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Coming into bloom
WHITNEY Bromberg Hawkings never wanted to be a florist. "I still don't dream of being a florist," said the 44-year-old former communications director at Tom Ford. Yet there she was, sitting behind a big bunch of yellow parrot tulips at the headquarters of Flowerbx, her company in north London.
Flowerbx, now four years old, has become the go-to florist in Europe for the fashion set - a consumer base that is as picky as it is needy when it comes to blooms. Louis Vuitton is Flowerbx's biggest customer. (The sumptuous vegetal garlands for a VIP client dinner last autumn in the Orangerie at Versailles were Flowerbx work.) Another regular client is Dior. Ditto the Birley Group, owner of the clubs Annabel's and Harry's Bar.
The River Café. Jimmy Choo. Tory Burch (in London and Paris). The Cheval Blanc hotel in Courchevel, France. Farfetch and the retailer Browns. Victoria and David Beckham have vase arrangements delivered weekly to their home and to the VB design studio.
For Paris Fashion Week, Ms Hawkings has been booked to decorate the Balmain post-show party and the Sonia Rykiel showroom. She is readying a small shop next to the Chiltern Firehouse hotel in London that she hopes to open in April. And she plans to expand to New York in May. Her ambition: for Flowerbx to become the first international flower brand.
Ms Hawkings grew up in Dallas. Her mother was a chef, and her father was a lawyer; neither was a gardener, so flowers did not have a regular presence in their home. At 23, freshly graduated from Columbia University with a degree in French literature, she landed a job in Paris as Ford's personal assistant at Gucci, where he was creative director at the time. She quickly learned that flowers were vital to fashion: part of the "language", she said.
"With Tom, there was such a clear directive," she said. "He would get so mad if he said, 'I want to send white peonies,' and they were yellow. I realised that there was this level of interpretation that florists have, which I didn't like."
She also realised that when Ford received flowers from fashion people, the bouquets were often a single variety, reflecting the sender's taste.
"Riccardo Tisci would send white roses," she said. "Miuccia Prada would send pink roses. Karl Lagerfeld would send white orchids. Or I'd go to a chic house, like Tom's, and there would be beautiful green hydrangeas in a vase, and that was it."
"I thought: 'How come the fashion world does this, and the rest of the world hasn't caught on? Why does everyone else have old-fashioned mixed arrangements that are so Dorchester hotel?' It didn't seem modern to me."
In May 2015, she began to think about what would happen if she treated flowers like a fashion brand. With varieties chosen by a creative department and a sharp logo (designed by her husband, Peter Hawkings, the senior vice-president for Tom Ford menswear). She could democratise flowers and turn a mossy business into something hip and cool, and more affordable.
"Usually, flowers go to a wholesale market like Covent Garden, where they sit for three or four days, then to a florist, where they sit a few more days," Ms Hawkings said. At each step, the price increases. Not so with Flowerbx.
"You order the flowers, we cut them on your behalf in Holland," she said. "They are delivered directly to you, within 24 hours. You buy the flowers before we buy them, so it's a negative capital business. We offer fresher flowers at a better value. And we have no waste."
She wrote a business plan and found a small warehouse - "a bike shed, really" - in the industrial neighbourhood of North Acton, with easy access to central London. She leased a van, put up a website and financed the entire enterprise herself.
In May 2016, she told Ford she was leaving after 19 years. "He cried, and I cried, and it was like the hardest breakup," she recalled. But he became one of her early, and biggest, clients.
"I let her do seasonal, big and tall - often branches, or pale Cymbidium orchids, since she knows my flower tastes," Ford said. He also gives Flowerbx annual subscriptions to friends and colleagues. "And everyone says the flowers are always beautiful," he said. "Whitney spent so many years battling with florists to get orders right for me. She knows."
Within six months, business soared. She needed another van. She needed more staff members. She could not run the business and answer all the customer service calls. She needed money.
She called Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-a-Porter, who now runs a venture capital fund called Imaginary. Ms Massenet had been one of Flowerbx's first customers and had told her: "The second you need to raise money, let me know," Ms Hawkings said. It was time.
Ms Massenet not only made a personal investment, she also introduced Ms Hawkings to Mark Sebba, the former chief executive of Net-a-Porter. He, too, invested - giving the business a solid financial base - and also became Flowerbx's chairman and Ms Hawkings' taskmaster.
"He was like, 'Your numbers aren't right.' 'The meeting minutes aren't right.' He got us on track," Ms Hawkings said. "When we raised capital the second time, people said: 'This is so sophisticated. You look like a business that's 10 times your size.'"
Mr Sebba died from a heart attack last summer. His role has not been filled, but in December, Ms Hawkings completed a fundraising effort that pulled in US$5.5 million.
Last year, Flowerbx achieved US$2.5 million in sales, Ms Hawkings said. This year, she is aiming to top US$6 million. If all goes according to her plan, by 2021, she will reach US$30 million, and turn a profit. To achieve that, she has to expand her customer base beyond the fashion sphere, a shift that is already happening.
"A woman called this week," Ms Hawkings said during an interview in late January. "They're doing this huge thing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and want us to handle the flowers." Who were "they"?
Knorr, the soup company. NYTIMES