Fiona Duffelen became a businesswoman in order to be an artist, rather than the other way round: “I’ve always thought of myself as straddling the two worlds.”
On Halloween in 2011 she opened the shop Fee Fee La Fou on Bradbury Street. It sells art, jewellery, home décor, and stationery. An oil painter by trade, Duffelen produces “probably close to” 35% or 40% of the stock, with the rest coming from other artists.
The shop, which Duffelen thinks of as a community space, represents 157 local artists. She believes it is important “to pay artists fairly”. One way she helps them is through buying stock up front as much as possible. While this may be less profitable for the shop, she thinks it puts money back into the local economy and helps artists produce more.
As a businesswoman she is frustrated by the stereotype that creative people are not numerate or good at presenting themselves: “Most artists are incredibly adaptable and flexible”.
While she does not know many other artists who own their own shop, most of her artist friends do three or four jobs to enable them to continue their work.
Duffelen, who studied at the Ruskin School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, paints fantasy landscapes and is interested in the theme of camouflage. She has also designed homeware, wallpapers and cushions.
She works on her art on Mondays and Tuesdays, and opens the shop the other five days of the week. She has staff she can rely on, and her husband lends a hand on the weekend, but “it’s a one-man band, to be honest”.
The shop is incredibly lively, with circus-themed wallpaper, an arcade claw machine and a wacky array of products. Duffelen does not choose art for the shop that is minimalist or lacks colour.
Duffelen hosts corporate events, which provide a further revenue stream. She also offers interior design and makes props. As well as helping to balance the books, these extra activities are “a great way of getting your name out”.
Duffelen previously worked for an advertising agency for five years on top of creating art, “with a view to learning how to market myself better”.
The artist, who has lived in Hackney for 19 years, describes Dalston as a “melting pot of different cultures and people from different backgrounds”.
“Artists are always really attracted to more interesting areas, aren’t they?”
However, the ground-floor premises has been on the frontline of local anti-social behaviour, including theft. She even says that she has had to lock people inside the shop because “something’s going on outside”.
Duffelen has campaigned against an increase in business rates in the area. The shop has faced a 158% rise since April last year; difficult for “a home-grown, small, independent enterprise”.
She says “trying to survive as a day-time business is becoming increasingly difficult” in Dalston; she worries that the balance between bars and restaurants on one hand, and shops on the other, is going too far in favour of the former and “could do with readdressing”. She thinks the area is becoming known as a place “for people to get pissed”.
On the vexed subject of gentrification, the artist has mixed views. She believes that it is London’s constantly changing nature which “makes it so interesting and exciting”. She is also unhappy that as an artist she is stereotyped an outsider. People think she “must have come from Shoreditch”. In fact, she tells me, many local artists are being pushed out to Margate or Hastings due to how expensive the area is.
Last year Fee Fee La Fou was joint-winner of the Mayor of Hackney’s Best Creative Business Award. Duffelen tells me this was “amazing” considering she has a “challenging business model and idea”.
Thanks to its publicity the shop has attracted “people from all over,” including travellers from abroad. Yet it is the local customer base which has “kept us going”.
However, Duffelen is concerned that more expensive accommodation in Dalston is often owned by investors and let out to transient tenants who do not necessarily want to furnish their homes.
The shop also taps into the gifting market, and what Duffelen calls “gifting for themselves”. It is common for people to look for a present for someone else for under £20 but at the same time buy themselves a necklace, with “maybe a bit of a higher-end price bracket”.
Looking ahead, Duffelen is interested in selling her own artwork to retailers such as Liberty. However, the company ethos will remain the same. She says she does not ever want to “compromise the quality of what I do and the way I want to make those products”.
“ I have no intention of simply becoming a really big stationery shop”.
“My priority will always be making interesting things that excite me and my customers.”