As far as client name dropping goes, Annabel’s and The Ned are pretty up there. Well, that’s a reality for super florist Lil Caldwell, Founder of Grandirosa floral design studio, whose one-time pipe dream of working with flowers became a side hustle (whilst holding down a successful law career in the City) and eventually a full-time job and business.
The appointment-only design studio makes regular florists look like a gerbera amidst a bouquet of avalanche roses – just one look at their Instagram feed and you can see they don’t do things by halves.
We met up with Hackney-based Lil to find out how she turned an idea into a business in just five years, copes with all-nighters at The Ned (in the name of work of course) and what it’s really like to play a major part in those Annabel’s parties.
How did you start your business?
I trained as a lawyer and was happy working at a City law firm, but then I got married and was truly wowed by the flowers at my wedding, so much so that it sparked me to look into floristry.
What started as a bit of a side hustle doing flowers for friend’s weddings literally from my shed, fairly quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!) into a full-blown business.
How did you make the break from side project to fully fledged business?
I was still working seven to seven in the City but getting commissions in for the floristry business – it got too big for me and I couldn’t handle it all on my own.
So I roped my best friend Mary into lending me a hand. We worked well as a team from the off and so much work was coming our way that it wasn’t long before we’d had a conversation about quitting our careers and really making a go of the floristry business.
That was just over five years ago. Since then we’ve graduated from my garden shed to our own studio in Dalston and grown our client base hugely.
Coming from a law background, how did you learn the skills for floristry?
I took a month’s sabbatical to do an intensive course at Jamie Aston’s Flower School. That really was the beginning of the end of my law career – I knew from day one that I loved working with flowers.
Despite being dead-set on pursuing my passion I’m quite a risk averse person, so took a slow and steady approach. After the course I started working for Rebel Rebel on Saturdays to build up my experience in everything from bouquets to weddings.
It sounds tough, how did you keep going?
It was pretty tiring working a six-day week, especially as my weekday hours as a lawyer were long, but the hard graft was worth it. By the time I was ready to hand in my notice, I was confident in my skills as a florist and, most importantly, had enough clients to pay my bills.
Ok, what we really want to know is… Do you have to get up ridiculously early?
Sometimes! The other week my alarm sounded at 3am on a Saturday to get me to Annabel’s in enough time to manage the installation of their Chinese New Year display. Other times it’s late nights; we begin The Ned’s Christmas installations at 11pm each year and work through the night so that guests come down to breakfast in a finished festive wonderland.
What does an average day look like to you?
There is no average day – exactly why I love it. If I’m in the studio, I’ll head down there for 9am to check the flowers that have been delivered and brief the team on that day’s creations. Outside the studio my day takes me anywhere from supplier visits at markets and warehouses to client meetings in hotels and venues – and sometimes late night installations.
In just five years you’ve grown a portfolio of incredible clients. Who have been the highlights?
Winning the contract to become in-house florists at The Ned was a real pinch-me moment. The hotel is a creative’s dream, housing ten restaurants, six private event spaces and a members’ club inside the old Midland Bank building. There’s plenty to keep us busy each week.
Annabel’s is a client, too and their interiors are something else. Tell us about your partnership with them.
Well, the Annabel’s Jungle Party was one to remember. We worked with not one, not two but three production studios to create an other-worldly event. The A-list crowd were greeted by performers dressed as monkeys abseiling off of the all-natural foliage and flower facade built by our team. Inside, acrobats swung down the six flights of stairs hanging from natural garlands in the main stairwell.
That was just the start of the many mind-blowing events I’ve worked on with Annabel’s. They have a fantastic in-house team of event managers who have given us the most incredible briefs to transform the club from top to bottom, from a Bollywood birthday party to Chinese New Year and a Scorpios takeover.
We must mention the stunning flower and balloon installation at Fenwick too…
This was a collaboration between us and an incredible production company – we crafted a colourful pastel explosion of silk flowers that were intertwined with bubblegum balloons. And the flower bomb, created by Alice Naylor-Leyland, cascaded above the iconic entrance to Fenwick on Bond Street to celebrate the launch of their Summer Season.
What’s been the most elaborate floral design you’ve done?
I recently did a big private event in St Tropez which was beautiful but a logistical challenge. We worked with our suppliers to deliver 10,000 roses directly to the venue and took a big enough team to check every stem was perfect. A herculean effort by all, but one that was hugely rewarding.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I’ve always loved the coloured blooms and tangled stems of the Dutch flower paintings. I also try and swing by London’s largest rose garden, Queen Mary’s Garden in Regent’s Park whenever I’m in the area.
You’ve mentioned you collaborate a lot but how many people do you have working solely with you?
We’re a full-time team of six but have anywhere between two to twelve freelance florists working with us each day, depending on what the diary’s looking like.
Big installations will take months of prep work, often alongside big productions companies, such as Banana Split, S2 Events and Maestra, who have talented designers and fabricators who bring the big ideas to life.
It sounds like the dream job. What’s your favourite thing about it?
The creative process is a joy. We receive some spectacular briefs from clients and being able to see these through from early stage sketches to finished installation is truly the best and most satisfying thing.
And the worst?
Early starts never get easier, especially when you have little ones at home.
Let’s talk weddings. What’s it like working with couples and being such a big part of their special day?
It’s such an honour and we certainly don’t take the responsibility lightly. That’s why we only do a handful of weddings each year and work really closely with each couple to fulfil their dreams. It can be really sad to say goodbye after months of planning together and I’ve stayed in touch with many of our brides long after the ‘I Do’s.’
What’s the new eucalyptus? What’s going to be big this year?
Sustainability and a renewed interest in our relationship with nature are themes that grow and grow each year. We’re seeing an increased demand from some clients for natural materials, grasses and dried flowers. At the more colourful end of the spectrum anemones are very much having their moment in the spotlight too.
What tips can you give on a quick and easy bouquet anyone can do at home?
For the high-impact look go for heavy grouping. At The Ned we use lots of the same blooms for maximum effect, rather than a few of everything. And source vases from vintage shops and the treasure trove that is Sunbury Antiques Market.
What do you do with all the flowers that are left over at the end of the day or week? We imagine your house bursting with blooms.
If I’ve done my job properly and got my ordering right, then we barely have any. That said, it’s a sweet-smelling perk of the job to take home surplus when we have any – my little boy particularly enjoyed the seven teeny tiny Christmas trees I filled his room with after a festive client event.
Any advice for others wanting to leave the nine to five and turn their passion into a career?
Go for it but do your research and get your hands dirty first.
Finally, as a food, drink and travel mag, we want to know where you go…
Scott’s in Mayfair, an oldie but a goodie, their banoffee pie is heaven-sent.
The Champagne Bar at Kettner’s is one of Soho’s best secrets.
The Ned is the ultimate treat for a grown-up stay. You can’t beat the Martini’s in the Library Bar, the plushest of drinking dens
Mayfair’s Mount Street is my favourite in London. It has the added benefit of being close to Jessica McCormack’s studio, too and I live in hope of one of her beautiful pieces one day.
Most memorable holiday…
I got married at Paloma Beach in Cap Ferrat in 2011 which gives my husband and I the perfect excuse to return every September. It truly is my happy place.
On my 2020 wish list…
I’m keen to get out of the city and into the wilderness this summer, I’d love to do a long trip around Scotland or Ireland, taking in the best of our coastlines.