It all started with a cushion....
Well technically it all started when I was born...I am a natural born creative. My mum has held onto creepy drawings and crafts from my younger years as evidence....you know the ones you really wish she would part with now but clings onto. However, I wouldn’t declare that I was always destined to follow a creative path but it feels nice to be able to say that it’s something I’ve embraced since being little that is now playing out into my adult life.
Anyways, I survived school where I fell in love with portraiture which developed my drawing ability and then went onto study a Diploma in design at College, specialising in Illustration. My education continued with applying for Universities where I had my little heart set on studying illustration at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge, I unexpectedly got accepted with an unconditional offer meaning I didn’t even need to bag the top grades to secure a place and so I fully envisaged my quaint life riding bicycles around Cambridge, drinking tea and pretending live my quintessentially english dream. Without oversharing personal details too much, in the months prior to starting University, my life decided otherwise and so the best option was for me to stay at home and I figured that rather than embracing a gap year that instead I would accept my place at Derby University and commute....I will just quickly say at this point that this is hands down THE best decision I’ve made of my life so far, everything happens for a reason and without this decision panning out the way it did, the Cambridge ‘dream’ going out the window and me being quite the hermit, the foundations of Darwin & Gray were born.
Those foundations came in the form of a DIY screen printing tutorial on Pinterest one month before starting at Derby and I decided to try and make a little scrabble tile cushion for my bed. My sister had bought me a travel sewing machine to try and teach myself how to sew and it felt like the perfect mini project....it failed miserably. This shit took me days of meticulously adding layers of glue to an embroidery hoop with a pair of stockings pulled over it. I finally got to ‘print’ with my DIY screen using a credit card as the makeshift squeegee and all I got to show for days of pure graft was a wobbly mess that resembled an ‘S’ on a piece of fabric....I persevered and made the little cushion anyways and I still have the messy piece of crap by my bed to this day. It was then my mum who told me to simply paint the letter, I’ve always had a steady hand and it would save me all of the faff’.......it obviously worked far better and was way more therapeutic. Damn you Pinterest.
So fast forward and I’m around six months into my degree, my work had taken a digital turn which was totally off track for me. I’d been used to acrylics, charcoal, pencils etc. And now I was faced with the world of Adobe. Thankfully in the evenings I was still sketching as well as painting these mini cushions for friends and family so it felt balanced between my digital and physical practice. Having posted a few photos of my cushions online, I had a handful of requests from complete strangers.....And so, I opted to pop a small batch of cushions on Ebay and within less than an hour, they’d sold out. It was the first time in my entire life that I’d felt the buzz. By that, I mean the rush of pure happiness when somebody is willing to invest their own money in not only you but in something you’ve created that they too want for themselves. It was almost like a feeling of acceptance and despite making quite literally zero pennies on this batch, it was totally worth it knowing that my little creations were going out there in the big wide world.
We’re now in the August of 2013, I opened my online store with Etsy. I don’t know how many mini cushions we created in the end through Etsy, they seemingly took a life force of their own and went out all over the world. Each one painted, stitched and stuffed by hand. So I’m 20 at this point and I was working my bloody arse off, I was juggling working three part time jobs, studying my degree and trying to create these cushions in the evenings but I found it incredibly rewarding so I just took it all in my stride. Somehow looking back, I managed to squeeze a pretty amazing social life in there too (there was evidently more hours in the day back then). Those little cushions saw me through the majority of my degree, I dabbled with a few different bits and bobs like gift tags, cards, a few prints here and there but more importantly came the first ever ‘Filthy’ Banner, a typographical banner that went on to influence an entire collection of products that now is what Darwin & Gray is known for.
