Willow Crossley on the serendipity of her flower-led career, turning 40 & life lessons learned
World-renowned florist, author, and designer on sharing her flowery joy & reflections at her milestone birthday...
“I've learned that we can't rely on other people to make us happy. Our own happiness is our own responsibility, and it starts from within. I've learned that not everything that makes other people happy is guaranteed to make us happy, so we have to find what makes us happy.”
Often referred to as the UK’s ‘Queen of Flowers’, Willow is a celebrated florist, author, designer, stylist, entrepreneur and (a somewhat reluctant) influencer. She shares her love of flowers through her Instagram channel videos, and through workshops, digital courses and events. Last year, she launched The Seedling, which aims to deliver broader inspiration across lifestyle to the brand's global community. She has written four books and if time allows there may be another... Based in the Cotswolds, she is also a mother to three boys - Wolf, Rafferty and Kit and wife to Charlie.
In this special interview, Willow shares the personal stories from her outdoorsy childhood and close family, her early career in fashion and beauty, creating her first products, writing her books, the moment she decided to eschew other work in favour of flowers; lessons learned and achievements earned; and more…
"Creating makes me happy. Spending time outside in nature makes me happy'" Willow as a young girl and recently, still spending time creating in nature.
My early years in the Welsh countryside were completely idyllic - very rural, very outdoorsy. I didn't really appreciate how amazing it was nature-wise at the time. All the incredible flowers and trees were just there as a backdrop but I think with hindsight I must have been subconsciously absorbing it and it's definitely informed what I do now.
Please tell us about your early years growing up with your brothers in the Welsh countryside and your aspirations, access to and interest in nature and the arts?
My early years in the Welsh countryside were completely idyllic. Very rural, very outdoorsy - lots of den-making in the woods (mine were always immaculate, I remember sweeping them obsessively with brooms that I’d made from pine needles!) paddling in the rivers, picking berries, hunting for mushrooms. We’ve always been a very close family, my brothers and I are just two years apart and it was heavenly. I didn't really appreciate how amazing it was nature-wise at the time. All the incredible flowers and trees were just there as a backdrop but I think with hindsight I must have been subconsciously absorbing it and it's definitely informed what I do now. When I go back home now I feel so lucky that I've had that upbringing and still have access to that space and nature now.
You’ve said before that you dreamt of being a fashion designer as a teenager and would spend hours dreaming up outfits. You went on to study fashion at the London School of Fashion and some of your very first jobs were in the fashion and beauty departments at British Vogue… can you tell us about this period of your life?
After graduating from London College of Fashion with a BA in Fashion Promotion, my goal was to end up working on a women’s fashion magazine, ideally Vogue with my hero, Lucinda Chambers. I did a few internships, basically sitting in a fashion cupboard doing returns but didn’t get a lot further. It’s a very competitive world, hundreds of people going for the same very, very badly paid job and I knew in my gut that it wasn’t meant to be. But I loved it while I was there. I especially loved my role as a beauty assistant at Tatler under Antonia Whyatt which introduced me to a whole new world of beauty and wellness.
Then you spent a few years living in France. You wrote a blog, Willow Rose Boutique documenting your finds in local French brocantes and were always creating things. Was this a catalyst for your foray into flowers, your first book and possibly The Seedling coming full circle many years later?
When I moved to France, we had so much time to potter and hang out. Each weekend I’d drag Charlie to the local brocantes and flee markets where I would be drawn, like a magpie, to these tiny little snippets of fabric, old bobbins of ribbon, gorgeous antique treasures - things I felt I couldn’t be without - and I started making things out of them. Hand-covered fabric notebooks, linen beach bags, pompom-trimmed baskets, beaded bracelets, necklaces… all of which I couldn’t make fast enough for the beach restaurants on Pampelonne Beach.
And at the same time, I started writing a blog called Willow Rose Boutique documenting life in France but also mixed in with fashion, wellness, beauty, lifestyle, interiors, and recipes. An early more junior version of The Seedling! My agent, Clare, discovered the blog and thought it could be turned into a book; a year later, The Art of Handmade Living was published by CICO books!
Willow with her brothers Ned and Tom outside the Ralph Lauren store in Chelsea she helped style for Chelsea in Bloom and won the people's choice award; Willow's mother, Kate Corbett-Winder gardening at home in Wales; Willow at home in the Cotswolds.
Willow teaching for Dior in Paris
Whilst writing the chapter on flowers, I had a Eureka moment. I had two small children, was decorating someone’s house, doing personal shopping, writing a book and feeling like I was going to break. Basically, spreading myself too thin. So I decided right then, to stop everything else I was doing and focus on the flowers.
