It’s Friday afternoon at the True Grace candle factory in Warminster, vats are full of gently melting wax and the airwaves are heady with those evocative, quintessentially English smells which have made the brand so instantly recognisable. There’s a hint of wood panelled libraries, of garden flowers, smokey fires and afternoon tea with a table laden with fruitcake – if you want to summon the shape and feel of England, you need look no further than True Grace.
Poised to launch a brand new toiletries range, True Being, just in time for Christmas, the True Grace story is one that typifies the hardworking, artisan business.
It began 22 years ago when cofounder Roger Biles found himself with a job lot of church candles left over from a Jigsaw Christmas window display. He decided to sell them to his local restaurants, one of which just happened to be Cafe Boheme in Notting Hill owned by Nick Jones in his pre Soho House, pre Babington days.
Roger says: “I realised that continuity is what you need to grow a business. If you are selling something which is being constantly consumed, in our case church candles in restaurants, then that is a good basis for founding a business.’
From early days importing church candles from Portugal and selling them at Portobello and Camden markets Roger was soon working with Liberty, Heals and Nicky Kinnaird, founder of Space NK.
True Grace was born when Roger and his wife and cofounder Philippa decided to begin manufacturing their candles themselves. From the start their emphasis was on purity and sustainability – the scented candles are made from a blend of 100% natural wax, coconut oil and ‘a secret magic ingredient’. Every batch – all handmade in the Warminster factory – is rigorously tested to ensure each candle burns cleanly and perfumes beautifully.
Arguably the Biles’s moved into home fragrance a little ahead of the curve, before the world went mad for scented candles and room diffusers. Yes Diptique was there but with products that were costly and elitist while Roger and Philippa pitched their prices at affordable luxury level – today you can still buy a True Grace candle for £25, half the price of some rival brands.
Inspired by the Wiltshire/Dorset countryside where they live and work, the Biles’s had a flair for capturing England in a way that appealed to the global market. The True Grace scents – complex, compelling, always delicious – speak for themselves but the descriptions of those fragrances instantly summon Old England.
Take the Manor collection, for example, ‘inspired by the beautiful country house, its architecture, rooms and gardens’ with fragrances which are ‘luxurious, unexpected and complex, evocative of a past time, perhaps never to return.’
Or the Curious Rose fragrance described as ‘handfuls of soft petals gathered after the rain found strewn across the lawn on a morning walk.’ A little bit Keats, a little bit Downton – this is the England that the rest of the world still hanker after. True Grace now sells to 48 countries including more unexpected places like India, Fiji and Azerbaijan.
Roger says: “Englishness is a tricky thing to pin down. To me it’s as much about craft and values as the aesthetics and we tried to bring that out in our product.’
Working at international trade shows he discovered that the English are still thought of as purveyors of craft and luxury -’everyone around the world thinks that is what we’re about.’
Today True Grace employs a staff of 35 at its Warminster HQ – making 2000 candles a day, all poured and packed by hand. The company has been emphatically green from the outset – solar panels on the factory ceiling, a gargantuan bio-mass boiler and offsetting to ensure a carbon neutral footprint.
‘Sustainability has always been important to us. We want it for the business but also for our children’s future.’
Philippa is the ‘nose’ of the business, constantly devising new fragrances or lines such as last year’s Curious range in its beautiful jewel coloured glass. Curious is more experimental, a blend of masculine and feminine, evoking Havana cigars, leather and florals. Curious No 60, for example, reminds me of an expensive aftershave, a complex fragrance with its combined notes of bergamot, lime, amber, lily, patchouli cedar and sandalwood. It is exquisite and addictive, proof that scented candles can be the perfect male gift, metrosexual or otherwise.
Roger and Philippa are also passionate about getting the presentation of their products absolutely right. The beautiful coloured glass room diffusers are styled on a Victorian apothecary jar found in a street market.
The new True Being toiletries range, which launches this month with soap, hand and body cream, shampoo and conditioner in True Grace’s signature Rose Absolute fragrance, features sleek black or white packaging (see main image above). Clever marketing this for as well as having a product that smells and feels fantastic the True Being range also looks iconic. Coming to a swanky hotel near you soon, we predict.
Roger attributes True Grace’s growth to having a team of staff who are all experts in their own area but also not being afraid to take risks.
‘What did we know about this business when we started? Absolutely nothing. We learned by trial and error. Nobody told us how to do it, you just have to get out there and give it a go.”