If you ask Google to define tablescape, you’ll discover it means an artistic arrangement of articles on a table. You’ll also discover that it’s the buzzword in entertaining. Now, if you’re into tablescaping, you’re bound to have heard of the divine Alice Naylor-Leyland. If not, you’re welcome...
Alice’s tablescape and tableware company Mrs. Alice launched last November, and offers heavenly tableware along with boxes filled with entire tablescapes ranging from plates to the napkins to centrepieces – with Alice, no detail is left unturned. Every single item she offers is beautiful and thoughtful. A quick scroll of her website and you’ll discover it’s almost Christmas (yes, six weeks to go!). Alice took her inspiration for the new tablescapes from the still beauty of snow-covered forests, the traditional Swiss winter markets from her childhood and memories of Christmas at home with her mother. There are ruby red nutcrackers, lattice-work crockery, grey horn cutlery and festive plates featuring reindeer and Christmas tree designs, hand-painted in Paris. For the first time, Mrs. Alice is also offering a monogram service enabling you to bespoke your Tablescape with beautifully stitched fishtail lettering. You can buy each item individually, or take the stress out of entertaining and purchase a tablescape (one less thing to think about come Christmas Day).
At the heart of the collection are three limited-edition curated Tablescapes. “The Swan Lake” shines with dashes of white and gold, “The First Noël” has a more traditional palette and “The Enchanted Forest” features cooler winter tones.
It was Alice’s incredibly stylish and creative mother, Serena Fresson, who inspired her love of a tablescape. Growing up, she’d watch her mother entertain, and the close attention she paid to every detail from water jugs adorned with ribbons to sourcing what Alice remembers as “mad wind-up bunnies” for Easter celebrations. Over the last few years, Alice has garnered a following not only for her impeccable style but also for the way in which she entertains (her wildly colourful Alice In Wonderland themed 30th birthday was published in American VOGUE and featured a paddock of pastel-hued sheep – enough said).
“I always knew that I wanted to do something within the tableware sector,” says Alice. She still remembers the moment she decided to launch her company. It was September the first and she’d spent the afternoon with a friend who had encouraged her to take the leap. “We worked every minute of every hour of every day until November the sixth when we launched,” she recalls. The response was overwhelming. “It was just so exciting and unbelievable,” she says.
Here, we speak to the British mother of three about her career journey, mothering three children in lockdown and what’s in store for Christmas.
Where did you grow up and what were some vivid memories in your childhood?
I was born in Switzerland and very soon after that moved to London, where I was brought up with my single mother, who is Australian. She is from Melbourne and we had a really happy childhood together. My Australian grandparents were really part of all of that, particularly my grandfather who was my hero. I’ve got all these photos of us growing up and I was his little sidekick. My mother had me at 26, which is when I had my children. At that age and when you’re doing it alone, you definitely want your family around. I was really lucky having them as a unit.
I grew up in London and I went to day school there and then I spent some holidays with my dad in Switzerland. My grandparents had a place in Spain, so we were always over there with them. Even though I was an only child, it was lovely.
Alice with her grandfather in Spain
I'm sure that after you became a mother, you really appreciated your mother being a single mother, the pressure and what a big job it was…
You’re so right. My parents divorced when I was two months old, so I really do think about that. When I had my second child, and they would fight, I would say to them, “You have no choice but to get on. Do you know how lonely being on your own is?”. It’s amazing how what you went through as a child, you try and make better for your own kids.
I'd love to know what kind of role model your mother was and what values did she instil in you?
The funny thing about my mother is she appears so sweet, nice and calm and she is all those things, but she’s very tough as well. I’m trying to instil that in my kids. I always had this internal knowing that I had to do well. Yet, she never told me to do well. I thought that was such a good way to be. I always ask how she did it and she doesn’t seem to remember, but it was a clever way to bring up a child, not to be too overtly tiger mum, but actually secretly the tiger mum was in there.
She was always polite to people. So, I was always very aware that was how you spoke. She never complained about her lot. She never said it was hard. She always just carried on going, which was great to see.
What memories do you have of her entertaining growing up?
She always laid tables, she always had a strong aesthetic and I definitely got that from her. When she had her other three children, I was so much older that I was definitely seeing her creativity more from the adult side than the kid’s side. Easter would come and she’d get mad wind up bunnies. We never had water bottles on the table. She’d put it in glass jugs and she’d ribbon one of them that meant sparkling and one that meant still. I always remember that. She always went that extra mile with our cakes or our birthday parties. I remember she did a party once, it was so clever, the theme was come dressed as your mother – it was so funny. I went through my granny’s archive in the Summer and I’ve got a picture of me at the ‘come dressed as your mother’ party.
