Last month, I was so thrilled to hear that florist Paula Pryke had received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List! And I can’t tell you how honoured I feel today to feature this interview with Paula…
How did you get started in the flower business?
It all started with a flower demonstration in Chigwell! Funnily enough, it was a demonstration by Michael Goulding who also got an OBE in 1990, but very sadly passed away last year. I was just mesmerised by this charming man and his spectacular flower displays. Interestingly, he was also a great influence on one of my dearest friends in the flower business Shane Connolly. Michael trained at Writtle College and Constance Spry and then went onto work with Pulbrook & Gould which was, and still is, one of the great British flower brands.
I had been teaching in a huge comprehensive in Romford and realised it was not the career I wanted for the rest of my life. First I took a week’s course in a small private school in Richmond as a taster and I got a B grade! Undaunted, I went on a four-week course in my school vacation at the famous Constance Spry Flower School in Berkshire. I adored those four weeks and I felt that I had found my new vocation!
Then I looked for a part time job in floristry as I already had a mortgage and floristry apprenticeships were not, and still are not, well paid! I tried Jane Packer, Pulbrook & Gould and Kenneth Turner who all had no vacancies, so I looked to The London Evening Standard for a florist apprenticeship.
I was offered an interview with the late Terry Chivers who at the time had 6 very busy flower shops in central London. He suggested that I did the job part-time explaining that a junior florist only got £15 a day back then and as a supply teacher the rate per day was £50! I found a part time teaching job for three days a week as the Head of the History at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in Goswell Road, while spending the other two days and every Saturday as a junior in Chivers flower shop which was in Charlotte Street, off Tottenham Court Road.
Being a teacher now in a private school, I also had long holidays to pursue my dream and learn all I could about the flower industry. However, the Italia Conti was a lovely school and my pupils were very inspiring and so for a while I wondered whether teaching might still be my vocation.
Then I found a suitable derelict shop in Islington to start my new venture. At that time I think I was naïve enough to think I might have a stab at both simultaneously! I bought the shop in 1987 and lived upstairs while we renovated it. We opened the autumn of 1988. My first student florist came from Southwark College and he was Ercole Moroni. Later that year Kally Ellis came to help us out at Christmas after leaving a career in the City and they both founded McQueens a great flower brand.
Ercole and I spent the weekend together recently judging Floral Suite No.1…more about that on Flowerona in the coming weeks. Ercole is now working his floral magic on projects in Italy, UK, Korea and Japan and we still share the same passion for flowers we did back then in the late 80’s! Another early employee who now has a successful business in Aberdeen in Scotland was Nicky Walker.
What is it about the flowers that appealed to you?
It is a tremendous pleasure to work with nature and I think all top florists are beguiled by the raw materials. I adore colour and I am motivated by the seasonal changes in palette and with all the new varieties of flowers, the endless changes that are on offer.
I love working with people and it is privilege to arrange flowers for my customers. It could be a simple thank you bouquet or a more poignant sympathy tribute. Flowers mark all our most important events from the cradle to the grave and so your customers often become your friends.
The transient nature of the flowers we work with is also a poignant reminder of our own short lives. This means that you have to work on short deadlines, as the stock is perishable so you have to be a bit of an ‘Adrenalin Junkie’ which is sometimes fun and occasionally stressful! With flowers it is never just about the money and my husband quite rightly says I would still ‘do it’ if I won the lottery and I would still have flowers in my life. It is vocation or an addiction!
When did you feel you had succeeded in your new career change and why?
After about three years when I realised that we had attracted some very interesting customers. We were working for great people! Fashion designers such as Katherine Hamnett, top architects such as Norman Foster. We were working for banks, styling for magazine and news editors, doing amazing ads for huge advertising agencies and supplying government leaders. Rock stars such as George Harrison would send their chauffeur to collect flowers. Lots of comedians, actors and actresses would call by the shop or phone and order flowers. At that time, Cate Blanchet and Kate Winslet lived up the road. Artists, photographers and lots of local people raved about the shop.
One day, I got a call from Terence Conran’s office saying he was going to call in to see me. Ilse Crawford who was the Founding Editor of Elle Decoration recommended me to Terence. He came into my original shop in Islington and complimented me on having “The nicest flower shop outside of Paris!” That spurned a huge London contract flower business as Terence began his restaurant empire.
About the same time, I was asked to publish my first flower book, ‘The New Floral Artist‘, in 1993. It takes two years to put together my books, which means that in just 4 years I had established myself as a leading florist in London. I have just published my 16th book, ‘The Paula Pryke Wedding Planner‘ and I have a 17th on Wedding Flowers out in January 2015.
These books have been translated into over 15 languages including Hebrew, Russian and Japanese, so my work began to reach a wider audience than London. I realised once my first book had been published and was well-received that I was a successful floral designer. I was still building my flower business at the time, so it was only later that I came to realise that I had been responsible for a new and fresh floristry style.
