Fleurs de Villes: It’s All In the Details, Two Vancouver Entrepreneurs Transform Florals Into Fashion

Photos: Chris Haylett
Portrait: Masao Okano for Nicole Chan Photography

By Laura Goldstein

Recalling the enchanted character in the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Snow Queen, her gown is an exquisite overlay of 400 white chrysanthemum disbuds. An underskirt, collar and crown of thistle -like spiky blue eryngium and white branches mimic icicles sparkling with dustings of glitter. The mannequin, designed by GG Flowers on Main, Vancouver won Best in Show at last year’s holiday Fleurs de Villes NOËL.

“When you think about it, every important event, happy or sad, from birth to death is marked by flowers,” says Fleurs de Villes co-founder Karen Marshall. “People have a deep emotional connection to flowers and Tina (Barkley) and I realized there was a hole in the market that unless you’re attending a wedding, funeral or special event, there was little chance of the general public seeing extraordinary floral displays in real life.” 

Both women have fond memories of flowers as children. “My grandmother’s garden in northern Scotland was always full of roses that smelled incredible. I was also oddly obsessed with a giant red poppy which grew by our front door,” laughs Marshall .

“We aren’t florists ourselves but our backgrounds are in content marketing, publishing and entrepreneurship. At the time, I was doing a lot of work with shopping malls and realized there’s a lot of space to bring the floral conversation to the public. That’s where the idea came from and then we thought, ‘ how can we also do this globally? ’ ” Marshall explains.

Premiering in Victoria in 2016 followed a week later by the Vancouver show, the two savvy entrepreneurs partner with elite corporate, hotel, restaurant and media sponsors, enlisting the talents of local florists or ‘fleuristes’ to create the stunning displays. The next year, the show expanded across Canada. If you’re familiar with the elaborate couturier fashions at New York’s annual Met Gala, imagine them constructed with flowers instead of fabric. Displayed on posed fibreglass mannequins the painterly gowns, stupendous hats, ornate necklaces, shoes and even ice skates are all composed of real flora, leaves, branches and seeds. The intricate, textured details are jaw-dropping; peering in closely to examine the delicate workmanship it’s difficult to believe that every element hasn’t been sewn. For approximately 9 days, on a designated self-guided floral trail depending upon the venue, the public can stroll through tony shopping streets, botanical gardens or inside a mall and then vote for their favourite display. 

“It’s a monumental undertaking co-ordinating each show of 15 to 20 installations, working with fantastic fleuristes in each city, who are given a stipend to cover their costs, organizing locations, etc., as you can imagine,” says Marshall.

As ephemeral as the ice and snow they are mimicking, fresh flowers only last five to ten days. That was just one challenge for fleurists, Kathleen Fleming and her three sisters of GG Flowers On Main who created the award-winning  Snow Queen for Fleurs de Villes NOËL, Vancouver. “Dressed in sections, it takes hundreds of hours of work from concept to finish,” explains Fleming. “The skirt was especially difficult because we had to put 400 chrysanthemum disbuds into little water tubes before inserting them into the mesh chicken wire under frame. We wanted her to look very regal with an enlarged collar and crown of branches to resemble icicles. They were very difficult to maneuver into the right length and angle. Working only a day ahead, we constructed the long jacket of spray mums because we wanted it to look fluffy and wintery. The Snow Queen had to be viewed from every angle so it’s really all in the details.” 

The old English adage,‘ mighty oaks from little acorns grow ’ couldn’t be more apropos as Fleurs de Villes (Flowers of the Cities ) expands internationally. It has become its own luxury brand with 90 shows in 25 cities across four countries. These include Boston, Bal Harbour, Florida, Sydney and Melbourne Australia and NYC; San Francisco to London and Edinburgh with more cities added each year. In addition to Fleurs de Villes NOËL, themes of shows become more imaginative each year and include a tribute to PRIDE week, VOYAGE in which cultures throughout the world are celebrated and FEMMES for which fleuristes depict inspiring women in history expressed through flowers. ROSÉ supported  breast cancer research with installations in vivid hues of pink and partial proceeds donated to local foundations. International shows bring unique interpretations to installations as local fleuristes have access to exotic and unusual species of flowers and leaves not found in Canada.

“One of the highlights of our showcase last February was HRH Princess Anne visiting our Fleurs de Villes PRIDE event at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia. Tina and I had no idea she was coming when we were asked to take “a special guest” around the show. She was lovely and truly interested in everything we do.” says Marshall.

Marshall and Barkley are already working on details for the 2024 theme, Fleurs de Villes ARTISTE that will interpret flowers as muse through art history.
“You know flowers are universally loved, they are powerful and bring joy to people and that’s our greatest wish,” says Marshall.

Fleurs de Villes NOËL takes place in downtown Vancouver December 8th -17th.