Patrick Frey had only been in the family business for six months when his father gave him what felt like an impossible task: Design a fabric—his first ever—by the next morning. Daunted, Frey retreated to the company’s workroom and began experimenting, rearranging stripes into an existing pattern. By the end of the day, he had 16 variations. The next morning, his father saw the work and, without outward reaction, called his suppliers and ordered all 16 patterns to be put into production.
“Six months later, he retired from creation. He came to my office, and he said, ‘Patrick, I won’t decide anything any more. We can’t be two creators in a company—two is a mess. It was me, and on the first of January it will be you,’” Frey recounts to host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “And at 26, I began to do my own prints—I was my own boss.”
The family business was the iconic French fabric house Pierre Frey, and the father, of course, was Pierre Frey himself. After an apprenticeship with Brunschwig & Fils in New York, Patrick had returned to Paris to help his father run the company. Soon, he was transforming it. Pierre Frey went from supplying the likes of Brunschwig and Clarence House to distributing under its own name and building a reputation for superb quality and creative exuberance.
The company’s success, Frey says, stems from a simple tenet: Creativity comes before business. “It’s a complete mistake to think you can have great finance and marketing departments and that creation can be on the side, and you don’t spend any money on it because it’s more important to do good marketing or have good distribution,” says Frey. “For me, that’s totally wrong. In a creation business, if the creation is not good, you’re gone in three years.”
Which isn’t to say Frey hasn’t made some savvy business moves as well. Over the decades, he has overseen a few acquisitions that have helped the company grow in unique ways. Notably, in 1991, he oversaw the acquisition of French heritage company Braquenié, a fabric house that dates back to 1823. By that point, Braquenié was considerably smaller than Pierre Frey, but it had a priceless pedigree.
“Very quickly, we received a call from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg saying, ‘In 1892, the Tsar bought Braquenié…’ and suddenly you buy your roots,” says Frey. “It was so strong in terms of image potential and archives.”
Frey hasn’t stopped acquiring (in 2022, he announced the purchase of British brand Bernard Thorp), but these days succession is top of mind as much as growth. Over the past decade, his three sons—Pierre, Vincent and Matthieu—have been finding their way in the business and preparing to take over. However, Frey himself has maintained the role of creative director, remaining intimately involved with the brand’s products. It’s a process, he says, that resists too much left-brain thinking.
“The mystery: You take a plain collection, and you do 50 colors. There are two blues that are very close, very close. One you will sell 1,000 yards, the other you will sell two yards. The blues are so, so close, but everyone chooses one and not the other,” says Frey. Being able to choose between the two, he adds, is at the core of a beautifully irrational business. “That’s what you have in your head: It’s a gift.”
Listen to the show below. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. This episode was sponsored by Loloi Rugs and Cozy Earth.
Homepage image: Patrick Frey | Courtesy of Pierre Frey