Looking back on 25 years by Paula Pryke

Hi flower friends, I have an amazing post to share with you today! Floral Designer and Businesswoman extraordinaire, Paula Pryke, is celebrating 25 years in the industry this fall and she has been kind enough give us a glimpse into her journey. I hope you feel inspired as much as I have and enjoy her words of wisdom.

Paula Pryke

Image from Flowerona

When I was growing up as a child in a rural community in the UK I found I enjoyed arranging wild flowers and flowers from my Mother’s Garden rather than doing the housework! I was also aware that if you placed a vase of flowers into the room after a quick round with the duster and the vacuum cleaner, the room came to life and my Mother’s gratitude was greater! Later I went to a boarding school which was set into an amazing landscaped estate of 500 acres where my love of nature and the seasons was sealed. Back then the global flower industry was only worth a few billion. Opportunities to see floral design were confined to the Church, Garden centres or a few plain looking high street shops.

25 years ago I was just embarking on my career with flowers and little did I know how it would change my life! I had originally trained as a history teacher having been inspired by my own teacher at school and the historic parkland and house where I had been schooled. Three years into my career of teaching, I just knew it was not where I wanted to be 25 years down the line. One Valentine’s day I journeyed from East London to Heathrow airport in the West and everywhere I went I saw florists delivering roses. It was like the rest of London was this sepia grey with the red roses shouting out to me! This epiphany movement ended up on me enrolling on a Constance Spry four week flower design course and from that moment I was hooked.

purple and burgundy flower arrangements

Returning to teach at school I was staring out the window looking at the fall leaves and feeling the call of nature! At the end of that academic year I took a part time teaching job at The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, famous for training Naomi Campbell and Russell Brand and worked for three days a week in a shop in central London. This also allowed me to take a floristry evening course to learn more about the basics. I had recently married and my husband encouraged me to start my own business. I felt ill-prepared in experience terms but what I lacked in that department I made up for in enthusiasm and hard work. My original shop was in a secondary site and so I sought out contract work and also business accounts. My husband is an Architect and I found that new buildings and recently refurbished buildings were a good source of business for me. I also worked in an area that at the time was not very sophisticated and rents were quite cheap so I found myself working with a lot of creative types, such as photographers and stylists.
I worked on a massive advertising campaigns for BA, lots of Financial groups and Banks and did masses of editorial work. My shop became a mecca for lots of interesting creative characters and I realised that although I was not very experienced, people liked the way we arranged and presented flowers. I did not think of myself a trail-blazer at the time because there has always been a healthy amount of competition in London and I was just busy dealing with the day-to-day business of running a busy flower shop.

Three years into having that little shop, three things happened that changed my fortunes. The first was one of my customers, also ran a publishing company and she was so impressed with what she used to see on her forays into the shop on Saturday that she offered me the opportunity to write my first book which was entitled: ‘The New Floral Artist‘. I can’t believe that I have two more books coming out shortly which will make it a total of 17 titles! These books have been translated into Hebrew, Japanese and 12 other languages!

Through the photographer of the book, Kevin Summers, I met one the Great Britain’s most famous Cookery writers, Delia Smith and she offered me the chance to work with her on her books and TV series and also to publish a monthly article on flowers in a magazine run but her and her husband. This enabled a lot of people to learn more about flower design and enjoy flowers in their own homes.

mantle decoration of orange flowers

The third event that really changed the nature of business was a recommendation by Ilse Crawford a style guru who at the time edited Elle Decoration. She recommended to Terence Conran that he pay me a visit at my store which he did. He declared it the best flower shop outside Paris and I began to work with him on his restaurant and design empire.

The books led to demonstrations and The Flower School and wider exposure around the world. The magazines led to a wider audience in the UK and a huge interest in floral design. The regular supply of flowers to the restaurant trade gave me a regular turnover and back in the 1990’s these had huge budgets so I became and I got known for modern displays of wonderful flowers. I am still more into the elegant understated look than the opulent flowers everywhere approach! I have just completed a “How to plan your wedding” book which is out in January and I am working on a new Wedding Flowers book which will replace my old title that has been in print for ten years! The new Paula Pryke Wedding Flower Book will be published by Rizzoli in the US and will be my 17th flower book!

