French florist artist Thierry Boutemy poses for portrait pictures in his atelier and flower shop, during an interview with AFP, in Brussels.-AFP

There was a time, pre-pandemic, that Thierry Boutemy’s flowery creations graced catwalks, magazine covers and celebrity weddings. Now, of course, the French florist-who has worked for Sofia Coppola, Lady Gaga and the fashion house Hermes-is having to weather the crisis like anyone else. But his passion for petals has not withered.

For more than 25 years, Boutemy has run his boutique in Brussels, a cob-walled den where Italian poppies, Dutch hellebores and tulips from the south of France perfume the air. All are imported-“Belgium doesn’t produce anything in winter,” he says-but they are all blooming, alive, from soil, free from chemicals and of verified provenance.

That attention to detail and devotion to nature means Boutemy sources most of his plants from small growers discovered on the sidelines of the Royal FloraHolland Auction House-the biggest in the world-in the Dutch city of Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam. “That market is a disaster,” he told AFP. “It’s an industry-scale war machine that works like a poultry battery farm.

It’s full-on commercialism,” he said, describing a technique used by some to color flowers by soaking them in dye. “Instead of buying a bunch of flowers at a supermarket check-out, it’s better to buy a single flower for three euros,” he argued, complaining how horticulturists are being squeezed by the sector’s industrialization.

No ‘fashion florist’
Despite all that, Boutemy is forced at times to turn to the Aalsmeer auction market to complete artistic contracts, such as when he was tapped to provide a sumptuous peony display in the movie “Marie Antoinette” by Sofia Coppola-in the middle of winter. That project, he said, remains his “most beautiful career memory”. Boutemy turned for inspiration to paintings by an 18th-century artist, Anne Vallayer-Coster, renowned for her skillful depiction of flowers, who caught the eye of King Louis XVI of France’s wife Marie Antoinette.

The 52-year-old, wearing an orange jacket and sporting a curated beard, rejects the label “fashion florist” that some have thrown his way because of his work for couture houses such as Lanvin, Hermes and Dries Van Noten. “I’m not at all interested in fashion, actually,” he laughed. What he prefers is “people who sweep me away in their passion; sometimes maybe it’s not to my taste but I have fun trying to understand what’s going on in their mind.”

He has teamed up several times with big-name fashion photographer Mario Testino, notably for a 2012 Vogue magazine cover of Lady Gaga for which he improvised an arch made of flowers and plants. While waiting for normal activity to return, he is currently working on a film idea by an Italian director looking to tell the story of an eccentric who would like to build a palace made entirely of vegetation.

Garden ‘refuge’
Boutemy’s own floral artistry grew from a start learning horticulture as a 17-year-old. He quickly took to “fragile flowers”. He now cultivates his own garden, which he regards as a “refuge” to escape the world. In his shop there is a small corner given over to medicinal plants-eucalyptus and heather bloom-that he had brought in recently for an arrangement for a sick bride-to-be who ended up cancelling her wedding because of Covid. Events make up the mainstay of Boutemy’s business, but the successive lockdowns and restrictions Europe has seen under the pandemic “have thrown us back 25 years”.

“It’s like having to start all over again, to do things simply,” he said, before adding: “That’s not so bad in itself.” The sudden rise in people having to spend much more time at home has meant “a lot of people want to have flowers, as flowers give life to a home,” he said. “In the end, that has given me a lot of happiness.” – AFP