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The woman behind Crabtree & Evelyn…



Whenever I look at my personal heap of Crabtree & Evelyn products I have in use (which is about everyday!) I keep asking myself when was I going to get down to reviewing them on the blog. Truth is, we could be here for a while if I had to work my way through them all and I wanted to do something a little different.

And so partly selfishly (if you know me personally or have been to my home, you’ll know that I love their stuff though I can’t always afford it), I decided I should interview Crabtree & Evelyn South Africa owner & CEO Michele Higginson to find out more about her and this brand that I have come to rather accidentally love. Well, she agreed! Oh & PS if you don’t know me personally you need to know that such is my state of obsession that I had travel size Crabtree & Evelyn Hand Therapies (that’s Crabtree & Evelyn speak for hand creams) as my wedding favours – true story!

Michele is Kenyan (my new favourite African country after SA since the Ranger Odyssey by the way) but grew up in Jozi. As we sink into our seats at a coffee shop near the Hyde Park store it feels like more of a chat than an interview (we’re even having tea!) and she starts telling me about her 17 year love affair with this brand…


Michele tells the story beautifully & with enormous passion – I wish you could hear it from her & see for yourself how her eyes light up with excitement when she talks about this, her labour of love…

On how she 1st met the brand

Still in primary school, Michele tells me she visited her aunt in London and went into a Crabtree & Evelyn store for the 1st time. It was very different then, more apothecary based. She says she felt completely enchanted by the store even as a little girl & couldn’t stopping looking around.

Finding her path

Michele tells of how she schooled & matriculated in Jozi. She took a gap year and then went on to do a BCom Marketing at Wits. She signed up with one of the big firms, hated it but stuck it out. At 25, by chance she found herself in London again, standing in a Crabtree & Evelyn store and says that there & then in that moment she realised she wanted to bring the brand to South Africa.

On how she started

It took 18 months of badgering to convince the brand and banks that she should be taken seriously. The banks she said were tough and saw her as a naïve girl chasing a fairy tale. Eventually one of the big banks agreed and Michelle also went on to spend 3 months living & working in London in-store & behind the scenes getting to know the brand.

The 1st store…

Michele says she just knew that the 1st store had to be in Cape Town (her mentor incidentally was also in Cape Town which helped) and that the Waterfront made sense (it was in a different location in the mall originally to where it is today).  Convincing the Waterfront Michele says was the easy part. They were keen to have international brands at a time when (in 1996) there weren’t very many around.

Today Crabtree & Evelyn have 7 branches (& an online store) in South Africa – the only stores on the continent. They also retail via selected Stuttafords (my preference as you can get it on their 6 month interest free account) or online at Style 36 (free delivery) & Ruby Box (free delivery for orders over R300).

But who started the brand originally?

While Crabtree & Evelyn is distinctly English, I was so, so surprised to hear that it was started by:

  1. an American!
  2. a man
  3. an award-winning film producer

Mr. Harvey and his wife, whom he married in 1967, moved to Woodstock, Conn., in the early 1970s, partly to expand their gardening interests, the idea of the soap store came with them. Melded with their interest in growing flowers, herbs and other botanicals, it eventually became Crabtree & Evelyn.

Beginning as a small business run out of their home and specializing in exotic soaps from around the world — it was basically a soap distribution company, enhanced by an English-sounding name and sophisticated marketing — Crabtree & Evelyn grew to become a retail chain that sells fragrances, foods and toiletries as luxury items. By the time they sold the company in 1996, Ms. Harvey said, there were 160 stores in the United States alone. – The New York Times

Cyrus Harvey Jr is not at all who I imagined the creator of Crabtree & Evelyn would be. Tell me you didn’t picture a British middle-aged lady wearing a hat, sitting in her garden in the country side and suddenly having an epiphany over afternoon tea? Well the story goes a little differently. Cyrus, known to be eccentric and incredibly creative but not really business minded, started out selling soaps (still a key part of the Crabtree & Evelyn line up today) in the corner of this theatre. Michele tells me she was lucky enough to meet him and his corgis (over tea of course!) before he passed away in 2011.

The fastest selling product

None other than La Source Hand Therapy with one sold every 30 seconds in the world!

I’m not really surprised because I have 2 tubes in circulation right now (and probably another 2 sealed – all bought on sale). One in my handbag (travel size) and one on my bedside table (PS for best results you must try it with the Hand Recovery (a scrub) at least once/twice a week – heaven!). I’ve been trying to put my finger on an apt description of its scent for a while & I’ve decided: La Source smells like a seaside vacation…

Michele on another occasion once told me that the La Source line up is so big for Crabtree & Evelyn that they could probably warrant it having its own store – imagine!

Her 3 favourite products

“Ooh, that’s hard question” she says

“I know, that’s why I’m asking” I reply and I tell her to take her time while in my head I’m try to guess what she’s going to say…

These are in no particular order she points out like a mom ensuring she doesn’t choose a favourite child and I love that she’s already mentioned 4 when I asked for 3. And then she adds a 5th: their jams (made from fruit grown in their own orchids) 🙂

The Tea Room

In my ignorance (or maybe just in my fantasies to be fair) I imagined there were dozens of Crabtree & Evelyn Tea Rooms around the world, most especially in the UK. Crazy, but the one in Design Quarter is the only one in the world. And suddenly I need a humongous scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream!

Keeping up

I mentioned earlier that I stumbled across the Crabtree brand rather accidentally. Well a few years ago my husband got me a (La Source!) gift set. Michele tells me that it’s a very common story and that so many customers have come into the Crabtree & Evelyn fold in that exact way.

When they started in SA in 17 years ago, the brand was ahead of its time but Michele admits that there’s some catching up to be done now. With the brand venturing into face care, hair care, nail polishes and investing more in mens grooming over the coming months, someone needs to keep my credit card far, far away from me…

I leave almost 2 hours and 4 cups of tea later and a whole lot more in love with Crabtree & Evelyn than when I arrived…


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