Superkallyfragilisticexpialidocious Hardly atrocious or even precocious, giving up a career in the City to become a floral entrepreneur was a stroke of genius for Kally Ellis of McQueen’s, says Mark Nayler
Hardly atrocious or even precocious, giving up a career in the City to become a floral entrepreneur was a stroke of genius for Kally Ellis of McQueen’s, says Mark Nayler
IN MOST CITY workers there must be a seed of freedom. They sit at their desks and wait for it to germinate into a new enterprise, a different direction or just a riotous weekend. Few turn this seed of freedom into actual blooms. Kally Ellis, however, shut down her spreadsheet and took up flower arranging, leaving the marketing division of a French bank in 1991 to start one of London’s most fashionable florists, McQueen’s.
We meet in the over-plush surroundings of the Jumeirah Carlton Tower for a chat over Eric Lanlard’s sumptuous afternoon tea. Kally confesses that she had tried to resist a career in the creative industries. ‘Growing up,’ she says, ‘I was the youngest of four sisters and my three siblings had all gone into careers in art and design. I was always a bit of a rebel so although I loved art, I had taken off in another direction. I studied languages at university — hence the job at the French bank — but I came to realise that the artistic impulse was stronger than I cared to admit.’
Again, to learn that someone who used to work in the City harboured secret artistic ambitions is not surprising; the private banks of London must be full of aspiring (or frustrated) novelists, composers and painters. Even so, flower arranging seems like an unusual choice, especially given that inspiration is not abundant in the Square Mile, where beautiful flower arrangements are dwarfed by steel, glass and concrete structures.
Kally’s inspiration for McQueen’s came from abroad. ‘My best friend was living in Paris and while visiting her I noticed how beautiful the hand-tied bouquets were over there; there was a symmetry and simplicity to them that you simply didn’t see in London at that time. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t buy that kind of bouquet here, and that got me to thinking that there must be a real gap in the market.’
The floral situation in London at that time was desperate. ‘There weren’t really any hand-tied bouquets. Bouquets used to be flat-packed and come in horrible cellophane. Floral displays had so many mixed flowers and all manners of colours, which were quite garish. I wanted simple bouquets that were understated yet stylish; elegant, contemporary displays that used one flower variety and one colour, using the actual vases to create impact and a design aesthetic — to build up a landscape.’
SHE DIDN’T LEAVE her job at the bank immediately, but that trip to Paris was crucial. ‘It must have been playing on my mind, because one night I dreamed about flowers and a flower shop. When I woke up in the morning, it all fell into place and I knew that this was what I had to do.’
Kally opened her first shop in Shoreditch, long before it became fashionable, in the former premises of Alexander McQueen’s aunt, who was herself a florist. The name stuck, a modest touch amid the exuberance of the flowers. Her flagship store is now on Old Street: brightly coloured bouquets spill out on to the pavement outside its doors, a welcome contrast to the monochrome surroundings. Even to the uninitiated, the style is distinctive, shaped by Kally’s fundamental principles of simplicity and elegance. ‘I like things to look clean and simple,’ she says. ‘I don’t like designs that are overly fussy or contrived. So much of what we do, especially in the five-star hotels such as Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley, has to work within that particular environment, so there’s a lot to take into account.’
It’s entirely in line with Kally’s modesty that those big names — all of whom have recently commissioned installations from McQueen’s — are casually dropped into conversation, rather than announced with fanfare. She received great acclaim for her designs for the Vanity Fair party after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and has been doing the flowers for the legendary Vanity Fair post-Oscars party for seventeen years, as well as decking out Vanity Fair events at the Cannes and Tribeca film festivals. Earlier this year, McQueen’s opened a retail outlet in Claridge’s.
If there is a budding florist within you — or within a loved one — courses are offered at the McQueen’s Flower School, where students are taught McQueen’s hallmark styles and techniques. Beginners can do a day course, professionals a vocational one.
As we finish afternoon tea and get ready to leave the Jumeirah, starting to fill with pre-dinner drinkers, I ask Kally what drives her. She doesn’t stop for a second before answering with great verve: ‘I love the creativity of it; I love interpreting a client’s brief and getting it right. That gives me a real buzz. We celebrated our twentieth anniversary last year, and many of my clients — Vanity Fair and the Maybourne Hotel Group, for example — have been with us for much of that time. You build up a trust, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Again, I find that hugely satisfying.’
It sounds like bidding au revoir to the bank and bonjour to flowers was the best decision Ellis ever made.
Read more by Mark Nayler