Twenty five years is a magnificent milestone for any business, particularly one that was founded on a dream way back in 1991! We had initially planned to do a Vogue-style 73 questions video of Kally Ellis, McQueens’ founder and MD, walking through our HQ while answering questions, with team McQueens intermittently walking past with arms of flowers, recorded in one continuous take (exactly like the iconic video series). Then we remembered how clumsy we all are and, putting own own health and safety first, we decided upon a chat over a cup of earl grey and a slice of Victoria sponge instead!
McQueens has weathered two recessions, seen a cavalcade of characters working on the business over the years, and collaborated with an enviable list of recognisable brands and faces during the course of the last quarter of a century. Working in this country and around the world, Kally has overseen the building of a luxury flower business with a dedicated team that specialises in every area of contemporary flower design. From the tiny shop she opened in 1991 with little more that a dream, to employing a team of over 40 in 2016, McQueens now operates from its state-of-the-art newly-refurbished HQ in Bethnal Green. Boasting a ‘who’s-who’ of London on speed dial, and international adventures that include the Vanity Fair Oscar party, it’s fair to say that Miss Ellis has a fair few tales to tell (not to mention secrets to share). We took the opportunity to quiz McQueens MD Kally Ellis with 25 questions to mark McQueens 25th anniversary.
How did you arrive at flowers?
Via a circuitous route. Out of university, I began my career in the marketing department of a French bank (because I studied languages). But I’ve always loved art and loved studying art at school, and after a while, I realised it was the artistic side of my nature that was deeply unsatisfied. Then I had a dream one night – literally – where I had my own flower shop and I woke up feeling incredibly happy and excited. And from that moment, I knew what I had to do.
How was the experience at the beginning?
Scary, but fun! I’d done a bit of work experience at a garden centre in Kensington that had its own flower shop, but I really had to start from the bottom. I was working with a very experienced florist at the time and asked him if I needed any formal training. He said, ‘No, just watch me and learn.’ So I did.
What lessons did you quickly learn?
I learned never to say ‘no’ to anything! Often we were asked to do things which I was clueless about, but I soon learned you can worry about the logistics later – the important thing is getting the business. We were hungry and we were fearless and we had a strong creative vision. That’s what carried us through in those early days.
What advice do you have for someone starting out?
You need to have a clear idea of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I knew that no one else in London was doing what McQueens set out to do. Yes, there were fantastic florists doing interesting things, but we wanted to shake things up, we wanted to work with very creative people. Having a bit of a background in finance helped, too. Although I barely knew one end of a profit and loss sheet from another back then, I did know that many creative businesses neglected their finances and could go under as a result; I was not going to let that happen to us. So if you don’t have a good accountant when you start out, find one quickly. Likewise an understanding bank manager.
Are there any things you would do differently?
No! I’ve loved the past 25 years and I’ve learned never to look back, only forward. Of course I’ve made mistakes along the way, but that’s how your business improves; that’s how you get things right, by getting them wrong occasionally. Learn from your mistakes, and move on. Don’t dwell on the past, there’s much more important stuff happening right now.
What inspires you?
I love art and cinema, I love theatre and socialising with friends and family. Walking is a great way of clearing the mind and give you the headspace for new ideas.
What do you enjoy to do to relax?
I’ve just got a dog – a Bedlington terrier called Ted – so we take him for walks and it really is very therapeutic. I have a place in Norfolk that I try to escape to whenever I can, and it’s great for relaxing because there’s no mobile phone signal and a rubbish internet connection! And of course, Ted loves it.
Where are your favourite London hangouts?
Well when the sun is shining, you’ll find us with the dog up on Parliament Hill. For theatre, we often go to shows at the Menier in Borough which is only small, but it’s a creative powerhouse. I always enjoy eating out – Fera at Claridge’s is consistently excellent and we can admire our wonderful wild tree that we created in the centre of the restaurant that sets the tone for Simon Rogan’s delicious cuisine. But I’ve also recently discovered a gorgeous little place called the Towpath Café by the canal in Hackney. It’s a lovely little spot, unpretentious and welcoming with great food and coffee, and when the sun shines, I can’t think of a nicer place to be in London.