So back to my life story, I’ll try and wrap this bit up a little quicker I promise.....I was fast approaching the end of University and quite frankly I wasn’t ready for the real world, I didn’t feel like I had a portfolio to be proud of and I didn’t want out of the educational structure just yet so this crazy person decided to go for a Masters Degree in Design. Only this time I didn’t want to create drawings for briefs that had no purpose or simply adhere to what I thought my tutors wanted to see, art can be a little bias after all. I focused on my future and I decided to study Darwin & Gray, I wanted to give it the time and focus it needed. I worked on branding, a business structure, a website....I did everything I could to make this thing transform from a late night painting session into some kind of business. The only thing I didn’t work on in all honesty was the products which is bizarre when I think back but at that time I just wanted to create a brand, my brand. My stars aligned and within that year I ended up in NYC where I managed to secure a meeting at Etsy HQ where my eyes were opened for many reasons. At the time I didn’t associate myself with my brand, I kept my distance and let it just do its thing when in actual fact I was my brand and they wanted me to embrace that. Being honest, transparent and true to myself is something that I’m proud to showcase through Darwin & Gray these days and whilst I’m never going to go selfie mad on my company feed, I will always be present because it is a (rather large) piece of me.
I went on to graduate at the end of 2016 on cloud nine with the highest grade possible for my Masters (I feel fancy when I say that), I followed it up with a bit of travelling and then....I crashed. I dragged my arse through Christmas kind of resenting what I’d created in the form of Darwin & Gray. The combination of a difficult break up with a major life adjustment following being in education for two decades to not being in that system along with just the fact that I’d simply studied D+G so intensely all made for a lull period and so I disappeared for the following six months. I didn’t socialise, I worked under the radar at my part time jobs, I barely made anything and I didn’t draw a single thing....I just stopped being creative until it just clicked into place again and when it did click, it was almost as if I had to start all over again in my head.
Now here’s for the click and I’m going to publicly thank Deb of Fabulous Places for playing a part in that click. Let’s rewind for a sec here as Deb was my first ever design client back in 2014, as a fresh faced student I designed promo material for a small event she was organising. The following year I created some of my first ever custom banners for Deb and then in both 2015 and 2016 despite her continued support I stupidly declined offers to sell at her markets down to lacking in confidence in both myself and my brand.
Now let’s come back to that early summer of 2017 that I was just speaking about when I’m not in a particularly great place inside my own little head…..I’m barely touching D+G, I’m hardly speaking to people at all and everything just feels bleurgh. Deb contacts me to enquire about an 8ft banner to take pride of place in the roundhouse at an upcoming market and there is the click, I jumped to accept the project. Fast forward two months, I’d finalised the banner but I’d also designed a whole new collection for D+G which included the Location Banners which are still my absolute favourite to this day but the biggest deal was that I’d signed on to not one but three markets. By the end of 2017, I had fallen in love with Darwin & Gray and amazingly other people turned out to be fans of it too with the brand being so well accepted as I took it out of my bedroom into the wilderness to sell at markets. I had also found my forte in designing and building my display, like I said right at the very beginning, I’ve always been creative, I loved to draw first and foremost but making things was always the thing that got me excited and got my brain ticking. I transformed this escapism that I did in my bedroom into an immersive stand that people could walk around and shop. I just thrived off of being out there doing something that I was entirely in control of, I would however be lying if I said I wasn’t shit scared and that the lack of sleep was beyond a joke but I’ll never forget the first market I did with my wall display in November 2017!! I will quickly hold my hands up and say that even now, with a whole bunch of markets under my belt that it still terrifies me until I’m all set up and even then, you’ll often find me painting away behind my counter when at market because i still find them a little overwhelming but they’re definitely the best decision I ever made for Darwin & Gray.
Whilst all of this was going on I was still working three jobs, at this point I’d managed to become a Store Manager for Skinny Dip London, a sales assistant for a clothing company on a weekend and a Cosmetic Visual Merchandiser a couple of nights a week. I juggled all of this whilst riding on a high with D+G as I continued markets and custom work as well as showcasing at the 2018 RHS Flower Show at Chatsworth House. After working stupidly excessive hours (70+) pretty much 7 days a week for around a year I finally got on a plane, flew off to Mykonos and Paris and had a breather where it hit me not just how unhappy I was but how physically drained I had become. Despite family and friends expressing their concern I just went into survival mode for that year but i knew that the burn out stage wasn’t far off, I was physically and mentally exhausted.....my family knew it, my management knew it and my team knew it. I like to give 110% all of the time, it can be greatest quality but also my biggest downfall and back in August 2018 I was having to divide that 110% across every platform and I was in constant fear of letting any part of it down.
