After being potted like plants for months on end at home, many have marched outdoors to tend to gardens, walk in the woods or appreciate other people’s colorful flowers.
Yayoi Kusama’s “Cosmic Nature” at the New York Botanical Garden is giving greenery a constellation effect. In honor of National Gardening Day, which is today, WWD spoke with four floral designers about how the shutdown spurred them into new directions and when they expect parties, events and weddings to make a comeback.
The intersection of fashion companies and floral designers isn’t purely a transactional one with corporate clients. Beyond the preponderance of floral prints that designers are embracing, “there is an appreciation that flowers symbolize hope,” according to Belle Fleur New York’s Meredith Waga Perez.
Being stuck at home due to the pandemic has made people appreciate and yearn for flowers and the joy they can spark, according to Lewis Miller Design’s namesake founder. “Now people are a lot more grateful for anything beautiful. In the olden days — pre-pandemic — flowers were like anything else. People based their identity around, ‘Oh, this flower represents me’ just like ‘This is my perfume or this is my designer.’ That feels a little bit obsolete and a little hedonistic. Right now we’re much more open to anything that feels honest and authentic and beautiful and that will spark a little joy,” said Miller.
The public’s renewed interest in all things green stems from a need for nature and how flowers represent change when you are confined to a certain area, Miller said. They bring beauty and joy. And they don’t last that long, then they’re gone. It’s changing your landscape a little bit and your point of view. With the chaos that is going on, there is something extremely comforting and real about them,” Miller said.
Started in 2002, Lewis Miller Design’s namesake said once he got past “the initial shock, awe and hyperventilation” of the first month of the pandemic, the company pivoted and started to have a little fun. Introducing flash flower boxes — flowers FedEx-ed directly from Holland — were a major boost last spring. Miller’s company would send links to recipients for five or six instructional videos showing them how to clean, hydrate and arrange the flowers.
Miller continued to do his Flower Flashes — public pop art using flowers that he started in 2016 but the concept became poignant during the pandemic. Last year one Flower Flash project with American Express helped to raise more than $50,000 for a charity that helps healthcare workers. Installing an elaborate flash outside of a hospital while two security guards looked on did not end as well. Once finished, they “sauntered over” to say the flowers had to be moved 10 feet. The team took all the flowers apart, returned to the studio to clean them, put them in bud vases and returned to the hospital to distribute them to patients. “There wasn’t a lot of funny stuff that happened this year, but there was quite a bit of rewarding stuff. We just took it one day at a time,” Miller said.
A small amount of federal funding at the beginning of the shutdown didn’t go far. Last year’s team of 10 is now five. Reliant on private events, parties and weddings, Miller described last year as “a house of cards — all of the events kept falling over one at a time,” he said. “Within six weeks, we went from having a packed year to nothing. But it was the fashion industry, the jewelry industry and the beauty industry that has given us a lot of business to maintain our business during this pandemic.”
Through flash boxes and bespoke projects, the company has done collaborations with Aerin Lauder, Van Cleefs & Arpels and Moda Operandi. “They were great partners to create various content and things for their clients or platforms,” he said.
Looking ahead, Miller is “a little scared” about how busy fall is expected to be with weddings, parties, corporate collaborations and speaking engagements. “We’re busy right now but we’re not busy doing anything that makes any money. Come this fall it’s going to be bananas. I feel very good about the future. It gets me a little queasy because we’ve got a lot of projects in store,” Miller said. “We are not operating on all cylinders at this point, but we will be.”
Another longtime New York-based floral design company, Michael George, has maintained the gift portion of the business pretty consistently with one adjustment. The company is making more deliveries beyond Manhattan to clients in the Hamptons, Westchester County, Connecticut and Brooklyn. Designers looking to woo or thank editors, for example, may be sending bouquets to Brooklyn or Westchester as many companies continue to work remotely, Lisa George said. Delivery charges have been adjusted to be as economical as they can.
Michael George does not expect business related to offices, restaurants and events to bounce back for a while, due to obvious reasons, George said. Joe’s Pub and the Major Food Group are two clients that don’t have the floral demands that they once had.
Keeping with the founder’s original plan, Michael George has always stayed a mom-and-pop organization with a low overhead. George died in 2014. His wife said, “We just never wanted to get too big. I think that saved us now.”
George said she didn’t feel a need to accept any federal funding during the shutdown. To keep everyone safe, four staff members went on unemployment and a skeleton crew kept orders running. She and her business partner ramped up service, with clients appreciating that effort. The past year has allowed the company to regroup a bit. She said, “Everybody is looking at their life and their quality of life to make it work for them.”
As a sign of the shift in priorities, last year’s Mother’s Day orders were bigger than usual. “There’s a lot more love giving and sending compassion,” George said. All in all, orders aren’t as luxe with some people being more price-conscious, she said. Weddings are cropping up again and some people are scoping out future events, but everyone is being really careful.