During the last three decades the flower industry has grown into a global multi-national business worth over 100 billion pounds. In those 25 years, I have opened and closed nine shops; eight in the UK, seven in London and one in the Seoul, Korea. I still still have the fantasy of having a flower shop and standing amongst all these beautiful creations, chatting to my customers and making beautiful flower designs! The reality of a flower shop is quite different and you do literally become a slave to your own creation. Since I started my first flower shop the retail world has changed dramatically and although there is still some demand for beautifully arranged quality flowers, most of my colleagues in London and now I have gone down the bespoke Atelier route rather than a retail outlet. My business now is based around business contracts, special events and my bespoke gift and internet orders. Many of my contracts, which I have had for twenty odd years and include some great fashion houses and city institutions as well as restaurants.

I am currently working as a flower consultant for a famous London department store and so I have be analysing all the reasons why retailing flowers have become so much harder even if you have the benefit of a prime site with lots of foot-fall. 25 years ago you could not really buy flowers anywhere else than in a flower shop, nursery, garden centre or a flower stall. Twenty years ago the Supermarkets came into the flower business and now they are really the major players for cut flowers for the home and also the gift market. These giants were attracted to the mark-up that flowers offered them and they have become very good at understanding the floral business over the last 20 years. They have also offered good value and long lasting flowers to their customers which has made bespoke floristry and top quality flowers look prohibitive to your everyday flower buyer. The relay organisations such as FTD and Interflora got bought out by the Corporate world and have forsaken the small independent florist. The Sympathy flower business has also been bought up by huge multinational companies and what was a lucrative and necessary party of the flower trade has dwindled because of their control on the flower purchases. Also there has been a strong trend to make a donation to a charity at a funeral rather than buy flowers. Whilst I understand this shift in thinking, there is nothing sadder than a funeral without any flowers. All these factors have meant that it is now very hard to survive as florist on the high street. Added to this, the flower industry and in particular the wedding flower industry has been attracting lots of new companies who just wish to work on events and weddings. Many of these work from home with limited overheads and can offer very competitive rates to secure work. One consistent trend I have seen over 25 years is how many people in our industry do not charge enough for their labour and designs and this can devalue the business and the talents required.

flowers and oranges for a display

Now everyone who consults with a floral designer is quite savvy about flowers and through pinterest, blogs and the wedding media. This has meant that the client likes to be more involved in the creative process. This can be an advantage but I sadly think it makes more people opt for something they feel safe with and less open to the one-to-one creative process with their floral designer. It also means that a lot of people come to you with ideas and budgets that really don’t match rather than let you guide and help them! It also can mean in a crowded market that too many floral designers are quoting and advising on the same weddings causing the Bride and Groom to become totally confused and wasting a lot of our time. There has also been a much greater emphasis on order takers, event planners, venues or concierge companies wanting to organise the whole event and take a commission from all their vendors. At one time, I liked to think that people chose me for my artistry or because they liked working for me. Now I know that it is because they will cream off 15% or 25% from my work. Even Royal Palaces are in on the game. Sadly these hidden commissions mean that your clients enviably pay more for their weddings and it can also lead to unscrupulous practices or less talented florists being recommended for work because they are prepared to compromise their clients wedding and pay a higher commission. The other recent trend at the top end of the market is the use of faux flowers in flower decoration! The demand for the flowers to look even more fantastical has led to the use of artificial flowers being added into flower displays! I try to avoid this at any costs but I admit it can be effective in moderation!

purple pink and blue large flower arrangement

Working in London too, we also have massive congestion meaning we spend too long on the road getting in and out of events. We also have difficulty parking and the overhead of the Congestion charge as all added costs to our work. 20 years ago you could park pretty much anywhere in London and deliver flowers. Now you pay up to £12 an hour and run the risk of £60 parking fines every day! Logistics have become much more costly and complicated. When you add the 20% VAT we also have to add to our flower costs here in the UK, it has made the product so much more of a luxury that the market has become quite divided. More often I am working for the international world traveller with many homes across the globe than the ‘ordinary’ local customers who wanted a treat or a beautiful gift. These overheads and the increasing cost of the flowers have made keeping on top of the profits even more challenging and margins have been squeezed.