I got back from Paris and within the space of a week, I quit two of my jobs and dropped to zero hours at the third job and opted to take Darwin & Gray full time in preparation for the Christmas season. I sobbed, I literally balled my eyes out for quite some time. Fear? Regret? Sadness over leaving the most amazing team? It was time to go at it alone and see what could happen!
And then……Twas The Night happened in the November 2018!
My mindset towards Darwin & Gray changed in a matter of days. Nobody was prepared for the following month. The reaction to that banner proved to me that leaving my job wasn’t a stupid and ill-thought through decision, it taught me that everything does happen for a reason and that if you want something, go for it. It also taught me what I’m truly capable of under pressure for my business, that when I put my mind to it I can really embrace this industry and thrive.
Fast forward a whole year….(November 2019)
So, I’m over a year self employed now and I’m taking this business life one step at a time, I’m a yes-woman that is trying to tackle anything that comes my way. I’ve still got to figure out that thing called balance and try and work on being a little more sociable from time to time.
When it’s come down to business, 2019 has been a year of figuring shit out, testing the water at Trade Shows in London, selling at more events all over the country to suss where we fit in, introducing collaborations, new designs, developing skillsets that go beyond simply painting and even public speaking about small business support and visual merchandising. I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone, embraced the challenges and surprised even myself with how working smart heavily outweighs working hard (unless it’s Christmas and then you’re just working like a maniac).
On a personal level, 2019 threw one of the most difficult curve balls my way that I’ve ever faced. I found myself in an incredibly fragile physical and mental state part way through the year, everything that I thought I knew about myself was thrown out of the window and I essentially had to start from scratch, all whilst trying to keep my head above water with regards to running Darwin & Gray. This rough patch behind the scenes and the ongoing waves that I may experience from time to time have allowed space for a far more empathetic, truthful, vulnerable and flaw-embracing Stace that naturally has fed into my work at Darwin & Gray. I introduced #notetoself and @notesfromgray - predominantly typographical pieces that sometimes overlay on photographs that I’ve captured that aim to act as reminders for you and for me. They are honest and heartfelt messages that stem from personal notes saved to my iPhone. Each note to self has come directly from conversations between myself and family or friends, sessions with professionals or taken from books. Through sharing selected pieces, I’ve found that so many others have the same insecurities, doubts or fears as I do. That we’re not all so different after all and that there is comfort to be found in sharing and being open.
2019 was a year of growth and acceptance but I have never genuinely been as ready to close a chapter on a year as I am with 2019 because fuck me, that was a bitch. I’m excited for the new decade, 2020 - I’m ready for you!
Guess who’s back………..(January 2021)
Hey, look at that final comment on 2019…….'2020, I’m ready for you!' - Nope, I wasn’t ready. In fact, 2020 turned out to be a total shit show. I'd even go as far as saying it was SO much worse than 2019 for everybody on this entire planet.
Here we are in 2021. The business is continuing to grow, in fact myself and Darwin & Gray have just had our best year yet despite the pandemic. There's been a lot to navigate, adulting (boring) stuff.....like actually being organised with my life in a bid to help both the business and myself.
I'm just preparing to send my brand spanking new website live and kick off 2021 so here's hoping for a better year all round!
To think that back in 2012 I created a shit little wonky cushion from Pinterest that would essentially be the foundations to establishing my own business in the future is beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. I’m super proud to still be able to say that I cut, sew, paint and print every single thing here at Darwin & Gray....with a little help from my family.
Who knows what’s around the next bend but it’s bloody exciting isn’t it!
I think we all deserve a rest after reading all of that.
Ps. If you’ve supported Darwin & Gray in any way, shape or form over the years....thank you from the absolute bottom of my heart.