Fleurs de Villes events bloom with breathtaking beflowered creations
Words Laura Goldstein
Photography Chris Haylett
Portrait Masao Okano for Nicole Chan Photography
Recalling the enchanted character in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, the Snow Queen’s gown has an exquisite overlay of 400 white chrysanthemums. Her underskirt, collar and crown are made of white branches and spiky thistle-like blue eryngium, mimicking icicles that sparkle with dustings of glitter.
The Snow Queen mannequin, designed by GG Flowers on Main, won Best in Show at last year’s Fleurs de Villes NOËL holiday event in Vancouver.
Fleurs de Villes, which translates to “Flowers of the Cities,” premiered in Victoria in 2016, followed a week later by a Vancouver show. The next year, it expanded across Canada. The fifth annual Fleurs de Villes NOËL runs this year in Vancouver from December 7 to 18 and promises a self-guided tour of floral visions amid the city’s popular shopping areas. Highlights will include a giant snowflake and holiday wreath, a floral sleigh, a snow queen, floral elf and Nutcracker-inspired mannequins, and other installations bursting with holiday blooms. A tour map is available at the concierge desk at Pacific Centre.
“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. [Co-founder Tina Barkley] and I realized there was a hole in the market: unless they were attending a wedding, funeral or special event, there was little chance of the general public seeing extraordinary floral displays in real life.”
Both Karen and Tina have fond childhood memories of flowers.
“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 Karen.
“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?’” Karen explains.
The two savvy entrepreneurs partner with elite corporate, hotel, restaurant and media sponsors, enlisting the talents of local florists—or “fleuristes”—to create stunning floral displays.
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 nine days, on a designated self-guided floral trail depending upon the venue, the public can stroll through tiny shopping streets, botanical gardens or malls, and then vote for their favourite display.
“As you can imagine, it’s a monumental undertaking coordinating 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, et cetera,” says Karen.
As ephemeral as the ice and snow they are mimicking, fresh flowers only last five to 10 days. That was just one challenge for Kathleen Fleming and her three sisters, of GG Flowers on Main, who created the award-winning Snow Queen for last year’s Fleurs de Villes NOËL.
“Dressed in sections, it takes hundreds of hours of work from concept to finish,” explains Kathleen. “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 expands internationally. It has become its own luxury brand, with 90 shows in 25 cities across four countries. Participating cities include New York, Boston, San Francisco, Bal Harbour, London, Edinburgh, Sydney and Melbourne, with more cities added each year.
In addition to Fleurs de Villes NOËL, the shows’ themes become more imaginative each year. Other themes include a tribute to PRIDE festivals; VOYAGE, in which cultures throughout the world are celebrated; and FEMMES, in which inspiring women in history are depicted through flowers. ROSÉ supported breast cancer research with installations in vivid hues of pink, with partial proceeds donated to local foundations.
International shows bring unique interpretations to installations, as fleuristes in other countries 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 Karen.
Karen and Tina are already working on details for the 2024 theme, Fleurs de Villes ARTISTE, which will interpret flowers as muse through art history.
“Flowers are universally loved. They are powerful and bring joy to people, and that’s our greatest wish,” says Karen.