Behind the Stalls: Rebel Rebel Florists
We go behind the market stall and inside the blossoming East End workshop of established florists Athena Duncan and Mairead Curtin – Old Spitalfields Market’s newest traders.
Just down from where Regent’s Canal meets Broadway Market, you’ll find a metal palisade surrounding a 1960s commercial block – an offbeat front to the blossoming workshop of Rebel Rebel. We joined them at their workbench, surrounded by the sight and scents of freshly harvested blooms and shelves of vessels, whilst Athena and Mairead prepped a floral setting for a client’s birthday lunch at Nobu. As they cut and created, we discussed what it takes to be in the business of flowers, how to care for your stems at home and what happens when you drive around London at 4am.
Despite being this spring’s newest market traders, Rebel Rebel have fast gained followers and friends amongst Spitalfields locals and market visitors alike. British flowers and foliage, when in season, is the house style. Combine their refined arrangements with a well-informed team, and it’s no wonder they’ve already become part of the market furniture.
On starting early…
AD Today was disastrously late but normally it’s 3am when we arrive at New Covent Garden Flower Market. During the summer, when all the good English flowers come in and it’s wedding season, you literally have to fight with all the other florists. There aren’t many British flowers so it becomes competitive and you really have to know your trader well.
MC We spend an enormous amount of time driving around in the middle of the night or the very early hours of the morning, so you get to see London at its best, crossing the bridges at 5am is just beautiful. Then you also get to see the background of hotels in London, the loading bays, how places are run, and some hotels like Claridges that have people who have worked there for decades and who are amazing to work with – Claridges is so classy and we often do weddings there.
“We spend an enormous amount of time driving around in the middle of the night or the very early hours of the morning, so you get to see London at its best, crossing the bridges at 5am is just beautiful.”
On English flowers…
MC There aren’t so many English flowers any more because they aren’t grown as much – the Dutch flooded the market a few years ago so most flowers are imported from Holland. They do grow English flowers here but the problem is the cost of transporting them to London from somewhere like Cornwall – so an awful lot of growers now just sell to local florists for weddings or they sell them at the farm gates. Winter isn’t the best time of year for British flowers, but during the summer when they are at their best it’s so exciting.
AD We started working with a local grower called Audacious Veg who are based in north east London, so really local which is good. They asked what we wanted growing this year after buying from them last year. So we could actually say what goes well and what we want in our bouquets.
On changing career…
MC I went to university with Athena’s sister in Dublin, we became friends and ended up working together in television. We then decided that maybe we could do this and embarked on it with no experience or any real knowledge or sensible business plan! We fortunately had friends in television so were able to get jobs, so we just did events to begin with as we didn’t have a shop back then.
AD For me television had reached a point where I didn’t think I was going to do anything else in it, I had the most enormous fun, but actually, I really loved flowers and always had them in my house and bought ridiculous amounts at Columbia Road Flower Market every Sunday. So it wasn’t terribly different to think I would love to do that, and so Mairead and I thought here is an opportunity, we could try this and see, and so we just did. That was in 2000.
On developing a style…
AD We didn’t have a particular style ourselves when we started, mostly because we didn’t know much. You just sort of reinvent the wheel and discover what you like and then evolve over time. When we opened our shop we realised there was so much possibility in British foliage, so our style developed and became much more natural and what it is now. It was really fortuitous that happened just before people were starting to think about where their flowers were coming from and everyone was a bit over the ball of roses look.
MC The great thing about having a shop is that you get inspired by your customers when they come in looking for things. Especially around here where there are lots of stylists and artists and people who are actually forming taste, so you end up learning from them a bit – I mean we’re supposed to be teaching them, but it ends up being a two-way street.
On floral trends…
MC The thing we are using this year is these Icelandic Poppies from Italy. They started coming into the market about 3 or 4 years ago and were really weedy – it’s taken about 5 years to get their strength and now they are just incredible – the growers have done a fantastic job. The Dutch and Italian innovate and develop what they are growing all the time – they have to keep up with stuff.
AD We have so many people that want to come and do work experience with us now. When we started we were the only florist like us in the neighbourhood and now there are lots. Flowers are really in fashion.
AD We are quite unusual in that we do everything, from retail and weddings to sets for photoshoots, it keeps you informed and gives us variety. It’s nice to be one minute talking about making a flower wall and the next talking about someone who is getting married in Hackney Town Hall in 5 minutes and needs a bouquet – that happens a lot!
On Old Spitalfields Market…
AD We love the food! Just today we had duck from Flank as they made a special dish for Chinese New Year and it was delicious.
MC It’s really lovely that the market is a different thing everyday and never the same – for us that’s particularly exciting because we then get completely different customers. The people that come to Antiques Market have a different expectation to the weekend customers.
“It’s really lovely that the market is a different thing everyday and never the same – for us that’s particularly exciting because we then get completely different customers.”
Rebel Rebel’s Home Care Tips for Flowers
1 Trim stems at a right angle, if you have wooden stems like on foliage, cut up the stem so it splits for more surface area.
2 Put flowers in fresh room temperature water and change daily.
3 Avoid putting flowers in direct sunlight or near a radiator.
4 Recut stems every few day and your bunch will last much longer.
5 Invest in decent scissors.
Stall opening times:
Mon — Sun, 11.00am — 7.00pm