Q&A: GARY WALLIS
Gary Wallis, CEO and co-founder of Jane Packer, on Jane’s impact on floristry, the appeal of succulents and the very British attachment to flowers
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili
How has your role at Jane Packer evolved?
Jane and I started off the business in 1982. Jane was my girlfriend at the time and I helped open the first shop—painting the walls, cleaning up the floor—then slowly I got more involved. Prior to that I was in the hair and beauty industry. Then we got married and the rest is history, as it were. Nowadays the only thing I don’t get involved with is the actual floristry: my role spans strategy, operations, creative. We have licensing agreements in Japan, Korea, a store in New York, so a lot of my time is spent talking to those guys—I do a bit of travelling, too, which is one of the nicer aspects of the job. Actually, it’s all nice.
Jane was a real pioneer in her approach to floristry. How much has the industry changed since those early days?
Jane was one of the first people to say that floristry isn’t just about births, deaths, marriages and gifting. She was so passionate about flowers—it was her life—so it was obvious to take them into interiors and fashion. We’ve always treated flowers as a fashion statement. Early on we organised our seasonal collections in the same way that a fashion designer would, so we had a theme and gave every item a name.
In the early eighties, there was a boom in London in the crossing of boundaries between industries, so it wasn’t too difficult for me and Jane to really look at what we were doing and say, are we florists or do we want to be part of a wider interior design movement? We’d do a shoot for a bridal magazine, but then the stylist would say, you know what, those flowers would look really good in such and such a context. It was exciting. Now it’s accepted, but at the time it was revolutionary.
Is it challenging to keep things fresh, while maintaining that recognisable Jane Packer aesthetic?
Again, you can make a correlation with fashion. If you look at Prada, Gucci, Versace, they’re changing all the time but they still have a clear house vision. It would be bad for them to keep doing the same thing every season—you have to change, but it’s doing so in a way that reflects the character and ethos of the brand; the DNA. The other thing we do is avoid being faddish. If we see something trending we say, is that trend applicable to what we do? If it is, we’ll incorporate it. But we wouldn’t do something just because it’s fashionable or we wouldn’t be leaders any more. But we don’t live in a bubble: we’re all influenced by other things.
How do you maintain that across stores, or indeed bouquets, when you have so many individual florists?
That is one of the hardest things. It’s not like producing a dress in a factory and then distributing it around the country. First of all, everyone we employ must have the technical skills. If they’re creative, of course that helps—our people are contributing to our creative development, we don’t want robots—but we want florists who understand that we do have a house style. One of the benefits of having a strong signature is that when people come to us, they know this. But we are in danger of becoming set in our ways, so we talk about what that means all the time—whether we’re doing the best we can do creatively. Usually the answer is, we can improve. That’s how you progress.
As a culture we have a very strong emotional attachment to flowers. Is that unique to Brits?
That’s not unique. In some countries people are, for example, offended if you send lilies as a gift because they really seriously consider them funeral flowers—the same with white carnations. It’d be inappropriate, the connotations are so strong. There are those correlations everywhere, but I think the British are unique in their acceptance of flowers. Just look at our supermarkets—they’re not always the best quality, but there will be a fair selection of flowers to choose from. There are very few countries that are into that. Culturally, we’re stronger in our relationship not just with flowers, but gardening generally. That whole horticultural experience.
How trend-driven is the world of floristry?
At the moment we’re seeing a real move towards people buying house plants—particularly succulents and those sorts of varieties that don’t need a lot of TLC. In general, our lifestyles are becoming more minimalist; not because it’s a movement but because it’s essential. Our apartments are smaller and we don’t want clutter, so a nice little perfectly-formed succulent in an attractive box works. In Japan we’re selling lots of little square vases with flowers in. Again, most people in Tokyo don’t live in big apartments. They want beautiful, small things—Japan is known for that. In Seoul, they’re mainly purchasing as gifts. And that’s where the reputation of the brand comes in. We have a parable we tell all our staff: if your boyfriend or girlfriend pushes a Tiffany box across the table, you don’t care what’s in it—that’s what we want to do with Jane Packer.
How technical is the art of floristry—is a flair for it something you can teach?
You have to be quite dexterous, but there is a lot of acquired technical skill involved. Take a hand-tied bouquet: there are many elements to it, but the two fundamentals are the way the stems lay as you put the bouquet together, and how you groom the flowers. Anyone can pick up a bunch of flowers, put them together and they might look pretty, but it might fall apart in a commercial context. We also work in certain colour palettes, so we explain to people what we believe works together.
More basic even than that is how you treat each flower so that it’s going to last: how much do I cut off the bottom? How much do I give it to drink? Those are things you have to learn for each variety—it’s understanding the science behind it, the botany. Then, there are wired bridal bouquets. There are lots of different grades of wire, and you use a different grade for each type of flower. The mechanics of that are an intricate skill—putting it together properly so you don’t end up with a spaghetti of wires. That’s just three technical skills you can teach, off the top of my head.
Any top tips for the keen amateur?
For me there are two things: make sure that you’re choosing flowers that work together and with your interior, and it seems obvious, but think about which kind of vase you’re going to put them in. You don’t want to buy a rose that’s a metre long if it’s going to end up in a 10-inch vase. The rule of two-thirds, which seems to apply to everything creative, works—so if your vase is two thirds, the final third would be your flowers. It’s not 100 per cent, but it’s a good place to start.
You’ve recently relocated to George Street. What prompted the move?
To be honest, the majority of people order online—which is a shame because they will get a better service if they come into the store and speak to us—so it just didn’t make sense any more to have such a big space. But we want to have a shop front; we couldn’t be who we are if we didn’t, and we’ll always stay in the area. We love Marylebone and it’s where we started—it’s our home.