Have you and your mum always been close?
We are beyond close. It’s an almost slightly scary relationship, because I think when you only have one parent really there, you fight for that. It’s even more precious. And it’s like double the love in a way. I think particularly being the eldest by a long way … I’m nine years older than my next sibling … I think that you have a much more mature relationship. In a very practical way, that’s the real beauty of having your children young. I can’t turn left without asking my mum.
You met your husband when you were 17. What do you think is the secret of long-lasting love?
I think it is a complete gamble. Tom and I had been really good friends from when we were 17 and then started dating when I was 21. We got married at 24. But I think it’s luck and that at 24, there’s a risk that you could not grow together. It’s more about knowing that you want to grow in the same direction. I’m now a working mum seven days a week, and he accepts and supports that. He might have been a man who is like, “I just want you making granola with the kids.” Yet, he doesn’t want that. At 24, you never know which way it’s going to go. A lot of my friends who did get married too young have evolved as two different people. Whereas I suppose when you get married later you become more of the person that you’ll stay. It’s wrong for me to say, “Oh, well you know, I just knew. And it was love.” I did just know. There was not a single other man in the world I wanted to marry and not a single other man in the world I want to marry now, but we made the right choice and it was lucky that we did.
I'd love to know how you would just define a tablescape…
It is a new term and it’s one that, when I started my company last September, people said, “I don’t know what the word tablescape means.” It’s a really cool thing that this phenomenon is growing and before we launched, people weren’t necessarily selling products as tablescapes. There are a million brands out there that sell beautiful plates and beautiful cutlery, but I really wanted to try and curate those so they work together. From that, I formed this idea that it’s a tablescape. That everything in that scape works together on your table.
It's a huge decision to launch a company and so much work goes into it. Tell me about the moment that you decided to launch Mrs. Alice…
I had a baby in January that year and I had two contracts until the summer. I’ve worked in fashion and I’ve loved it, but really because of Instagram, I built this following of laying tables. I always knew that I wanted to do something within the tableware sector. I was 33, and I wasn’t sure the timing was right. I thought it was a slightly older thing. I thought I’d maybe pop one more child out, and then settle down and do tableware. But it suddenly seemed to be growing as a phenomenon. I would talk to retailers such as Matches and they said it was their biggest growing sector.
I was here at my home. I had a quiet summer with the children having finished my contracts and I had a girlfriend over and she was like, “Alice, you’ve got to do this.” She’s called Caroline and she was like, “If you don’t jump now you really might miss the boat.” It was September the first and that’s when I was sitting in our nursery and she was putting her child in the car to go to London. I was like, “Hold on. How do I do this?” And she was like, “Well, do it differently.” And so, I said, “Okay, fine. Let’s sell the idea of everything together so that you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to buy your crackers from one place, your plates from another place, your reindeer from wherever.” I wanted to take the hassle out of hosting so you can just enjoy enteraining.
From this tiny idea we worked every minute of every hour of every day until November the sixth when we launched and it was just so exciting and unbelievable that there was this response to it. You know that feeling when you don’t have time to think? Someone wrote something funny in this article somewhere and they said, “If you were to ask Alice Naylor-Leyland what else should you do apart from having a house or bringing up children, the answer would come like a shot, ‘Start a business.'” Which I liked because it was crazy of me because I was already busy enough. It was a really sweet and exciting moment. I can pinprick the time that I said, “Right. Let’s make tablescapes.”
I can't believe you got it off the ground so quickly…
We didn’t have one supplier so found however many and created this idea of the tablescape in a box. Then we got our branded boxes and found our plates and nutcrackers. I chose a very bad nutcracker with a stick that arrived broken in some cases. So, that was enough to give me a heart attack. I’ve not chosen that nutcracker this year.
You obviously are so incredibly creative. Was it all sort of bubbling in your head the actual bringing together of the tablescapes…
You have to trust yourself on colours. The harder part was because it was a very short lead time – we didn’t have a choice of 50 glasses because we didn’t know the suppliers. We needed to turn them around in a minute because as you know you have to shoot all the stuff way ahead of actually getting it. It was a scramble, but then it was exciting because in January and February, we didn’t really know what we were doing and we were like, “Should we carry on?” And then we came up with this idea of doing the Nancy and Serena after the two women in my life, my mum and my daughter. What was really exciting is that these tablescapes out sold Christmas by three. We became a tableware brand, rather than just a seasonal tablescape brand.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of launching and running a new company?
