With clients ranging from Ralph Lauren to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, floral stylist and author Willow Crossley has undoubtedly made her mark with her singular approach to flower arranging. Today, the entrepreneur juggles numerous responsibilities, including her eponymous lifestyle brand offering floral workshops, writing books and collaborating with other businesses on a range of exciting projects — yet her love of nature always remains at the heart of her practice. Here, Willow Crossley discusses her approach to floral design, the importance of prioritising sustainability and finding sanctuary in nature.
Florist Willow Crossley is in the midst of preparations for a wedding at Blenheim Palace, and it’s all systems go. “People think floristry is such a peaceful job, but it’s actually like a military operation. I don’t sleep for weeks before big events,” she tells me from her 16th-century Cotswolds farmhouse, where she lives with her husband and three young sons. “It’s about getting the timings right so the flowers come out simultaneously and are in perfect condition. I’ve got five flower deliveries arriving over a three-week period and seven spreadsheets on the go, just for this one event… But there’s the adrenalin when it hopefully all comes together and I love that.”
If anyone can pull it off, Crossley can. Her wild and whimsical arrangements have seen her work with brands including Ralph Lauren and Jo Malone, and she counts Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, as a private client. She’s also the author of four books and founder of her eponymous lifestyle brand, through which she offers workshops and online floristry courses, as well as selling her own vases and homewares. “I’m quite selective with the weddings I do now, just because I have so many other things going on,” she continues. “New projects have to be creatively really exciting.”
Most days, it seems, are a dizzying whirl of activity. “People think of me as a florist, but I feel like I need to rename myself as a creative – so I can do my flowers, write books, design products… I love collaborating with people. I need that variety as I get bored very quickly.” Indeed, Crossley is master of the artful collaboration, creating everything from her own wallpaper with British brand Barneby Gates to rug designs with Amy Kent, and she’s just launched a capsule line of knitwear, tops and dresses with heritage label Brora. “I was so excited when Victoria [Stapleton, Brora founder and creative director] approached me. I love fashion, so this was a dream come true. The collection is a fusion of all my favourite things.”
It’s this creative flair that has taken the 39-year-old to where she is today, as one of the UK’s most sought-after florists and designers. Although she cites her mother, Kate Corbett-Winder, a gardener and artist, as influencing her style (“I absorbed everything from my mum and I still go to her for 90% of everything I do – should I be planting this and when should I be doing it”), Crossley turned to floristry later on in life. She originally started out in the world of fashion, leaving rural Wales, where she grew up with her two brothers, to study at the London College of Fashion. She spent a couple of years trying to break into the industry, which Crossley found to be “very competitive and not that cosy”, before landing a job at Tatler magazine and switching to beauty writing.
But soon after, her then-boyfriend Charlie (now husband) moved to the south of France to work in a vineyard; within six months Crossley, now in her early 20s, had given up everything and joined him. She started collecting vintage textiles and turning them into fabric-covered books and beach bags, which she sold for “crazy money” at the legendary Club 55 beach bar in Saint-Tropez. Around the same time, she began a blog, where she chronicled her stylish Provençal life – an agent spotted it and decided it would make perfect fodder for a book. The Art of Handmade Living followed soon after, its pages full of Crossley’s crafty secrets.
It was while writing her second tome, The Art of Living with Nature, that she realised her true passion lay in floristry. “We had moved back to London and I was doing interiors, personal shopping, writing – spreading myself thinly,” says Crossley. “I wrote a chapter that was about living with flowers, and I loved it so much I decided to focus on that.” She enrolled in an intensive course at the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers and, soon after, the jewellery designer Hattie Rickards asked her to design the flowers for her wedding. “I did it with my mum and we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but I loved it and it all went from there.”
Since then, she’s created floral installations for the likes of Jo Malone, Ralph Lauren and Liz Earle (Crossley has worked with the latter two for the annual Chelsea in Bloom shows, earning Gold awards on both occasions), and worked with a long list of prestigious private clients, including the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, most recently, putting together the wreath that the couple sent for the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as creating the event flowers for the launch of Meghan’s cookbook in aid of Grenfell Tower. “Every time I’ve worked with them, it’s been nothing but joyful,” says Crossley. “Meghan loves her flowers and she’s got great taste, so it’s always been a wonderful experience.”
Crossley describes her floristry style as “wild, wayward and very natural”, and mentions Constance Spry – the original “domestic goddess” who was responsible for the flowers at the Queen’s coronation – as an inspirational figure. When choosing flowers, Crossley is led by seasonality, and enjoys working with certain blooms more than others. “Tulips, I adore, and dahlias, sweet peas and garden roses – Solomon’s Seal is my favourite flower in the world.”
