I definitely have a thing for illustration. Add in an animal in a costume and I’m officially in love. Which is why interviewing Alice Tams of Birds in Hats has been on my ‘hitlist’ for a while (in a non-assassination way). Alice’s love for animals in accessories has grown from a joke to a full-time designer-maker business and certainly makes for an inspiring read. I went to visit the ‘Birds in Hats’ creator at the ‘We Make London‘ pop-up in Kentish Town a few weeks ago, where I was really excited to catch Alice working on a new bird to live in the Little House Kitchen cafe there. Read on for some gems of wisdom regarding how to approach that tricky creativity vs. making money debate, her latest project as part of Studio Klubo, and what we can expect her newest animal obsession to be wearing next season…
Blue-footed Booby in a pinwheel beanie (obviously) // card £3
Hi Alice! Can you tell me what you’re up to at the moment?
Quite a few things actually! I’m preparing my whole new Christmas range and my calendar. Your Christmas range already?! I know. When I did my very first Christmas range I designed it literally in November which was great ’cause everyone was in a Christmassy mood while I was drawing it, but not practical in terms of getting in to shops. Last year I was fairly organised and had it all done by June. I’ve just decided that I do so little in those February-March months when it’s a little bit quieter, I’m going to get it done now.
Budgie in a trilby // print from £16
How would you sum up Birds in Hats? How did it start?
I tell people this all the time but it really is a joke that got out of hand. I was drawing this owl like 5 years ago when I was still doing a creative writing degree at Goldsmiths. And it just wasn’t very good, it was all out of proportion, so I put a baseball cap on it backwards as a joke. And something about it just really clicked. It made my housemate laugh a lot so he asked if I’d draw him a vulture in a safari hat for his birthday. I’ve always loved drawing animals more than anything so I was quite happy to keep doing this. The more I did it, the funnier it got, so I kept doing it and that’s why I’m still doing it now.
I think it’s wicked. I see you’ve expanded into dinosaurs as well…
Yes, it’s the big project this year. I’m going to try and do a dinosaur collection for Christmas, equal to my Birds in Hats collection. Dinosaurs also wearing hats? Umm, jumpers. There will be some Christmas jumpers.
Raptors on Tour // print from £16
Amazing. How long have you been running Birds in Hats?
Well, full-time: 2-3 years. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint where it really began because it was such a slow burner. It was a joke for like a year, a blog that I literally just kept to make my friends laugh. Then other people started to get interested. I was still at uni when I was setting up the business but I still didn’t think it would be a full time thing. I was just incredibly flattered that people wanted to buy my cards. I was happy to make them and just break even. I worked in a pub for two years after I graduated, just to support myself, and I gradually moved the shifts. So I was working full time to begin with and then as I got more successful I could drop a shift at the pub and devote that day to illustration and every month I’d shift the ratio until I eventually was only on one day a week at the pub, and then I had to quit that. Then I spent two years doing every Sunday on Brick Lane right up until this Christmas, which I’ve just stopped doing now. That provided me with, not a consistent income at all, but an income, which is hard to come by as an illustrator starting out. So yeah, there wasn’t exactly a five year plan!
What’s it’s like working for yourself?
It’s been a strange journey. It gets easier and harder in peaks and troughs I find. You have to either be incredibly self-disciplined, or in my case, learn self-discipline. You feel very guilty for not working at your absolute hardest 100% of the time, ’cause all of your income relies on you. You feel like you can’t take a day off, but you can work 7 days a week and not work that well, or work 5 days a week and work really well so you have to really make time for yourself.
Alice working on a new bird in a hat in the ‘We make London’ pop-up (photos: Verity Inett)
You’ve had some great collaborations with ‘Etsy’ and now ‘We make London‘. How did this come about?
Well, I guess it’s just putting yourself out there. I do a lot of markets, especially the Crafty Fox market which is where I met Georgia Bosson and Cecily Vessey who I’m now running Studio Klubo with. Mary who runs ‘We Make London‘ just got given this space by the council, who are trying to rejuvenate these streets (in Kentish Town) and she came to us and asked if we wanted the opening week. Possibly because we all already have established product ranges.
So is Studio Klubo completely new?
It is brand new actually. We’ve been wanting to collaborate for a while and haven’t found a solid physical project. It’s been really fun! It’s very fluid, being brand new it could change a lot.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a full-time illustrator?
Advice is really important and I didn’t really have any as I didn’t do an illustration degree. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I’d say support yourself for as long as you can because massive financial pressure will drag you down and is not the key to creativity. If you throw the towel in and say, ‘right, I’ve got 3 months to make this work’, your work might suffer because of that. You’ll get less done having another job but it is doable and you might make better decisions. You’ll be able to act on your instinct. So yeah, don’t put loads of financial pressure on yourself. You’ve got to be practical. If you burn yourself out, you’re not going to make anything that anyone else wants to look at.
That’s really true. I just read a blog post that Sarah Fordham (embroidery legend who I’ve previously interviewed) wrote about being skint after following her creative dreams for so many years and the difficulties of balancing that out.
Yeah, I’m really, really lucky. I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks. Like when I as first starting out and all I had was the blog, this magazine that was just starting out, ‘Oh Comely‘, it was only their 5th issue and they asked if I wanted to be their featured illustrator so I said, ‘Yes!’. It was a double page spread and that was the only reason anyone really found out about me. I started to get just 2 or 3 emails asking if I did cards or prints and I realised maybe there was something in this. I was also lucky in that I was a student at the time which does give you a level of security in that you have your degree, student loan. I would say do follow your heart absolutely, but also be practical at the same time. You don’t want to end up resenting the one thing that makes you happy. I’ve got to the point where I’ve taken on too many commisions at the same time and it’s made me hate drawing and not look forward to going into the studio. So I had to decide to work better not harder. I have to charge more for my commissions or just say no. It’s really tricky and you’ll learning constantly. I’m sure I’ll be learning when I’m 40, 50…
Peacock in a Scottish bonnet print // from £16
What are your future plans?
My long-term plans are a little bit more concrete than they were when I was a student, but they’re still very fluid. I would like to move more into wholesale rather than doing Brick Lane every Sunday. I want something a bit more reliable so I’m going to do my first trade show this year and that’s why I’m getting all my Chrsitmas collection done so early. I’m actually doing a course in paleo-biology at the moment, learning a lot about dinosaurs!
I was going to say there must be some biology interest going on for you to do this…
Oh God, yeah. So that’s going to hopefully make my dinosaur collection as informed as possible. And just to get more work done. ‘Cause you do get to this point where you’re not making a huge amount of money but you’re packaging all the time. So it’s learning to delegate and let go a little bit. Obviously, you’ve got to pay someone else to do it, but your time is better spent designing new things. From October to December I barely draw a thing except for commissions ’cause any spare time is putting envelopes in cellephene bags. It’s not a great use of my time at the end of the day.
Thank you so much Alice!
She’s pretty wonderful, right? Which birdy creation would you most like to see?
***15% DISCOUNT: NO LONGER VALID***Celebrate the month of love with an exclusive Birds in Hats 15% discount for both alicetams.com/shop and etsy.com/uk/shop/birdsinhats. Simply enter code: MTMBIH15 at checkout. Valid until midday 3rd March. What are you going to treat yourself to? A penguin in a top hat? Lovebirds in bobble hats? Owl in a baseball cap? The possibilities are endless. ***
Follow along with Birds in Hats here:
(Images: Yeshen Venema for alicetams.com)