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March 2, 2019

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Zen adds zing to the art of floral design

BUDDHA said the world is in a grain of sand, a fallen tree leaf, a flower petal. Xiang Yiming sees the world through a similar prism in his floral arrangements.

His Boutique La Fleur, which opened in 2010, is located in an old-style villa set amid lush plane trees on Sinan Road.

The shop quickly earned a reputation for minimalist, chic floral arrangements and became a popular site for movie filming and celebrity photographs. That didn’t particularly please Xiang.

“I wanted this to be a peaceful, secluded place for those who truly love and understand the art of flowers, so I charged fees for filming and photographing,” he said with a laugh.

Xiang intentionally keeps a low profile. He wants to keep his work and life simple. His floral designs are clean and clear, often with no more than three materials and one color scheme.

He usually uses natural materials, such as tree bark, leaves and even melon and sesame seeds.

“It matters in the design of shape, size, length, color and thickness,” he said. “It is not merely piling up materials.”

Xiang’s love of plants dates back about 30 years ago, to when the was a warehouseman at the Shanghai Vegetable Processing Factory. While there, he started to teach himself gardening and flower arrangements. In one instance, he created a “sword-mountain” from discarded iron sheets, using it as a base to fix flowers of bronze needles in oriental floriculture. He even offered to work for free in a flower shop.

In order to gain further his newfound passion, Xiang wrote a letter to Cai Zhongjuan, then director of Shanghai’s flower arrangement association, and received a positive reply a month later. He had finally connected with the community of floral experts and gradually started to shine in flower competitions and exhibitions.

In the 1990s, he was hired as a florist at the five-star Portman Hotel in Shanghai.

“The opportunity changed my life,” he said.

But it didn’t go well at first. Xiang couldn’t speak English well and wasn’t accustomed to the rigid rules of Western management. What frustrated him most was the loss of his individual creativity amid the conflicting opinions of department heads.

One day, a senior manager from the hotel headquarters, who happened to pass by, told Xiang that it would be better to use one color scheme for different flowers.

“It was an enlightening moment, and after that, the quibbling stopped,” Xiang said.

In the late 1990s, Xiang left the Portman and started his own business. His reputation preceded him in the industry, resulting in steady orders from upscale hotels in the city. He became a reliable supplier of flowers for large banquets and international conferences.

“No one could be 100 percent sure if certain flowers would blossom on the day, given temperatures and humidity, so I often had one or two back-up plans,” he said.

Xiang was the mentor of Pan Shenhan, who won a gold medal in floral design at the WorldSkills Competition in Abu Dhabi in 2017. As the youngest of all the gold medalists, the 18-year-old student from the Shanghai Urban Construction Engineering School used about 150 branches, 600 flowers, 300 leaves and 30 potted plants to win the top prize.

Pan had been training on Xiang’s team for 10 months prior to the competition.

“He impressed the judges with a broad international vision and a solid foundation in Chinese traditional art,” Xiang said, describing the four-day competition as “full of tension.”

Among the challenges, Pan had to design a bridal bouquet and exhibit exceptional floristry skills.

Xiang said he opened Boutique La Fleur because there were no high-end flower shops in Shanghai at the time.

“I don’t make money from this shop,” he explained. “It’s more of a showroom for my floral art.”

The shop’s interior features clean-cut lines, decorated by a simple gallery of flowers in delicate arrangements. The shop was ranked “Shanghai’s most stylish flower shop” and became a model for florists throughout the country.

Although online flower delivery services are all the go nowadays, Xiang has not embraced digital sales.

“I don’t and won’t offer this service,” he said. “A true flower lover should go to shop in person instead of buying standardized products.”


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