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Floral designer Michael George died Jan. 20 at his home in Manhattan. He was 66.
The cause of death was liver cancer, according to Ashley Winland, Michael George’s public relations and events director.
As an insider to the fashion industry, George provided countless bouquets of his monochromatic and minimalist creations to such design houses as Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Vera Wang, Michael Kors, Halston, Bill Blass and Hugo Boss. Starting in the big-spending Eighties, many of New York City’s tonier restaurants like the Rainbow Room, Lutèce and Mr. Chow were among his weekly clients. Ian Schrager also counted on his friend George for the greenery in the Royalton, the Paramount and all of his other hotels, as well as his own apartment.
“He had a way of taking flowers and working with them that was so elegant they looked like they came right out of a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph,” Schrager said. “I have always found that with people who work in the discipline of floral design, there is something very gentle and visceral about what they do. Michael is irreplaceable as a human being and with what he did with flowers.”
Schrager added, “Over the years I have worked with some of the great floral designers — Jean-Jacques Bloos, René — Robert Isabell was one of my best friends — and I consider Michael right in there in the great line of floral designers. It is another loss for New York.”
Born Michael George Vasillopulos in New York, he grew up in New Rochelle before returning to the city as a teenager. His introduction to floral design was one of osmosis, thanks to his father George, who had his own Upper East Side business, Hybrid, for many years. Before he clipped his surname and after he graduated from high school, George became a Marine in the midst of the Vietnam War. He never served in active duty but acted as a camouflage instructor, advising soldiers how to disguise themselves when in the jungles of Vietnam.
Once his military days were over, George relocated to San Francisco and, after a brief stint in Florida, returned to New York and opened his first shop — a little basement on East 50th Street. His monochromatic arrangements appealed to the fashion crowd. “Clean and simple — that was his motto. He lived by those words,” Winland said. “He used to say, ‘If you treat the stems well, the flowers will take care of themselves.’”
George was said to have discovered his signature style by accident, after washing tulips and seeing that “they twirled like bar straws or pencils in a glass.” Another stroke of serendipity gave George his first “in” with Manhattan’s gold-star socialites. After lunching at Lutèce one afternoon in the early Eighties, Blass noticed the lily of the valleys displayed in George’s shop windows across the street and marched in immediately to place an order. “He said, ‘These flowers are amazing. I want to send them to each of the ladies I just had lunch with,’” said Winland, noting that Pat Buckley was among them. “Michael loved telling that story. And all those ladies became regular clients.”
Blass was one of many designers George befriended over the years. Enthralled by all things fashion, George had a shop at Bergdorf Goodman for years before he relocated to the company’s current Tudor City location. The opening night party of the Calvin Klein Madison Avenue store was one of the many fashion events and society weddings he adorned with flowers in his 30-year career. When the New York Public Library celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala, George broke ground by planting flowers in the urns that frame the landmark building.
Wang said Wednesday, “Michael was an artist and a visionary with an unwavering commitment to quality. He will be missed by so many of us.”
Entrenched as he was in the comings and goings of the Upper East Side, George needed to be told merely a word or two and he knew instinctively what type of floral arrangement to send for his clients. Aside from providing the flowers that marked the highs and lows of their lives, George could be counted on to help with the holiday tree trimming for longtime friends. He also worked outside of New York on occasion. When the 3,015-room Bellagio hotel bowed in Las Vegas in 1998, owner Steve Wynn tapped George to handle the flowers for what was said to be an $88 million opening night party.
Martha Stewart said Wednesday, “It was a great pleasure to meet Michael in the Nineties. He was doing the most extraordinary, innovative, classic floral arrangements. He was a frequent guest on my television show — always teaching, always inspiring. The world of flowers will miss one of its great originals.”
A private memorial for George is being planned for March. He is survived by his wife Lisa George, who now oversees the business, and their children, Isabella and Michael George Jr. Other survivors include two daughters, Lisa and Sunny, with his first wife Netty; the couple divorced. George was also once married to Miho Kosuda, another New York City floral designer; they also divorced.