In 1994’s ‘Léon: The Professional’, a potted plant sits on the dining table of lone Italian hitman Léon, played by Jean Reno. Each morning, Léon shifts it onto the window ledge for it to bask in the warm rays of sunshine; the only other living thing in his flat. When Mathilda, emulated by 12-year-old Natalie Portman, enters his life later on, he explains of its significance — “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions.” — before likening the rootless plant to himself.
Throughout the Luc Besson-directed film, the portable white-veined Chinese evergreens pepper the scenes with its silent symbolism. Although it was the image of it, cradled in Mathilda’s arm while stomping down the street with Léon, which seared itself into popular culture’s memory down through the years. The pairing of the domestic houseplant with Mathilda in her dishevelled choppy bob ’do, black choker, while enveloped in her signature oversized bomber jacket was a visual jolt. Portman’s performance was indelible on its own, but having the greens juxtaposed with her “troubled girl” attire within the few seconds of the scene was an implicit seal to her character’s iconic status.
The idea of clothing contrasted with botany isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. The relationship between fashion and plants has, after all, scattered its seeds from the earliest of times. One of the oldest tomes claims an assemblage of fig leaves as the inaugural garment to be made and worn by the first human prototypes Adam and Eve. History also accounts the ancient Chinese and Japanese as the pioneers of drawing or painting the image of flowers onto clothing. From the storied lily of the valley pinned to Christian Dior’s lapel to the rose-trimmed dress donned by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, flowers have been used to complement the human visage.
As the art of flori- and horticulture evolves with the multi-hyphenation of modern times, however, so has its relationship with fashion blossomed in parallel. Exemplified by the subtextual pairing of Mathilda’s costume, the dialogue between fashion and floriculture has far developed beyond printed replica on textiles.
The Rise of Art-Inflected Botanists
“Floral design is increasingly approaching abstraction, reducing the floral elements to solid forms and colours. Designers are testing the limits of the role of the flower and its positioning,” says Doan Ly, the creative director behind New York’s flower-centric studio a.p. Bio and @doan_ly, the Instagram account where her soft-coloured burst of off-kilter tablescape shots are worth thousands of double-taps.
These are not the neatly trimmed bundle of roses one would expect huddled in impeccable symmetry in a vase at the centre of a table. Instead, they’re poetic arrangements resembling that of still-life Dutch Old Master paintings — think: sun-dappled peonies and gerbera daisies of varying stages, tiny buds to full blooms, suspended mid-air in a thin plastic bag while a ripe cantaloupe lies underneath, sliced open to reveal its seed-bursting core. Ly notes that dependency on floriculture’s traditional vase-and-table approach is now eschewed for experiential experimentations, “It can be pushed and teased beyond its natural form. I love thinking of a floral installation as a temporal, shifting, painted sculpture.”
Doan Ly describes her tablescapes to be “larger than life, bursting to the brim [with] colour bombs. Or quiet and [emulating] aching stillness. There is usually some aspect of radiance, something that’s sexy and rich, something that’s joyful or yearning. I think about the whole thing, and not just the flowers.”
In Singapore, botanical design studio Humid House stretches the limits even further. Founder John Lim, a former architect who cut his teeth under seminal architect-urbanist Ole Scheeren, fuses his background in architecture and theatre to invent holistic installations, orchestrating even the set pieces, lighting and plant scheme. Lim highlights the spatial interaction of his creations, “Our massive floral work installations are very sensitive to the spaces they’re built for.”
Humid House’s range of services runs the gamut from plant styling to floral subscriptions, installation setting to landscape designing. Inspiration is often gleaned from various mediums. A garden’s form could reflect the inverse of a doorway’s arch, or a riotous John Chamberlain sculpture could be translated to a balancing act composed of jagged watermelons and giant red roses. “We try to be inventive with shapes, compositions, textures, colours, even with the ingredient selections as well,” Lim explains.
Ly and Lim aren’t the only ones. They’re among the social media-bred purveyors who are adding dimension to what it means to be a florist in the post-Instagram era, where a predilection for visual pleasure is a given. Today’s growing interest in maximalist greens and blooms can be pegged as the antithesis to modernisation. The moving away from minimalism; a means of escape from a digitised lifestyle, where cultivation isn’t the sole primary concern.
