Tulle angel wings. Paper chandeliers, laden with blossoms. Dragon capes, glittering crowns, garlands festooned with tassels and fringing. This is the magical world of Meredithe Stuart-Smith, founder of Meri Meri. It’s a world of party and play, though its founder is surprisingly pragmatic.“You know what they say about having your own business”, she tell us. “You can work whatever 12 hours a day you want.”
Indeed, beyond the confetti and confections, Meri Meri has survived two recessions, a digital revolution, multiple pivots, and some tough lessons. In its fledgling days as a greeting card company in the 80s, Meredithe recalls, “I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was selling my cards door to door. So many shops said: ‘no one would ever buy these.’” ‘Someone’ did – Bergdorf Goodman placed an enormous order at her stand at a 1987 trade show, and Meri Meri was on its way.
Today, Meri Meri has expanded from greeting cards to a world of whimsy housed in a converted Victorian warehouse. From party decorations to dress ups, stickers, baking supplies, stationery, and more, “we have rooms filled with fabric, ribbon, glitter, sewing machines and all sorts of papers”, Meredithe says.
And perhaps the freedom around what exactly Meri Meri does is the key to its success, and indeed, its survival. With parties strictly forbidden under the coronavirus restrictions, Meri Meri still has plenty to offer – especially for families feeling the pinch of boredom and cabin fever. “A box of fancy dress and a few props help create the environment for never-ending imaginative and expressive play. I believe that is when the magic happens. We love to help facilitate that”, Meredithe explains.
And after all, she puts it best herself: “in adversity, creativity can flourish.”
Let your imagination run wild as Meredithe recalls her childhood in Kansas, going shoe shopping in her grandmother’s closet, and how her husband wooed her into a move to England with Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate…
Meri Meri Founder Meredithe Stuart-Smith
You grew up down the street from Hallmark’s head offices in Kansas. As a child you would hand make cards and tape them to the windows hoping someone from Hallmark would walk by and see them – can you take us back to this memory and who that little girl was and what her dreams were? Were you an imaginative child?
I spent most of my childhood in a fantasy world, I created it all with drawing, cutting and pasting. While I was always sporty, I loved making things most. From a young age I was drawing girls like me and dressing them in clothes inspired by trends. As a child of the 60’s with a mother and grandmother that loved fashion, it was always a part of my life. When I wasn’t making things, or running around outside, I was playing dress up in my mother’s closet. Visiting my grandmother was the most fun. She had a walk-in closet just for her shoes. When I was older, we wore the same size. She used to say “would you like to go shopping in my shoe closet?” I sure did!
You began your business at your kitchen table in 1985 – tell us about your vision for Meri Meri back then. What was on the market back then in terms of party décor?
Meri Meri actually started as a hand-made greeting card company. The original cards were not so very different from the ones I made as a child.
How did you get the business off the ground and how did you handle any knockbacks or criticism you got when you first started (many entrepreneurs talk about hearing “no” again and again before they get a “yes”)…
When I started there really were no hand made greeting cards in the market. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was selling my cards (door to door). So many shops said: “no one would ever buy these”. Fortunately, enough people did to get us off the ground. I exhibited at our first trade show in NYC the 1987. Bergdorf Goodman came onto my stand and ordered a huge amount of Christmas cards, I knew I was on my way.
How did the digital revolution change your business?
It had a huge negative impact on the sale of greeting cards, however, in adversity creativity can flourish. I could see that there was a big gap in the children’s party market for more inspiring and better-designed party products. As a creative studio and a team of top-notch illustrators, we are great working with paper. We designed 6 collections and having children, I knew well what the best themes would be. We introduced them, again at the Stationery Show in NYC in 2008. They were a success. This really carried us through the recession.
You met your English husband in NY at the Stationery Show. He also had a greeting card company and he convinced you to move to England. How did you find the move from LA to England?
It took me a minute to fall in love with my husband and another to fall in love with England. I love so much of the culture, the architecture, the countryside dress code, the celebration of intellectuals and the importance of education. I loved that the English will have a picnic in the rain. My husband gave me the book “Love in a Cold Climate” by Nancy Mitford when I first arrived. He thought it would help me better understand his world. I went on to read almost everything she wrote.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have embraced the importance of branding from the beginning. A few years ago, I met with a Big Fish, a top creative agency in London. Perry Hayden Taylor said, “Meredithe, everyone knows your products, just no-one knows they are yours”. I had always shied away from putting our logo on the front of our packaging. I didn’t want to be too shouty (subscribing to the theory, when your own initials are enough). Perry went on to say, whatever store has them, takes them as their own. When they are on the shelves in Selfridges it looks like they belong to Selfridges. The next day I went back to the studio and changed all guidelines to put our logo on the front, the side, the back.
What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learnt which you’d like to pass on to other creative entrepreneurs?
Hire people that are better than you and help them flourish. A list people like to work with A list people. You are only as good as your team.
You strive to add magic to children’s worlds. Tell us about your love and passion for this and why it drives you?
A box of fancy dress and a few props help create the environment for never-ending imaginative and expressive play. I believe that is when the magic happens. We love to help facilitate that.
Right now, we need magic in our lives more than ever – how are you navigating this challenging period in business and at home?
My husband recently sent me an article from the BBC ‘Coronavirus: The good that can come out of an upside-down world.’ It is all about thinking in the opposite way about business. It cited an example, if you wanted to start a taxi company, the first thing you need is cars… the opposite being how do I start a taxi company without cars. Meri Meri makes things, what would we do if we didn’t make things. The opposite being, we stop making things. That idea made me gasp but I stayed with the thought. A few days later I had a lot of fun ideas…
You’ve said of growing your business: “I wanted to pick my children up for school. I didn’t want miss out on anything!” How did you do both – did you work after they went to bed or work early in the morning?
You know what they say about having your own business “you can work whatever 12 hours a day you want”.
Do your children get involved in your work/company?
They are both far too sensible.
What makes you happy?
Being on the water in my little sailing dinghy.
Tell us about your work space – what’s the atmosphere like? How have you decorated it?
Our studio is in a converted Victorian warehouse in the center of town. It is an expansive lateral space with a lot of original features. We have rooms filled with fabric, ribbon, glitter, sewing machines and all sorts of papers. We have a big laser cutter and giant printers.
What are your tips for creating a beautiful work space?
Good lighting and I believe everyone needs some sort of an individual space. Although we are a team of friendly introverts.
Describe your dream party?
I have a beautiful summer house on the coast of Downeast Maine. My dream party is a big lobster dinner on the beach in front of my house. Long tables covered in cloth by Molly Mahon. I would have lanterns all the way down the hill to the water and loads of candles on the table. All parties need a good cocktail when everyone arrives. Our community cocktail is a Blueberry Smash.
Steamers to start, lobster to follow, and pavlovas for pudding. Ideally, I would have Rebecca Gardner, party planner extraordinaire, organize it all.
List three things you’re loving from Meri Meri right now?
- Our dressing up collection especially the birds with tulle wings.
- Decorative party chandeliers.
- I love all of our rag dolls. I think they are all charming and I love their clothes. They are the dolls I wish I had.