The success of the books worldwide raised the profile of floristry in the world and my work became international! I have people from all over the world from Poland to the Philippines and they tell me that they learnt everything they know about flowers from my books!
What challenges did you face in your new career and how did you overcome them?
In business, you always have a new challenge to face and this is constantly changing. There have been no less than three recessions in the twenty six years I have been in my ‘new’ career and the current one is requiring a whole new rule book! The world is changing, new countries are emerging as important markets and the new technology is transforming the way we communicate.
At a practical level, you may think that selling flowers would be fairly consistent but when you have your own business, just when you think everything is going well, something conspires to change the situation. What a lot of people do not realise is that in the last thirty years, there has been a really strong group of talented floral designers and we have all been competing against one another for work and inevitably this has raised the bar of floral design in the UK immensely.
Rob Van Helden, Shane Connolly, Simon Lycett, Paul Thomas, Mary Jane Vaughan all started around the same time. Ming Veevers Carter and Jane Packer were a few years ahead. John Carter and Julia Hodkinson had beautiful flower stores at Heals and later The Conran Shop. There were lots of people starting their own business who had worked with Pulbrook & Gould, Moyses Stevens or Kenneth Turner. Kenneth was a major influence to us all in the late 1980’s. Outside London, there has also been some amazing British floral talent…Neil Whittaker, David Ragg, David Denyer and Ian Lloyd…all inspiring future generations of florists.
When did you start The Paula Pryke Flower School?
The Flower School literally came into being by public demand. By 1994, people were desperate to come and learn Floral Design from us having seen my first book. ‘The New Floral Artist’ was so different to any book published on flowers. It inspired future generations. Once a teacher, always a teacher they say. And so I went back to teaching, and unique to many flowers school, I still teach part of every course we offer.
So many talented floral designers have started their career at The Flower House. Hisako Watanabe came on a four week flower course in 2000, showed immense talent, loyalty and dedication and so started to work with me following the course. 14 years later she still freelances with me whilst also running an online business in Japan called almost unreal and also writes a Japanese blog.
Kerry Wilkinson attended ten years ago and won The Wedding Industry Award for best florist in the Midlands and the National Award for 2013 for Tineke Floral Designs. People come from all over the world to study with us and go home and have the courage to start their own business.
Suzannah Colloff joined our flower school because her husband is a flower grower and she wanted to learn floral design and start a wedding business. She now has a hugely successful business on the Algarve and has some amazing jobs even working with the great party planner Johnny Roxburgh of The Admirable Crichton.
Ana Foz came from Sao Paulo to learn flower design 10 years ago and now has a successful flower design school in Brazil. We have taught so many diverse clients from people who work on luxury yachts to supermarket staff from Waitrose.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of changing their careers or giving up their jobs to start their own flower business?
These are challenging times, but I believe if you are passionate about something, offer a good service and try to make sure that you give every opportunity your best effort, you will succeed. You have to find your USP. The difference between the ordinary and the extra ordinary is only small but it is the extra effort that you put into your work that will make you stand out in your chosen field.
Adapting to being a business owner is easy. It is adapting to being a great businesswoman and running a successful business that is the challenge. In business, as in life, you are always learning and the exciting journey continues. As you know, Rona, as you were once part of my team, a lot of people have passed through on their journey with flowers. Apart from you, who I am immensely proud of for establishing Flowerona and finding your own niche and way of dealing with your addiction to flowers, I am also very proud of Samantha who was also a Chivers girls and now has a very successful business called Shaftsberries.
When you find something you really want to do, you can make a real difference and that is how you get noticed! Another employee who was so focused about floral design was Nori! She worked so hard, most days for me and most weekends and evenings for Dansk flowers.
One of my first managers was Michelle Geary and she went onto a flower shop in Chichester and then moved to Bermuda and she runs Flowers by GiMi. I am so proud of her and all her achievements. I am also extremely proud of my current team, freelancers and all my ex-staff. I have been blessed to work with some of the best people in the flower business at a time when London is one of the most influential cities in the world. Most things are achievable with talent, hard work and dedication.
What is the best thing about getting an OBE?
Well firstly, the best thing is getting back in touch with all the people you have lost touch with and being on Cloud 9. It gives you a chance to thank all the people who have helped you on the way and I have not finished that yet! But then, like all praise and recognition, it makes you think what can I do now to improve on this and do better! It certainly galvanises you into thinking how to make the best for future generations. It’s a great privilege to be recognised for making a difference while doing a job you adore.
Huge congratulations to Paula on her OBE and also many thanks for all her help in compiling this interview. Simply pop over to her website for details about her company.
What a truly amazing inspiration she is to the floristry industry, not only here in the UK but also worldwide!
To keep up-to-date with Paula’s news, here’s where you can find her on social media:
(Images : Paula Pryke & Jacqui Small)