In Parallel with Fashion
Before Céline became Celine, if one stepped into any of the French luxury label’s boutiques, one might notice the unobtrusive presence of a potted fiddle-leaf plant. Against Phoebe Philo’s wardrobe for the modern woman, the unofficial-official plant would sprout tall in one corner, acting as the garments’ nuanced backdrop. In the same manner, Céline’s Fall/Winter ’11 campaign, photographed by Juergen Teller, featured a bricolage of leaves, as the contrasting elements of the main subjects. The interest for greenery was further exhibited at the Fall/Winter ’14 show, where foliage was gathered behind the audience’s seats, quietly complementing Philo’s sleek offering without diverting attention away from it.
Shot by Juergen Teller, Phoebe Philo’s leaf love made its way into Céline’s Fall/Winter ’11 campaign.
Still, it wasn’t until Alessandro Michele presented his decade-defining manifesto at Gucci that the maximalist wave in floriculture crashed into fashion at full throttle. The Italian creative director’s sensibility for the eclectic and eccentric challenged the industry’s prolonged blandness of streetwear-instigated normcore, or what is known as downplayed genderless fashion. Sure enough, Gucci’s astounding financial reap confirmed the existing appetite for unbridled self-expression. And the incorporation of floriculture was a fitting means to that.
“Flowers and fashion have always been closely connected. I have on my table right now a book by Sheila Metzner, ‘Objects of Desire’. There it is: luxury and desire. That’s fashion, and that’s flowers. The two worlds are closely aligned,” Ly observes. She notes that there’s a rising demand for floral installations as art objects, rather than mere table accents.
Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer feted for his resplendent fashion for thinking women, has always been known to tap into the lushness of his gardens for inspiration. Floral prints — most clash into each other, with zesty shades on steroids — are a constant. It was, however, at his Spring/Summer ’17 show that flowers first appeared in their native forms. Ice-encased flowers, painstakingly stacked by Van Noten’s friend and Japanese artist Azuma Makoto, flanked the catwalk. The clear pillars showcased nearly 100 types of rare flowers, arrayed into 23 delicate arrangements. As Van Noten’s floral-print troop flocked down, it was evident that the impetus was to equate the explosions of sartorial florals to those frozen in the ice blocks.
Humid House’s installation and arrangement for Dries Van Noten’s Fall/Winter ’18 fete at its Singapore boutique. On the relation between fashion and floriculture, Lim reflects, “I think beauty, florals and fashion are synonymous with each other. Everyone has different ideas of what beauty is, but that relationship is so close.”
This mirroring often extends to other touchpoints, including retail environments. Humid House, tasked by the Dries team in Singapore to interpret its Fall/Winter ’18 collection into a one-off installation for a private boutique presentation last year, was given the license to go experimental. The end product was a rotating tower of tassels, built out of an assorted mix of amaranthus to beehive ginger in rich reds and chartreuse accents. “In the collection, we noticed that there were a lot of fringes. When the models moved, you could see them creating exaggerated movements,” Lim recounts of his point of reference. “So why not we recreate that movement with the tassels? That was all part of the turning arrangement.”
Simone Gooch, mastermind of London-based florist Fjura and floral director of Pleasure Garden Magazine, counts the likes of Chanel, Hermès and Burberry as clients. Her Ikebana-influenced arrangements are frequenters in fashion editorials and fetes alike. To initiate the designing process, she looks towards the respective brand’s collections. At a recent sit-down fete for Sotheby’s hosted by designer Roksanda Ilinčić, Gooch scatters pansies, orchids and branches — its texture and colour palette resembling Ilinčić’s magenta-replete Resort 2019 collection — on the long dinner table.
Following the viral success of Fjura, Simone Gooch started a merch line of t-shirts and sweaters.
Gooch toyed with the witty idea of reversing the nature-fashion-floriculture referencing flow. In true 21st-century meta spirit, she launched a Fjura merch line: a capsule of graphic tees and sweatshirts emblazoned with images of her poignant creations. “Flowers are not something that can be easily [delivered] around the world in small-scale but t-shirts are.”
Clothing contrasted with botany, or vice versa, is an interaction between the man-made and the natural. A complement of sorts; a linking up that generates a statement-propelling grip that’s at once visual and visceral. As the world accelerates in modernisation, perhaps the fashion-floriculture symbiosis can be the expressive vessel to counterbalance the sterility of it all. Gooch agrees, “We all need more beauty and nature in our lives.”
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