My third instalment of the So She Did Diaries is with Jenny Mustill, artist and founder of Ruby Ruth Dolls based in Brighton. It’s likely you’ll have seen these dolls somewhere, be it in a local independent shop, on an instagrammer’s social feeds or even in Madame Tussaud’s (thanks to Zoella’s love of Jenny’s creations, Ruby Ruth dolls reside next to Zoella’s wax work in London). If that’s not what success looks like, show me what does!
Jenny started the business officially back in 2009, although she’s been creating for years before that. She even worked with Damien Hirst for a while before she started up Ruby Ruth and is clearly a really talented creative.
What I love about Jenny’s work is the kooky designs and the sense of humour she applies to the characters she creates, from Shirley who has run the cloakroom at her local nightclub for the past eight years to Burt who is always the first one to start a conga line at a party – she gives them all stories and once you know them it’s difficult not to fall in love with them. They make lovely handmade gifts, not only do they look great, but they also use recycled charity shop jumpers giving them a purpose too. I have recently bought one for a friend and I have my eye on several for my new house.
I spent a lovely evening with Jenny in her amazingly colourful and quirky workshop quizzing her on how she started up, how to deal with negative self-talk and going out of your comfort zone. We also discover a mutual love for Button Moon. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
How is everything going with the business at the moment?
It’s going really well, it’s expanding and it’s super busy. I feel a bit like I’m on a hamster wheel that’s going really fast to be honest, but it’s exciting at the same time!
You are pretty much a one man band, although you’ve recently hired some support three days a week, how do you manage everything on your plate?
I do everything from taking commissions to making the dolls and the social media for the brand too. It feels like I’m spinning a lot of plates to be honest! I’ve definitely spread myself too thinly, but I think of it as though I’m laying the foundations for all the essential parts of my business. There’s only so much you can do by yourself, now it’s getting to the point where I need to delegate in order to scale and grow. It’s been such a learning curve!
What’s been the biggest thing you’ve learned?
Taking on staff felt like a big thing. Working out how to teach someone else how to make the dolls was difficult. Communicating that properly was tricky in the beginning, but so worth it now.
Did you always want to be your own boss?
It was never something I 100% set out to do, but it just sort of naturally occurred to me over a number of years that that was what I wanted to do.
Do you enjoy it?
Yes and no! I don’t think I knew how challenging it would be, but maybe it’s a good thing to go into it a bit blindly. I know it’s not how everyone does it. I don’t think I could go back to working for someone else now though.
A lot of people I interview for this talk about their success being a happy accident. They feel their way and sort of don’t realise they’re doing OK until they’re in the middle of it. Does that sound familiar to you?
Yeah, it was a sort of natural progression for me as the work started to pick up. I definitely identify with that.
It was great when Elle Decoration contacted me and wanted to feature me, that was a pinch me moment! And when Zoella started buying them and posting them on her social media feeds – that was brilliant. She just bought them herself from one of my stockists Pussy Home Boutique in Brighton. Another pinch me moment was being approached to do an animation which I am incredibly excited about! Those three things together have been real ‘pinch me’ moments.
I bet you couldn’t imagine all of these things happening when you first started out on the stalls – that you’d have your work on display in Madame Tussaud’s for example!
Not at all! The Madam Tussaud’s project was another pinch me moment actually. It’s funny when you look back at how much that’s happened. Exciting stuff in the past, and hopefully exciting stuff ahead too.
That’s definitely what it looks like from the outside!
Vlogger Hannah Michalak has four of your creations that are always popping up in her vlogs and on her Instagram…
[Jenny shows me a tiny doll, about the size of a finger.] This is what they used to look like in the early days, much, much smaller! This is the type that Hannah had in one of her vlogs ages ago and a viewer got in touch to tell me. She must have bought it about 12 years ago in one of my London markets. I sent her some of the bigger ones you see in her videos today.
Have you always used charity shop material for the hats?
They used to be 100% be made from my old clothes, it was a great way of using up old stuff and recycling and using interesting fabrics.
Did you teach yourself to sew?
My mum did.
How many do you make a day?
It depends really- the busiest time is the run up to Christmas.
Brits are known for being rubbish at accepting praise, do you find it hard?
I don’t know, I guess I don’t find it easy really! It’s great to have some affirmation and be recognised for your work, it’s really, really lovely. I really struggle with interviews and PR though, but even though it’s really out of my comfort zone it’s something I need to do.
You’re definitely not alone in that feeling, I talked about this a lot with Katie Kirby in her interview about how cringe worthy it can be to self-promote and put yourself out there. Even me clicking publish on a blog post to my friends feels hard!
Yes, it’s scary! But I think it’s also quite exciting to feel challenged like that too. I’m excited to put more of myself into the brand too, which I haven’t done for a really long time. I’m trying to bring a bit more of me into it “I’m making this” – it’s not just the characters, I’m behind the scenes too.
And that’s challenging but will hopefully be rewarding…
Yeah, definitely. But I think it’s really important to do scary things as much as you can.
Do you ever battle with any negative thoughts? Especially when you were starting up? Any limiting thoughts?
Oh my God, all the time! Yes! Constantly. I’m so often giving myself grief about stuff, my internal monologue can be really harsh. But again, I think that’s something to keep overcoming and it’s also human nature. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you know, especially when you have to cover some many areas of a business I sometimes think “Well look at what you’ve done since this time last year.” And tell myself I can do it again and even better. When you force yourself to look back and take stock it can be really exciting. You’ve just got to remain vigilant to the negative inner voice!
Do you get nervous when you put out a new idea? The new cats for example? Is it nerve-wracking showing new work?
Yeah, it’s always nerve-wracking if something isn’t going to be popular, you’re just putting your ideas out there to be judged. That’s one thing I love about social media, that instant feedback. It’s almost like being at a market except it’s not face to face. I love doing polls on Facebook where people can give their opinions and help me name new creatures. I like being able to interact that way with customers.
Your social profile and the way you interact is so vibrant. You have such a lovely following.
Where do you get your best ideas? Especially for the brilliant stories that each doll has?!
They have just sort of evolved really, some of them are based loosely on people I know. Some characters have really humanistic qualities whereas some are more surreal. I’ve always been interested in weird characters, outsiders… and space – I’ve commented before about how much I love Button Moon, and would watch it growing up. They’ve just evolved really.
(At this point I confess to owning a Button Moon DVD and we have affectionate chat about 80s TV shows…)
Do you ever get creative block?
No, the opposite! I feel like there’s not enough time in each day to get my ideas out there! There’s so much I want to do. I feel the pressure of that, I just want to get them out although it’s a good pressure. I’d rather that than sitting there wondering what to do next!
It’s super clichéd but I really like Bikram yoga. I feel totally relaxed after that, and I feel like I’ve pushed myself, my skin feels nice, it’s lovely. That or going to the pub with friends.
Get on with it! What are you waiting for? Don’t listen to negatives, focus on the positives and find what you really love doing. I know this is another cliché but I think just getting on with it is a great bit of advice.
Did you have any hesitation setting up Ruby Ruth?
No, not really. I just love making stuff. I’ve always had a drive to make stuff, and as the dolls escalated after that it was just a natural progression.