Having been immersed in luxury PR for, oooh, ages, Jo McGivern knows the good life when she sees it.There’s only so many press releases and launch parties a girl can take, however, so finding that she had no time to look for the luxuries, gadgets and trinkets she loved, she decided to set up her own company. Together with Red magazine’s Amanda Fox, Jo created The Handpicked Collection, an online emporium of expertly selected goodies, each one picked by her panel of tastemakers and trendspotters (including Smith’s own Juliet Kinsman). We sat down with Jo to get the lowdown on the Collection’s highlights, her top travel tips, and her favourite boutique hotels…
Tell us what made you give up your life in luxury PR to set up The Handpicked Collection.
It was a combination of things. I loved working in luxury-travel public relations, but after 10 years was ready for a new challenge. As a mother with young children, I was finding it difficult to find time to shop for presents and I found myself using mail order and online outlets – and discovered that there could be such a thing as too much choice. With my PR background I knew people read magazines and newspapers for advice on what they should be buying or wearing. I decided to apply this principle of edited content to a gift catalogue and website.
I think the idea that kick-started Mr & Mrs Smith is very similar. There are hundreds of sites out there that allow you to book any hotel under the sun, but we were one of the first to realise that there are people out there who prefer to browse a curated collection of stylish hotels with guaranteed quality than be confronted with pages and pages of unedited listings. Smith also aims to be different by offering trustworthy recommendations, irreverent reviews, and personalised service; what makes The Handpicked Collection different from other online giftshops?
Everything we feature has been vetted by a panel of experts. They’re all lifestyle journalists or industry insiders whose job it is to spot the trends. They know what they’re talking about, which means we only stock really great products.
Sounds as though you could easily be describing our panel of hotel reviewers. Each of them is a trendspotter or setter of some description, and we use their opinions of the hotels they visit to ensure that each boutique hotel in the Smith collection ticks all the boxes for style, service and that extra-special something. What qualities does an item have to have to get into your catalogue?
Everything has to be unusual, stylish or just the best example of its kind. We don’t want to sell anything that will just gather dust in a cupboard. We also like quirky things, such as our slate cheeseboard you can personalise with chalk, or our fabulous shopper made from antique linen grainsacks.
I’ve got a few of the stars of your kitchen collection tucked away in my drawers – a couple of the coloured knives and the seemingly invulnerable silicon oven glove for example – and I strongly believe the one-handed colander may be the greatest invention of our time. What’s your favourite item in your catalogue at the moment?
I’ve always loved the photo tray – a smart tray and frame combined. The funky Freud ball-shaped teapot is ultra efficient and turns teatime into trend time – just as practical but a world away from knitted cosies! London in a Bag is my favourite children’s product, a playset in a linen bag depicting the capital’s best-known landmarks.
For infant civil engineers, presumably. The Handpicked Collection’s still quite young too – what future plans do you have for the company?
In the long-term we would like to apply the Handpicked concept to lots of different areas. I’d love to start a wedding list service full of gorgeous goodies to supplement the couple’s main list. The corporate gift world also needs shaking up – no one needs another boring business card holder…
…or any more monogrammed stress balls. Another coincidence: we launched the Smith wedding list service quite recently too – have you swiped our business plan? I’m joking, of course, but it seems like the Handpicked Collection is shaping up to be the Mr & Mrs Smith of the gift world. So what’s your favourite hotel and what do you like about it?
We like High Road House, Chiswick. It’s very grown-up but there are plenty of families there at weekends enjoying a laid-back brunch. I like Turnberry in Scotland too, for the golf, views, huge rooms and great food.
I’m pleased you chose High Road House – not only is it one of our favourite London hotels, it also happens to be the closest to Smith HQ. What about further afield? What’s your favourite global destination and why?
I’m a real sun worshipper, so I escape UK shores whenever I can. Barbados is a favourite because I like its mix of beaches, top-end hotels and quirky bars. It’s one of the few places where eating outside your hotel is the norm – there are so many wonderful independent restaurants. Our favourite on our last visit was Calabaza – fabulous food in a sensational location over the sea.
So, if I was going to Barbados tomorrow (I’m not, but chance would be a fine thing) what would be your top travel tip?
Don’t just stick to the west coast. The east coast has fabulous surf, tiny rum shacks and amazing walks. And if you head inland you can hike into the hills without seeing another soul, and enjoy gorgeous sea views.
That sounds just about idyllic. So, in a perfect world, who are you strolling the sands with? Who’s your ideal travel companion?
My husband, Simon. He beats me at golf, I thrash him at tennis, and we make up afterwards over cocktails.
And your perfect weekend away – where do you go, what do you do, where do you eat?
With two young children (and another on the way), quality time with my husband is rare. So my perfect weekend away would be with him in a lovely country hotel with spa facilities and an amazing restaurant. We’d potter around going for walks, indulging in spa treatments, reading books and papers in front of the fire and having something I wouldn’t cook at home.
Incidentally, Mr & Mrs Smith have sweet talked Jo into giving Smith members an exclusive 10 per cent off Handpicked’s outdoor and indoor gift range. If you want in on the action, become a member here.