True to the artistry she tries to create, Phoebe Ma personally delivers all of her ethereal floral arrangements.
In the four months since she started her company Gem Fleuriste, the native New Yorker prefers to execute every last task with great care, specializing in selecting unexpected flowers, herbs and greenery for depth and fragrance such as Pulsatilla, lamb’s ear, wintersweet, wild mint and blackberries. The TriBeCa café Maman enlisted her for a pop-up earlier this year and she may work more closely with the company.
Until last year, the Bushwick resident worked for Wool and the Gang, running pop-up shops, hosting knitting parties and even live-knitting at special events. Beautiful, old fashion photos as well as recent ones from Juergen Teller, Kimisa H and Finnish photographer Lumi Tuomi influence her floristry. “When you just look at their work, it just gives you a sense of wanderlust. I like to post on my inspiration wall and on Instagram photographs by people who travel a lot. I would like people to be transported with my flowers by giving them that same feeling I get when I see those photographs,” Ma says.
Kimisa says, “Looking at her arrangement is like reading a short romantic novel, which was composed by many intricate elements and details. She put the stories together improvisationally, and then she reads to us with her soft and luscious voice.”
Her roundabout road to floristry started as a LaGuardia High School student who discovered Polux Fleuriste one afternoon and kept coming back. “I love that store so much. It was like walking into the French countryside. It smelled amazing and was filled with walls of flowers. It was such a dream to walk into,” she says.
After four years of studying journalism at The New School, Ma took a few art classes at Parsons for a change of pace. “That really made me want to be more hands-on and more creative. That wasn’t really allowed with the journalism that I was doing. It was very factual so you couldn’t make anything up,” she says.
Mulling over her next move after college, Ma asked herself the perennial what-would-you-do-if you-could-do-anything question and thought of the flower shop. Ma rang up Polux Fleuriste’s owners Barbara Sarudiansky and Anouchka Martin and offered to work for free. They agreed despite the fact that her training was nil. Preferring the classic French technique of using blades instead of clippers for their natural-looking bouquets and arrangements, they taught Ma a certain precision. Building on that experience, she trained at Stéphane Chapelle in Paris just steps from the Louvre. One of the more unforgettable tasks then was to deliver flowers in Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors without a soul around.
Ma may unveil a pop-up at her friend’s vintage store Walk the West in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She described owner Clotilde Testa as “an English rose covered in tattoos.” Self-financed, Ma is reluctant to take on any debt for Gem Fleuriste. “It’s common to do that when you start a business, but that scares me. I know a lot of people are much more fearless when it comes to that. But hopefully I won’t have to.”
Ariana Ost and other designer friends including one at Uniqlo peripherally affect her dreamy, whimsical view. The layers and layers of beautiful colors used by Indian designers such as Samant Chauhan, as well as their leanings toward shiny accents like a magpie, also inspire her. “Definitely Marchesa is very inspirational. It goes back to a time when people dressed a certain way. I love the romance of it all,” Ma says.
Her daily treks to the West 28th Street flower market are just the start of a different sort of deliverance. “I feel a moment of calm whenever I start working with flowers. I want them to be romantic and special in a precious way. I hope that I will get there.”