Hosting a Tory Burch workshop; with Cordelia de Castellane at a Dior event in Paris; at the pop-up at Chelsea in Bloom.
Willow and Charlie on their wedding day; Willow with eldest son Wolf; the first day as a mother of three boys; on holiday with Charlie in Willow's favourite place in the UK, Tresco in the Scilly Isles.
When designing your product collections for Willow Crossley - what are you drawn to?
It varies every time. My taste and what I'm into changes so quickly. One minute, I’ll be obsessed with chintz or a stripe, and two weeks later, I'm completely over it. Quite unrelaxing for everyone I work with! Saying that, the things that I do always come back to are: stripes, chintz, embroidered florals, and natural fabrics. Always natural: I’ve never been good at shiny, metallic, unnatural things.
You’ve said before “Often my first arrangement on an event is a total disaster!” which is so humbling. Do you ever experience self-doubt?
Every day. But thankfully less as I get older. I think turning 40 has made me realise that I can do more than I probably give myself credit for. I'm not a planner. I wing things a lot, and I'm disorganised on paper, but in my head, I know exactly what I'm doing. But working with flowers is doubt-inducing because you're playing with nature, and it's terrifying! Things drop down dead all the time for no reason and it’s out of your control. But I know this so have endless backups.
You’re a self-confessed 'perfectionist' – how do you balance this with your ambition and generally find balance with the many hats you wear?
I think I'm only a perfectionist in my work life. The rest of my life is pretty shambolic, very happily so!
I'm not great at balance and do get overwhelmed quite often. I burn myself out every few months because I keep going and going and thinking, I can do it all and say yes to everything. But I'm slowly learning that I can't do it all. And I'm learning to prioritise and work out the things that I actually, genuinely want to do, as opposed to thinking I should do.
What’s next for Willow Crossley, the brand?
I have so many plates in the air and so many things that I want to do. Just not enough time in the day to do them. We started this year in the office with so many plans, so many exciting things we wanted to launch and develop and then a few weeks ago I woke up and realised I needed to stop and reassess. We were on the brink of spreading ourselves too thin and not doing anything well enough. So we’ve decided to focus on what we're doing already but make it better. So grow the collections, and create really beautiful, original product. Continue to grow The Seedling.
And what’s next for Willow as you embrace your new decade?
I’m going to try and stop spreading myself too thin. I'm going to try and organise my life a bit better, so I'm not constantly in a state of panic. I’m going to try and make time for myself and not feel guilty about it. I think now I'm 40, I'm going to have to start doing proper exercise. Walking fast and doing everything at a million miles is probably not enough. I'm going to make time for yoga. I'm going to make time to hang out with my friends and family more. I'm going to really cherish this time with the boys. Wolf is 14 this year, and it scares me how quickly it's going. That's quite a lot to be going on with, isn't it?
Lets Play Favourites - Willow Crossley
Flower – Solomon Seal
Artist – Kate Corbett Winder and Mary Newcomb
Interior Designer – Lucy Barlow, Anna Spiro and Sarah Vanrenen
Scent / Fragrance – Garden roses, geranium and tomato leaf. I adore all Ffern's scents
Travel destination – The Maldives
Place in the UK – Tresco in the Isles of Scilly
Book – Darling by India Knight
Podcast – Table Manners by Jessie and Lennie Ware and Therapy Couch
TV Series – Yellowstone, Succession and Shrinking
Film – Olympus Has Fallen, Man on Fire, Air Force One
Wellness ritual – At least one very fast walk a day
Colour – Green. Or Blue
Make-up must-have – Jones Road Mascara
Fashion label – Vita Kin
Wardrobe Essentials - white linen t-shirts from H&M, bright cashmere jumpers from From Future, Marine Straight Jeans from Zara, brightly coloured trainers, either an Adidas Gazelle or Nike Daybreak, merino wool layering tops from Cos (I'm always cold), a Breton stripe, velvet Penelope Chilvers ankle boots, Tory Sport gym kit, something fringed, colourful jewels from Roxanne First, Monica Vinader or Sophie Theakston
Music – my Spotify playlists
Season – Summer
Restaurant or Meal – either roast chicken or some sort of noodley deliciousness
Era or decade – 70s for fashion, now for everything else
Guaranteed laugh – Schitts Creek
Time of day – Morning
Day of the week – Friday
Quote – 'If you want something done, do it yourself.'