Lockdown with the kids, without a doubt. I’m so lucky to live in the countryside. I’m so grateful that we’re all safe, healthy and happy, but running a business and home schooling Billy was nigh on impossible. I have a baby, so if my husband was with the baby, we still were one person short. My daughter was very good at just puttering about, but Billy wasn’t old enough to just join home schooling on his own. I think that balance is really hard. Timezones were also challenging. We work a lot with America and that makes our days much longer.
Can you share what you’ve got in store for Christmas?
We have got three new tablescapes, and they’re mad and fun and traditional. I hope that there’s something for everyone. It is this concept of your table’s laid. As mums, we don’t then have to worry about everything else and literally in our tablescapes you get everything apart from your cutlery. Your linen, your candlesticks, your bud vases, all those little things that take a while when you lay a table. You should literally on Christmas be able to think about nothing else than the stockings and the turkey.
This year we’ve got these things called decoration sets, which people seem to love. They’re the seasonal delights that bring joy to the table without costing quite as much. People use them on their tables and mantle pieces. I think now more than ever we need these to brighten our home. This year, Christmas should be literally personified and exacerbated to the maximum strength it can be. If we can’t do all those little things we probably would do with our kids like carolling, then at least I’m going to really try and bring that into the home. So, I hope these little festive delights might do that.
Instagram can lead us to believe that other people's lives are perfect. And I read somewhere that you said, "In no way do we eat like that every night." Because, obviously, you do create the most insanely beautiful tables. So, what are your thoughts on Instagram and perfection?
I was an avid magazine reader when I was young. I see Instagram as clearly curated content. I feel that Instagram has definitely taken over quite a lot of editorial content. I don’t open up actually that much of my personal life on Instagram because I don’t particularly want that knowledge out there. Do my children have tantrums? Of course, they do, but why would I put that on Instagram? I think that of course things aren’t perfect and maybe I’m not that good at showing that, but I don’t necessarily think that one needs to. For me, it’s a mood board of inspiration.
I definitely am not in the bracket of the people who are like, “Oh look. This is what I’m having for lunch. Oh look. My child has a cold.” You know what I mean? I find that a lot more personal. I actually have very bad migraines. I always think about whether I should share that, but at the same time, it’s just that opening of your life that you don’t necessarily need to.
I purposely made The Grace Tales not about me because I don't want to talk about my personal life constantly. I think that would get extremely draining to have to share your life with people that you don't even know day in and day out…
Do I have arguments? Yes. Do my children say no? Yes. 100%. I eat very bad takeaway food. That’s something I should share more because really I’m the least healthy being, but it is our personal lives and I suppose I just really try and post stuff that is part of a story and part of a whimsical world that is fun to dip in and out of. Just like we used to do in the magazines. My husband and I are so tired we eat off our knees most of the time if we get dinner.
You recently launched a collection with your best friend Poppy Delevingne. What was it like collaborating with your best friend…
It was really heaven. It was like a lockdown baby for both of us. We’ve been best friends properly since we were like 16, but knew each other from since we were four. Lockdown gave us this time to chat because before she would be literally in a different country every four days. She’d always have jobs at night and we’re very similar beings in that we like to fill our diaries … not socially by the way … but if we have five days we utilise that time. Suddenly we realised, right, let’s basically set up Zoom calls to see each other.
I used to not ever really do FaceTime and then I just started. It was on my birthday that we started and then we didn’t stop. She has as much attention to detail as I have. Every curve, every colour, every texture – she had a view on. What I loved is seeing her business side, which I suppose I hadn’t. We had done done our 21st birthday together, but apart from that you don’t really see that side of your friend. It really was a joy. She’s so professional and so accommodating.
What are your time management tips - how you get everything done with your kids and running your company?
Be super organised. I have a diary that’s my bible. Like a big Smythson’s A4 notebook. I also have to admit I started using Google Calendar. You wake up as a working mum and you have 20 different thoughts in one go. I find that with these diaries and calendars you just literally put it all in there, and then I feel like I can conquer it – even if it’s something as small as Nancy’s school shoes. I try and think ahead. Whether it’s about food or where people are going to sleep. We constantly have people staying in our house when they’re allowed to because of being in the countryside. So, I find if you just pre-plan as much as you can, you’re fine.
It’s also the character you are. I’m not very good at getting up and being like, “Hey, the day will fall into its own.” I’m like, “No, the day has to fall into the structure that we will follow.” By the way, it is only since September I’ve been able to do this because lockdown was just a write off for this.
My son goes to school until about 5:30pm. And you then know the time slots you have with them. I was on a call last night at 11:00 pm and I prefer to do that and be able to have the two hours with the kids for tea and put them to bed. Do their spellings and times tables. Finally, I try not to bring my phone, which is near impossible.