Fangirl chats with Harriet and Rosie from Tatty Devine

"We used to sit and just make and sew with the tortoises nibbling our toenails because they thought they were cherries..."
Publish date:
June 6, 2012

An audience with the queens of fantastic plastic - Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine of Tatty Devine

Meeting Tatty Devine founders Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine is a little like being granted an audience with royalty, for they are truly the indie queens of DIY style. Trying not to appear too tragically fan girlish, I sat down with them in their colourful, chaotic office in their Brick Lane studio, which is a cross between Santa’s workshop and Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but for jewellery.

In many ways they remind me of Bea and Evie, the intrepid fashion-designing sisters from seminal early ‘90s TV show The House of Elliot (when I creepily told them this they guffawed loudly, then said they must re-watch the show.) Their independent, irreverent attitude has gained them plaudits, but both the fictional duo and the real-life one have watched their designs being copied and had to fight David and Goliath-style battles to defend their brand's identity. In 2012 Tatty Devine published a post on their blog pointing out the glaring similarities between some of their original designs and jewellery that was being sold in Claire’s Accessories. After the story went viral, a satisfactory agreement was eventually reached and Tatty emerged triumphant.

We got the Claire’s saga out of the way first. Harriet and Rosie were amazed and touched by the outpouring of support they received, especially on Twitter and Facebook, with Harriet saying, “It was so lovely to know that everybody really cared about why we design what we design. We feel like the pieces have got integrity and it felt really nice that people who haven’t even heard of Tatty Devine appreciate that.” Rosie added, “It really highlighted that we’re about making original things – that’s always been our aim, to make stuff that isn’t out there. So to have an original being copied highlighted the fundamental aspect of what we do.”

Harriet said that they’ve actually seen their designs being copied before and pointed it out on their blog, but this was the first time anyone really picked up on it. They know it happens all the time to small, independent designers and felt that the principle was worth fighting for, while a victory was crucial to the survival of their business; "Our customers told us people were saying, 'Oh is that Claire’s?' of their Tatty Design necklace!" Rosie added, "There was confusion and it was damaging - people were thinking that we had worked with them which would go against everything we stand for..." Harriet: "Or even that we had copied Claire’s! We were prepared to go quite far but we didn’t have to because they actually were really positive."

[Ed's note: Like many partnerships who have been working together for years, Harriet and Rosie often finish each other's thoughts and sentences, so I have marked their individual contributions to the conversation with their initials!]

Harriet made an important point about the value that is intrinsic in a handmade piece – and how that impacts on its price: “We feel so protective about the dinosaur and we have seen a few similar dinosaurs for sale on other sites, because people get horrified by the price [of ours] but we’re going to do a workshop so people can come in to make them and will realise how time-consuming they are, because it’s such an art, it’s not just ‘bish bash bosh’, it’s really specific. But I think people felt really protective of the dinosaur because they’ve saved up, spent 120 quid on something they felt had integrity, had originality about it, something incredible about it and then you can get it for £8.99 in pink rubber!”

The famous dinosaur necklace, £114,

One thing that inspires such loyalty in Tatty Devine’s customers is the very real sense that they are two friends having a huge amount of fun, making things they really want to make, for women just like them. They are longstanding members of East London’s creative design community and in their early days collaborated with the likes of Rob Ryan. But I wanted to go even further back, to their messy student days…

"Rosie and I met at art college and Rosie was sleeping in her sister’s bath on an old door. We had a spare room which had the boiler in it and she said 'can I stay in your spare room' and we were like 'yeah we’ll get a carbon monoxide detector' and we put some old Astroturf down as a carpet and put a chandelier up and that’s all we did! And it was such fun, we were living in Brixton and one friend worked in the Dogstar, another worked in the Fridge, we had no money and were having the time of our lives!"

R: "Harriet was working at the V&A in the restaurant and she said 'do you want a job?' and I was like 'yeah!' We started working together, would go to college together, would come home together and we just got on really well and made a really good team." H:"After we graduated we got into making stuff together – we just wanted to be artists, the plan was not to get a real job! We found a sack full of leather samples outside an upholstery shop – big square pieces in every colour you could ever imagine and started making cuffs out of old bits of belt..."

I finally got the chance to ask a question that's been bothering me for years - where does the name Tatty Devine come from? Harriet put me out of my misery: "Ok for the record, my second name’s Vine and at college people used to say 'Oi, Devine'..." Rosie chips in: "And it was kind-of like de-vine – 'of the vine' – hence it has an ‘e’ instead of an ‘i’ because it came from that. When we were doing a market stall we didn’t have a name, we were just selling leather cuffs, but all these really cool shops like Urban Outfitters and Apartment in Berlin kept wanting to buy it and were like 'Oh, we need a name because this is turning into something'. Originally it was called ‘Tassel’, and I’ve got a sketchbook and on the side it says ‘Harriet and Rosie makes’ but they didn’t really fit... Then we just started playing around – we liked the word ‘divine’ and we both had a fascination for tatty things - old things that had been worn and loved. I was ringing up a few shops, trying to get appointments and one day I tried Tatty Devine and they were like 'We’ve heard of you!' so we were like 'Oh well, that’s our name!'"

