Melissa Alexander is one of London’s hottest florists, supplying the mega-trendy Chiltern Firehouse and a host of other A-list venues. But the extent of her success would never have crossed her mind when she launched the business back in 2009, along with former i-D magazine designer Jocelyn Lloyd.
Then, in her mid-fifties, having run the model agency Take 2 for 27 years, Melissa decided she wanted a complete change of direction. The idea of JamJar Flowers was conceived.
To start with, Melissa didn’t look much further than getting up early on a Monday morning, going to the market and delivering fresh natural flowers in their own containers to offices around London. With Melissa’s bohemian sense of chic and feel for colour, the business took off.
It now supplies flowers not only to the Firehouse, but to Spring Restaurant, Acne, Diesel, Nick Knight’s studio and others. It also arranges flowers for weddings, private parties, photographic shoots and fashion shows.
Melissa’s studio, in a secret garden hidden away in a Victorian mews in Kennington, south London, is a fabulous feast for the senses. The cobbled mews itself looks like a location for a period drama.
On entering there is an unforgettable fragrance of fresh flowers, eucalyptus leaves and logs burning on the open fire. Seasonal foliage falls out of rustic buckets and bunches of pretty purple Anemone, Viburnum Opulus and delicate Ranunculus flowers await their transformation into beautiful bouquets.
The walls are lined with retro glass bottles, in blue, green and amber, vintage containers and Kilner jars, all of which are JamJar Flowers trademark. Melissa’s sense of ‘the now’ is, of course, bang on trend.
Starting a small business of your own
In 2009, Melissa started small. She was able to fund the business herself without needing to go to investors. She admits to being more frightened of not working in her fifties than of working hard: “The temptation to lie in bed is too great and leads to depression.”
She admits she was depressed before she started the business and wondered who she was: Melissa Richardson, the ex-model agent, or Melissa Alexander, wife, stepmother and mother? JamJar Flowers gave her back her confidence and purpose.
Although it’s hard work, the business has given her something to do until she finally retires – or not. In her words, why would she?
Melissa likes the idea that she has created something that she can pass on. Her son Finn now works with her, having given up his City job, and has proved that he too has her creative talent and flair for business.
The skills she acquired from the model agency have been invaluable. She says working with flowers has more similarities than she had imagined with representing models: both hang their heads and droop if you don’t treat them nicely.
Melissa concedes she may not be the best florist in London but contends that she offers a great service. Having dealt with difficult clients in the modeling world, Melissa is clearly adept at dealing with excited engaged couples and their demands for the perfect wedding.
The importance of social media marketing
The photographs she posts on Instagram and Pinterest document an array of innovative and eclectic designs for weddings taking place in London venues such as St John Restaurant in Smithfield, The Mandarin Oriental, The Savile Club and The Paramount Club.
When asked what she would tell her younger self, Melissa answers: “Do everything with integrity and be truthful about what you can and cannot do, and you will be amazed by who helps you.”
She says that one of the greatest projects in her entire career is working for the New York hotelier Andre Balazs at the uber trendy Firehouse. Having originally thought she was putting in a few pots and flower arrangements, she actually ended up creating a massive installation of real and fake plants for its Laddershed lounge.
It’s a great showpiece for getting Melissa’s ideas in front of London’s fashionable A-list. On the table in the studio are enough Amarylis for each of the bedrooms at the Firehouse. Melissa explains that the timing is crucial: they must flower in the next two weeks but not before. Judging by the temperature in the studio, I think they will be all right.
Before we leave, Melissa converts an old wooden cigar stand into a stunning table decoration with just a few colourful stems placed in a glass test tube where the cigars had been. Her colleague then deftly arranges a bouquet with eye-catching coloured blooms that she places in a jar and ties with a typically stylish black and white string. They make it look easy; it’s not.
Melissa does not think of herself particularly as an entrepreneur, and considers an entrepreneur as someone that finds it difficult to work for anyone else. Judging by the atmosphere at JamJar this is not a problem her colleagues have. Her enthusiasm and energy is infectious.
Melissa’s three top tips for later-life entrepreneurs
1. Never underestimate the task you have taken on
2. Work as hard as you possibly can to get the business off the ground
3. Give the people you have chosen to work with the opportunity to be creative and inspire you
(Filmed by Tom Byfield for High50)