However, despite all of these headaches of running a business involving the beauty and fraility of fresh flowers, I would not have changed anything! I have met some wonderful people and designed flowers all over the world! I have gotten to work inside some of London’s most beautiful landmarks and I have worked with the movers and shakers of Great Britain. I have worked in Palaces, on Super-Yachts and on a whole lot of loading bays!!! Recently I have been a consultant to a Crystal Cruises so I have become very familiar with how to get flowers delivered to any port in the world and I have been able to arrange flowers while sailing down the Panama Canal or past the Statue of Liberty! The flower industry has grown out of all recognition and ordinary people’s lives have been enhanced by the beauty of regular flowers in their own home. Running any business over 25 years requires adapting and moving to changing trends. I have been amazed by how many florists here in Britain and abroad and have been influenced by my work and how many have become floral designers and gone on to enjoy a life with flowers. I still enjoy teaching and passing on what I have learnt to the next generation. This weekend I have been judging The British Industry Wedding Awards and it is great to see new talent. I was a little disappointed not to see more original work but maybe we have got Pinterest and the bloggers to blame for that!
Deep down when I am back at the flower market with just the raw material and I see lots of my contemporaries still up early and still eulogising about a new variety or a new colour, you realise what an addiction the flower business is! As Vita Sackville- West said, “Flowers really do intoxicate me!” It has been such a pleasure to work each day with such outstanding beauty.
Who could ask for more?

The Paula Pryke Flower Design Diploma starts on the 4th of March 2014

handtied bouquet of orange fall flowers

orange fall flower arrangement

modern flower arrangement

heart wreath of colorful flowers

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  1. I loved reading this article. Thank you Paula. You have been a great source of inspiration for me. I think it was 12 years ago I saw you at a demonstration at Alexander Palace in London. (IFTEX?) I was so excited to see you but too nervous to introduce myself. As a young girl, I was also drawn to nature and flowers. My middle name is Fleur so I was destined to be a floral designer. I will introduce myself now, my name is Mikeala from Mikeala Fleur Patterson Floral Design. (On Face Book). I am building my business, (7 years in business now, 10 years in Industry) as well as being a mother to two wonderful little people who share in the creativity and am in my Third Year studying full time to be a qualified Art teacher. But my heart is with the flowers also. My ambition and determination is to become successful as a florist and open my own boutique store (I have been home based so as to balance life and await the right time )- a place for creative people. I feel something really big and exciting will happen in the near future in regards to my Floral business based on hard work, determination, and opportunity. The words you spoke at the demonstration have stayed with me, so once again thank you. I look forward to all the wonderful things coming my way, Kind regards, Mikeala 🙂

  2. Meryl Schultz says:

    Hello. I am an aspiring floral designer in Long island, New York. I have seen and heard the same problems yiu have encountered in the UK. With all this can you still suggest a way that I can make this my career? I have tsken some classes through the AIFD abd have had some freelabce assistant opportunities, byt those are hard to come by. I do not feel ready to start my own business. I need to develop my expertise and was hoping to work and learn hands on. I would even volunteer to help out at busy times but haven’t had luck finding someone to take me on. I would appreciate any help you can provide. Your work is outstanding. Thank you so much.

  3. Ms. Pryke has been an inspiration to me throughout my career. I remember the very first book I had of her’s “Flair with Flowers”. I was in complete awe looking at the ways she worked with floral compositions from everyday flowers to the unique and extraordinary ones. I quickly gobbled up book after book and whenever I am looking for inspiration they are the first places I go. My dream is to one day take her intensive course and study right along side of her.

    I loved hearing Ms. Pryke describe her journey through the flower business and it’s nice to hear that we share some of the very same road blocks. This industry can be extremely trying, but it’s like she said the flower industry is certainly an addiction and I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of it. Thank you so much for this wonderful and informative article!