Sustainability is a key focus in her floristry, and she tries to buy from local growers wherever possible – her favourites include the Land Gardeners at Wardington Manor and Bayntun Flowers in West Wiltshire. “Buying British is my preference, always. In the off season, I have to buy flowers from Holland. They’re picked early and often arrive ramrod shut – peonies, for example, are quite diva-ish when it comes to getting them to come out at the right time.
“Historically, floristry has not been a very eco-friendly practice – there’s a lot of single-use plastic and floral foam is terrible for the environment,” she continues. “Now we’re all becoming more aware of how bad it is, we need to do our bit.” For Crossley, that means using plants rather than cut flowers whenever she can, which can then be replanted after events – current favourites include hydrangeas, hyacinths and muscari bulbs – and finding alternatives for the endless plastic buckets needed to house flowers. “I’m constantly using old pots and tins – I’ve got stashes of them all over the house.”
For Crossley, flowers are not only a personal passion – they also have healing properties. After giving birth to her first son, Wolf, she suffered from terrible postnatal depression and found that immersing herself in nature was one of the only things that helped. “It didn’t cure me, but everything that I did to make myself feel better was always to do with nature – walking in the woods, cloud gazing, playing with flowers,” she says. “It’s proven that being outside and just breathing can release serotonin. In Japan, doctors prescribe forest bathing, but here, the healing role of nature is still undervalued.”
Her most recent book, The Wild Journal, was inspired by her struggles and focuses on the role of the outdoors in wellbeing. “The book is a very personal account of my experiences. I don’t have postnatal depression now, but I worry a lot and I’m quite anxious. Being outside makes a huge difference. I find meditating very difficult but, to me, planting my bulbs or sowing seeds, that’s my meditation. It’s nice to be able to nurture and have control over something. I think people don’t really realise how beneficial nature can be.” Tinkering around in her greenhouse also helps – “I can feel the calm after two minutes of being in there, talking to my geraniums” – and she recommends having flowers indoors to keep the spirits up. “I always have a big bowl of hyacinths and narcissus to get me through winter, and foxgloves and tulips in spring.”
Crossley and her husband swapped southwest London for Oxfordshire 11 years ago. Situated just outside Woodstock, their house is made up of two higgledy-piggledy cottages put together and is a happy mishmash of styles, full of colour, pattern and print. “We basically live in our kitchen and sitting room, which is open plan, and there are lots of natural fabrics, all cotton and linen and driftwood. The walls are covered in flowers or trees or birds. It’s completely unintentional – just a collection of things that I’m drawn to – but it feels very homey and comfortable, and that’s what we want. It is beautiful chaos.”
Her style inspiration is as eclectic as her home. “Anna Spiro is my favourite, she loves mixing pattern on pattern, colour on colour. Also Sarah Vanrenen and Nicola Harding, and Angelica Squire has a beautiful eye and a fresh, romantic palette. I’m drawn to Rose Uniacke too – her work is very peaceful, the complete opposite to my house.” She lists Penny Morrison, Bennison Fabrics and Robert Kime as favourites for interiors shopping, though she prefers antiques and vintage pieces. “I’ll trawl through Ardingly Antiques Fair or hunt down vintage fabrics on eBay – I recently upholstered a bedhead with some beautiful old suzani fabric that I found. I love the history that comes with old textiles – they just feel more exciting.”
Anyone who visits The Bull Inn, in nearby Charlbury, will be able to see Willow’s aesthetic for themselves. She owns the pub with her husband and was tasked with its interior design. “Charlie wanted it to feel like a home away from home, though I’ve had to be slightly more practical. Sweet, delicate fabrics wouldn’t stand the test of customers coming and going, so we upholstered in tougher materials but we still went for colour. The Bull is like my home, there’s not one straight wall in there. It’s very characterful.”
As if it wasn’t enough juggling a business with raising her three boys – “I feel permanently guilty that I’m not doing well enough, but I think that’s something all working mothers face” – she’s launching a new content platform, The Seedling, on her website. “I want it to become a lifestyle space where I can talk about all the things that interest me, like mental health. Our brand pillars are Create, Nurture and Inspire, so everything we do, from interviews to products and reviews, will come back to those.” In a way, I say, it’s not that dissimilar to the blog you started all those years ago in France. “Exactly,” she says with a smile. “It’s almost like I’ve come full circle.”