Laura Cartledge traces a Hove business from the playground and kitchen table to famous fans.
Despite only being 26, Maria Allen has already clocked up more than a decade of business experience.
In that time the Hove designer has gone from selling homemade cards in the playground to supplying
cufflinks for prime minister David Cameron – so did she expect it to be so successful?
“I always had a vision of what I wanted it to be, but it is hard to know what will happen,” replies Maria. “I had no idea really.
“It started right back when I was 15 at school,” she recalls. “I had always made cards for friends and family – then a friend’s dad suggested I sell them.”
Maria decided ‘to have a go’ and when the first shop she visited placed an order she found the courage to approach more.
Over the next three years she built up a portfolio and a list of around 30 shops across the city.
“It taught me a lot,” reveals Maria. “I always had part time jobs alongside it, but it was the fun bit.”
At 18, unhappy with the jewellery she could find for sale, Maria again decided to ‘have a go’ and begun creating her own pieces.
“I started wearing them and people kept asking where they were from,” she explains. “Then they placed orders, it was mostly friends of friends.”
This soon changed however, as Maria opened an online shop and started attracting orders from all over the world.
But, keen to complete her degree in graphic design, it remained something Maria did in ‘all the spare time’ she had.
With her studies finished, the desire to ‘want to see where it would go’ took over and Maria made the leap to begin running her self-titled company full-time.
“I started off in my parent’s kitchen,” she smiles. “Then it took over the whole house – the landing, the loft. The office part was in my bedroom and the packing was on the dining table.
“I remember working next to the fridge one day and it got opened in my face. That’s when I decided it was time to get a studio so we moved near Hove station,” remembers Maria.
“There is a funny photo of me with this bit of stock in this massive room, clearly wondering how I’d fill it.”
Her concerns turned out to be unfounded, before long the space was ‘full to the brim’ and demand saw Maria take on her first member of staff – something she lists as a standout moment.
If the success of Maria Allen Boutique could be measured, the fact this year’s Father’s Day saw a team of ten needed to tackle the orders could be one way of doing it.
“We went from jewellery to men’s jewellery and accessories which are our best sellers,” Maria says, explaining she’s always taken inspiration from ‘what I would like and what I think our customers will like’.
The result is a range of distinctive pieces which Maria describes as having ‘an illustrative style’ and a ‘theme of nature and animals’.
“Using wood seemed to fit well with that,” she explains. “It is important to me to have interesting stories behind it, and for it to be sustainably sourced.
“Our Union Jack cufflinks are made from a tree which was 200 years old from Winston Churchill’s estate,” adds Maria. “We supply the National Trust with them because it has a nice link.”
Maria’s talent at transforming ideas into unique creations sees her inundated with bespoke and commission inquires.
So far the list includes an Alice in Wonderland range for the Tate, and projects with The British Museum, The Royal Academy of Arts and the Houses of Parliament.
“There is always something going on,” she admits modestly. “Sometimes it is hard to switch off the ideas.”
One that paid off particularly well was when Maria took the opportunity to make something special for David Cameron.
Having read he’d made a bet with his New Zealand counterpart, John Key, over a rugby match between England and All Blacks.
Whoever’s county lost had to wear the rival’s cufflinks, and Maria decided to help the PM find the perfect set by making him a pair of Kiwis.
David Cameron stood by his word and took to Twitter to prove it, posting a picture of Maria’s creations.
Speaking about the attention it gained, Maria says, “it shows what can happen when you see an opportunity and just go for it.”
Personalised wooden letter
The most recognisable design is the Maria Allen ‘letter’ necklace – which comes with a personalised wooden letter inside – as it featured on a national television advert over Christmas.
“We’ve now had 80 or more people propose using it,” reveals Maria. “It is always great to see the pictures.
“I am getting married this summer so I have been making a lot for that,” she adds, which explains the recent surge in wedding designs. “My work reflects my life, so it is really natural.”
For more information, visit www.mariaallenboutique.com