“I am really curious about the fashion industry. I usually get a big hit around fashion week, but there really isn’t anything to say about fashion week. I’m really curious to see what’s going to happen with that,” George said. “I just don’t see the amount of photo shoots or fragrance launches, or the weeks where we would get a big hit from a designer like Michael Kors, who would spend a lot on foreign editors, who were coming to view his collection.
“Strangely enough though,” Michael George’s business is holding up, thanks partially to a number of people who are still sending gifts to celebrities for $450 or $600, George said.
Buying flowers in season is a priority. Interest in ranunculus has given way to spring bulbs. George is speculating about spring branches and whether people will want cherry or quince ones. “Very soon peonies will come in and I’m sure that will be the rage. Everybody likes the grande dames of flowers when they come in,” she said. “We’ve gotten a couple in, but they were too small and too expensive. We said, ‘Well, let’s wait.’ It’s just going to make the client unhappy.”
Fleurisa owner Isabelle Bosquet-Morra started off last year swiftly. By mid-March, however, all the galas that she was involved with had been canceled and shortly thereafter weddings were postponed. Having been in business since 1997, she relies on contractors so layoffs were not necessary. Without any signs of improvement, she relocated to upstate New York in July.
As soon as there are more social gatherings and events, Bosquet-Morra will move back to the city. “As soon as things, start properly, I will go back. As much as I enjoy living here, it won’t make sense very soon. I hope. I hope,” she said, adding that a longtime corporate client has ordered flowers for a dinner that is scheduled for October.
That major client had canceled everything last year. Being patient and hopeful is the key to survival, from her point of view. Uncertain about whether people’s taste will change, the Fleurisa founder said, “I think people are just aching to have parties. Maybe they will be more extravagant or maybe they will decide that they can do with less. I’m not sure.”
The shutdown has provided the time to do Instagram Live classes, including her first one in Spanish with a good friend, who is also a floral designer in Argentina. Winnowing down her collection of vases, hosting floral arranging tutorials on YouTube, hosting a virtual class with a garden club that had been trying to get her to work with them for years have been among her other initiatives.
“Flowers are so uplifting. People get such joy from receiving flowers, looking at them and taking photos [of them]. You just have to look at social media. There are flowers everywhere,” said Bosquet-Morra, whose portfolio includes the 2017 opening of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech.
COVID-19 safety restrictions have resulted in new skills. To accommodate a new customer, who was planning for an Easter gathering, Bosquet-Morra requested a photo of the interior where the flowers would go. Interested in a floral centerpiece among other things, the client also provided information about the types of plates and tabletop that would be used. “I never met her. I brought the flowers to the doorman and that was it,” she said.Started 26 years ago by Marilyn Waga, the New York-based Belle Fleur is a mother daughter operation. Without question, the past year was one chock full of challenges but Meredith Waga Perez said it tested her hustle and perseverance “at such incredible degrees. That also led to never-before-seen levels of hope and optimism,” she said.
Dedicated employees and clients helped to carry things through. “Our clients just picked up the phone and started ordering flowers for every possible reason — big and small. They wanted to share the beauty of flowers for themselves and with others. But they also wanted to show their appreciation for our business, which has been such an important part of their special occasions over the years,” she said.
After business ground to a halt in March, Belle Fleur furloughed its team of 14 full-time employees. There is now a team of six. The dearth of weddings and events last year meant that some of the company’s most valuable employees had to be laid off.
Between 60 and 70 percent of its corporate business is driven by the worldwide fashion and beauty industries. “These weren’t just clients in New York that didn’t have events. This was clients, who weren’t sending flowers to editors, or inspirations for their fashion shows or reaching out to their top clients. Everything and every area came to a crashing halt last March,” Perez said.
By June, a few activations were enacted by Belle Fleur “to stay afloat” and more importantly to stay engaged with its client base, and that led to rehires, she said. Bigger brands and corporations have been reaching out to send floral gifts, to set up Zoom floral workshops for team building, and to inquire about fall events. “I think by September business will be blooming and we will be right back where we were a year and a half ago,” she said.
The demand for gift bouquets has been consistent. Events like a beauty brand-hosted breakfast or a nonprofit gathering have not returned yet, save for micro ones like small rooftop get-togethers. Weddings have also been micro in size but “quite special,” she said. All of the weddings that had been scheduled are starting up in September. “Their guest counts have shrunk but their budgets have not,” Perez said.
“Whether it is François Nars or Carolina Herrera, whoever is sending these flowers out, there is this intention to connect with people. Flowers are the perfect translation of sentiment. Often when we’re designing, we’re not just looking at who’s sending the flowers and matching the flowers to that brand. We’re reading the messages,” she said. “Those messages in these cards are so much more significant than they had been before. I hand write all of the cards in calligraphy. Before we even design, we concentrate on what’s the meaning behind these flowers…now more than ever we’re all trying to find ways to communicate differently because we are not in person. Flowers have captured that better than any gift that you could ever give.”