Florist to the stars
It’s 7am, and the BE team is still adjusting to daylight. But across the room, a figure is sipping on his second espresso of the morning having already made a run to the flower markets of East London. Here is a man who does nothing by halves.
Rob Van Helden is a florist extraordinaire: a man renowned for his creative vision, beautiful arrangements and attention to detail. It is no wonder that the walkway to his flower kitchen is lined with pictures and handwritten notes of thanks from world leaders and stars alike.
As we sit by his desk, surrounded by flowers, heavenly scents and props to die for, Rob tells us about the journey that led to his designs appearing at exclusive events for the likes of Nelson Mandela, Elton John, and the Royal family.
BE: So, where did it all begin?
Rob: As a schoolboy in my native Holland, I helped in the local flower shop in the village at weekends and summer holidays: cleaning up, deliveries, whatever was needed. I studied Business and later, in Oxford, Management. I spent time across 12 different departments in Selfridge’s, London, before finishing my rotation selling flowers.
18 months later, I was floor manager and sick and tired of having to wear a suit and tie every day, so I moved to the design team. I started from the bottom, cleaning up after people. Then one day, the head florist said: ‘Rob, oh my God, we’re running out of time. Please, can you knock up some decorations as well?
What happened next?
It turned out well so I did more jobs and arrangements, and after a year, I went out on my own, very small you see, just a few flowers for people. Then my sister Patrice came over from Holland and together, out of the back of our old Volvo, we sold flowers and got to know people. We did bigger and bigger jobs by word of mouth alone, and 30 years later, here we are.
You’ve travelled all over the world. What was your highlight?
We’ve been to Mexico, the Maldives. I’ve done 27 weddings in India alone. The beauty is the variety.
Wow. Do you have a favourite flower to use?
My all-time favourite is Lily of the Valley, a signature flower for wedding bouquets. I love the simplicity and the fragrance. When a bride spends a fortune on an amazing wedding dress, the flowers need to complement, not take over. That’s why I love the innocence of Lily of the Valley. It’s pure and simple elegance.
But I’m the first to admit when flowers become a luxury, there is a snobbery that can come with that. For instance, the idea that you can’t use chrysanthemum, carnations or gypsophila.
I think it’s all about what you do with the flowers and how you present them, and I’m a great believer in keeping flowers for what they are.
In what sense?
I hate spraying flowers, putting diamantes in them, dying them. They’re a natural product. Leave them for what they are.
But each couple’s requirements are different. If someone wants a vintage look, you mix flowers with herbs and fruit.
Do you enjoy mixing different types of flowers?
I do, but at the same time I love doing vast, big decorations of one type of flower because they speak for themselves. Flowers work so beautifully en masse. That look suits some people, some venues, some types of parties. It’s all very subjective, of course.
Do you see any wedding trends on the horizon?
Props are a big thing for us. That’s why you have to keep your finger on the pulse, and you have to look around because people are demanding. They want new, original things.
As a florist, you build up a reputation for a certain style but we pride ourselves on creating any style. We can use all glass, silver or crystal, for instance. We can go modern, classic, vintage, eclectic. We’re here to serve anybody and everybody.
We’ve seen you personally hand-deliver a bouquet to the bride, and fix buttonholes on lapels. Do you like being hands-on?
It’s the personal touch, I think, that is the most beautiful thing. Of course, money is one thing, but the happiness you feel when you see the bride walk in and they all say: ‘Wow.’ That’s the biggest compliment you can get.
You build up a relationship with clients for many months, and you make their dreams come true. Then one day you receive a letter or call to say they were blown away. Then the 18-hour days and all the stress – it’s paid off.
As we leave Rob’s studio, he gives us a goody bag filled with scented candles and diffusers hand-picked from his own range. He tells us: ‘For your team to enjoy at your HQ while you work.’
Like he said, the personal touch.
Rob’s top tips for planning your wedding florals:
MATCH FLOWERS TO YOUR DATE
Flowers can be flown in off season but I think it’s heart-breaking when you see peonies or sweet peas in December. Make the best of what’s available to you and embrace nature.
UTILISE THE SEASON
Take your colour theme cue from the season. For summer weddings, look at pastels or white. A winter wedding lends itself to warmer, richer colours.
CONSIDER YOUR VENUE
If a couple books the Dorchester and then covers the walls in fabrics and puts a new carpet down, why go to the Dorchester? You might as well build a marquee or go into a warehouse.
KEEP WITHIN YOUR LIMITS
Consider your budget and what you can or are willing to spend.