Two Days, 100 Florists, 1 Million Flowers: A festival blooms in New York City

Florists, like many other small businesses, suffered financially during the worst of the pandemic.

“Month to month was very scary for us,” Aurea Sanabria Molaei, owner of Flower Bodega in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said of the shutdown. “There would be moments I would just cry in the street thinking we would lose everything we had built.”

Social events are the bread and butter for many in the industry but have been scarce for much of the past year, said Manhattan floral designer Lewis Miller, who is known for his Flower Flashes, pop-up arrangements in surprising city locales like bus stops. Other florists, he said, work regularly with restaurants and stores, both of which have only recently started to bounce back. “All sectors of our industry just got destroyed.”

But the city is rapidly reopening, and its parks and gardens, verdant and in full bloom, reflect that excitement. So does the L.E.A.F Festival of Flowers, an inaugural show taking place June 12 and 13 in Manhattan that is inspired by well-known European events like London’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show or Tulip Festival Amsterdam.

Both Molaei and Miller are taking part in the festival celebrating New York’s florists. Molaei is using it as an opportunity not only to publicize her business but also to celebrate Nuyorican culture in a city that’s had a tough year. Her installation for the event was inspired by “Viva La Charanga,” an album made by local salsa collective Fania All Stars. “The record’s name means ‘long live the band,’ so I thought this could be like, ‘long live the florists who have made it through this crazy year.’”

The weekend will go like this: On Friday, in the middle of the night, more than 100 florists, mostly from the metropolitan area, will blanket the Meatpacking District with more than 1 million flowers. Gansevoort Plaza, a new public square, will morph into a European-style flower market, with 25 floral pillars, or plinths, each over 6 feet high. About 20 stores and restaurants in the district, from Theory to Dante, will have blooming installations on the premises.

In the future L.E.A.F will be for-profit, with ticketed lectures, master classes and parties. This year, however, it will be free to the public. Florists will not be charged to sell from the market, and there will also be a program connecting florists to retailers seeking in-house displays.

“These florists have been decimated by COVID, so this year, we wanted to remove all barriers to entry,” said the show’s founder, Moira Breslin, who runs a strategic communications agency.

Breslin, a former resident of London who now lives in New York City, got the idea to do a flower festival after seeing her friends posting scenes from the RHS Chelsea show on Instagram. “I just remember thinking, ‘New York deserves one,’” she said. (A bit different from the Macy’s Flower Show, an established two-week event that took place last month throughout Manhattan’s flagship store in Herald Square, this one will be outside, will span several blocks, stores and restaurants throughout the neighborhood, and will feature a market.)

It’s taken Breslin five years to pull the event together. The inaugural show was supposed to have been last June but had to be postponed. The idea has had its share of skeptics, since even the esteemed Chelsea show in London went virtual last year and was postponed this year. Organizing the New York festival during a pandemic has not been easy.

“When I first heard about it I was like, ‘Good luck, girl, that is really ambitious,’” Miller said. “The Chelsea Flower Show has been around for a century or more. It’s this huge thing.” But Miller ultimately supported the New York event, creating installations around the city to promote it.

During early planning, one of the biggest hurdles was finding the right location. “We have 25 massive-scale installations,” Breslin said. “Actually being able to accommodate all of these big designs is challenging in New York City.”

She found a willing partner in the Meatpacking Business Improvement District, which unveiled its new plaza, a 30,000-square-foot area with a pedestrian zone, just two years ago. L.E.A.F will be the first major event the district has held there. “We were gearing up for a big 2020, and then we all know what happened,” said Jeffrey LeFrancois, the district’s executive director. “L.E.A.F will literally dress up the neighborhood; it’s going to look so good.”

Once L.E.A.F had a space, Breslin started to court local florists. “We did a newsletter, we had a drinks thing where we invited florists to my house and asked for feedback, we used social media,” she said, adding that she contacted FlowerSchool New York, in Manhattan’s flower district, as well as business leaders there. “While L.E.A.F was inspired by European flower shows, for it to work in New York, it had to have the grit and energy of this city,” she said. “We needed to show off the diversity of talent here.”

Florists are attracted to the event for a host of reasons. Besides impromptu run-ins in the flower district, it is difficult for floral designers to come together in the city to share ideas and advice. Some participants see the show as an opportunity to do just that.

“It is really important for me to meet my peers,” Molaei said. “I can’t wait to see their installations and see what they are going to create. I think I’m going to be inspired by their work, and it will be good for me to see what customers and attendees respond to.”

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