H: "Even the lady in the bank said, 'That’s such a good name, is it your name? Can I speak to Tatty?'" R: "It all felt complete, cos it feels like it could be a woman’s name, and it’s oxymoronic – tatty versus divine – and it sums up what we do, it just works really well, it fitted."

The duo migrated from Brixton to Brick Lane, via a short sojourn in West Hampstead where Harriet ‘broke a house’ (oops.) Tatty HQ was Rosie’s makeshift home; "a funny little hut in the middle of a school yard – they dug it up and it was like a tropical garden and there must have been about 60 tortoises, just roaming around the ponds and greenhouses. We used to sit and just make and sew with the tortoises nibbling our toenails because they thought they were cherries."

A Friday Kahlo-inspired look from the Spring/Summer 2012 collection, modelled by Tatty fan Evie May

I love hearing these ‘how the band got together’ stories and it seems that women work particularly well in partnerships, achieving things that they might never have thought possible on their own. As Rosie put it: “Incredible things happened then – we were so lo-fi – we had an old PC and a fax machine - that was like the ‘office’ – in my little hut, surrounded by tortoises! We got home one day and there was a message on the machine and we listened to it hundreds of times and in the end we realised it was Robert Forrest, wanting us to meet him and Giambatista Valli to design something for Ungaro – would we come to Paris to meet them? And we were just like ‘WHAT?’ and they actually came to this funny little hut in the middle of Brick Lane surrounded by tortoises to talk about us!”

H: we both used to wear ties and matching outfits. We got described as the ‘girl version of Gilbert and George’.

"People are afraid of taking risks, but you have to."

13 years later and Tatty Devine is a global brand, with A-list customers, exciting collaborations and a team of devoted staff. Are they all grown up now? And is their partnership the key to their success? Rosie says, “It feels like a job but we love it! There’s responsibility, but it’s not like a job where you have to go and work for someone else. It gets really exciting because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Every week we seem to turn another corner and something incredible happens and it is a responsibility but I think we thrive off that, we thrive off what we’ve created. And every night we say “bloody hell, what happened? How did that happen?” and you realise that you stack up experience and several things can come of that. Something that’s always been the glue has just been conversation, that dialogue and I think the reason why lots of women work together is because questions need answering and you need two people to make something happen...

H: "Even as something’s coming out of your mouth – by the time you’ve said it, you know the answer, but you needed to say it to someone? Like I could never have organised that graduation party on my own, and I don’t think you would have either, but together we were just a force to be reckoned with. You know, you double the energy, double the outcome."

Glittery colourful chaos at Tatty Devine HQ.

Who has great style now? "Grayson Perry! Isn’t he hot? Sue Kreitzman – she’s from California and she’s written lots of self help books, but she’s turned into an artist and she’s very very cool. She makes outsider art. In terms of style… Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Thelma from Bernstock Speirs – Peter Jensen used her as the inspiration for his collection, she has this very understated look. People who’ve got their own style as opposed to being fashionable, just that like intrinsic joy – they’re cool."

How did you feel when Madonna got a name necklace? [lots of laughter] "Er, quite excited! They rang up and asked if we’d make one for her video and we were like “YEP!” That’s a good example of something bonkers happening every day – it’s not that we’re blasé about it, it’s just that we probably would have been more excited if it had been Grayson Perry! It was so amazing to do something with Belle and Sebastian because they were the soundtrack to that time – we were more starstruck over that! They’re much more important to us than Madonna…"

As well as their Brick Lane workshop, Tatty Devine now runs a studio in Kent, which I suggest must be the coolest place in town to work... Rosie: "It is like going into Narnia…and we do have girls saying ‘I have the best job in the world!’ which does kind of make me want to cry! Because that’s just amazing and we couldn’t do what we do without them – they’ve really been on a journey with us. They just care. Our customers are so varied and our staff are relatively varied, but they are also the customers and they really love the product – they’re who we’re making jewellery for so it’s really nice to be surrounded by them. It’s like a family and we all eat together and take it in turns to make a cooked lunch for everyone."

"The next collection is quite grown up and quite dark… it gives us free reign to make stuff that’s much more directional. It keeps it fresh and it keeps the integrity and the originality. Dark and poisonous flowers… you make it and then you watch the catwalk shows and realise that collective consciousness is there. You don’t have any control over it"

H: We often get asked how we come up with so many ideas, but our problem is cutting them down! There’s a whole world of stuff out there and you can’t just look to fashion for inspiration for making fashion. People are afraid of taking risks, but you have to.

Who just got a delivery of xoJane necklaces from Tatty Devine? WE DID!

And so to the quick-fire round:

What's the best thing about being a woman? "Everything!"

And the worst thing? "There isn’t anything."

What would you tell 16-year-old you? "Have faith in yourself and just do it."

Who are your heroes? R: "My grandmother was a bit of a heroine. Jeanette Winterson – when I was a teenager I read all of her books and they really opened my mind. Marilyn Monroe."

What do you do to have fun around here? R: "I like going on bike rides with my husband." H: "And the early discos at Drink, Shop & Dance – from 7:30 to midnight"