to even set-up a meeting with an alternative textile supplier!

I was a ‘proper’ interior designer now with all these pattern books (in my spare bedroom, not a studio!). I ended up with a lot of collections that really weren’t suited to my style – and wallpaper books that were so massive my small bedroom office space was becoming overrun. An expensive mistake.

Actually, as it turns out, it’s paying clients that make you a professional interior designer, not pattern books.

It’s important to have access to the fabrics and trade discounts that you will use, but give serious consideration to what you really need, and what suits your aesthetic. And, if you want to buy pattern books, start small.

I like having pattern books in my studio – it’s very much part of my design process but we all work differently. You do NOT need to have pattern books to run a successful Interior Design business. I know lots of Interior Designers who don’t have them.

If you are close to somewhere that you can source (such as The Design Centre at Chelsea Harbour) then a trip there to look around the showrooms and call in all of the samples you want is an excellent day out! It’s worth a trip there too if you are considering which brands you want to open accounts with. Get a feel for the show rooms and different collections.

Another alternative to holding pattern books yourself is visiting your local Brewers Decorating centre – the bigger branches hold fabric and pattern books and can be a good opportunity to source and look at fabrics in person.

Many companies WILL let you set up a trade account without buying pattern books. I have a Cole & Cole (wallpaper) account for instance and don’t have any pattern books. I browse the website and call-in samples for each specific project and then purchase pro-forma.

If you move into Commercial design the situation changes. You will find that companies that supply contract fabrics & wallpapers, such as Panaz, Agua, Camira and Tektura, will give you the pattern books for free.