Your favourite designers?
For clothes, I always loved Susy Harper who used to be in Upper Street but she’s recently gone on line now www.susyharper.co.uk . I’m also a big fan of letterpress printing thanks to Harrington and Squires in Fortess Road, Tufnell Park. They produce the most exquisite paper and print products, all on wonderful, traditional presses, many of which they have rescued and saved from being discarded forever. They are fervent about what they do, and they do it with such style.
Your desert island possession you could never do without?
My GHDs. Even on a desert island, you never know when you’re going to get an irresistible invitation! I don’t mind my curls, but sometimes I just need to feel a little sleeker.
What is your favourite flower?
That’s not fair – it’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! My favourites change with the seasons, in any case. In spring, I can’t think of anything lovelier than the humble daffodil, and then in late spring, the divine lily of the valley. In summer, I adore peonies in their blousy, full-blown beauty, and hydrangeas may not be popular with Madonna, but they always delight me! In the winter, I think hellebores are just wonderful. It’s worth being a winter bride just to carry a beautiful bouquet of hellebores.
What are the latest trends in flowers?
The ‘unstructured’ look is the biggest trend in flower at the moment. It sounds easy but actually it’s terribly difficult to achieve. It’s all about making flowers look wild, and natural – it’s a lovely idea – but it requires a lot of skill from the florist to achieve this without creating a huge mess. But when beautifully done, it can look amazing.
Which are your least favourite flowers?
I’ve never been a fan of the exotics. Anything tropical like strelitzia, helliconia, ginger lilies, protea – yuck, yuck, yuck! Having said that, in the right setting, these flowers can look spectacular. but London is just not close enough to the equator, I’m afraid.
How has the flower industry evolved in the past 25 years?
I think everyone is much better educated and informed about flowers now than they were a quarter of a century ago. For many of us now, flowers are an essential part of our lifestyles, and I think people understand why beautiful flowers are so important in our lives, how much they can influence our mood and change our attitudes. I also think our industry is setting new creative boundaries: once we were rather confined to the rules of formal flower arranging, but that’s all changed now, and I like to think we’ve played some small part in achieving that. Tearing up the rule book has been hugely liberating, and empowering to us as leaders in our field. If you walk into some of the hotels we design for – the Grove, South Place, Claridge’s the Connaught, the Berkeley – you can see instantly what a huge impact the flowers make. Just imagine those spaces without that aesthetic; they would be quite, quite different. I think everyone understands and appreciates that now much more than they did back in the day.
What flowers would you select for an intimate dinner party with friends?
Right now, I’d choose wild anemones and clematis in shades of pink, lilac and purple. Understated, unpretentious, and utterly lovely.
What is your favourite film?
I watch a lot of movies – it’s a great way to unwind – but I love nothing more than an old black and white Hollywood movie. So I’d choose Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Oliver as Mr Darcy. It is wildly romantic, and sheer indulgence, with a script that absolutely sparkles.
What is your favourite book?
I can’t pick a single book, but get me anything from Persephone Press in Lambs Conduit Street and I’ll be very happy.
What music do you have on your iPod?
I get my daughter Sophie to download stuff for me. I love everything from musicals such as Chicago and Dreamgirls to old favourites – Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, and after years of being played David Bowie by my husband, I’ve secretly started to like that too (but don’t tell him!).
What art do you most admire?
I saw a Hammershoi exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years back and I absolutely loved those paintings. He’s a late 19th/ early 20th century Danish painter who specialises in interiors in soft, muted colours. He often painted people from behind (so you can’t see their faces, just their backs) and that makes them such evocative pieces. I’m also a fan of David Hockney and looking forward to his current portraits exhibition. And Lucian Freud’s portraits are astonishing.
Who is your favourite actor?
Harvey Keitel. Or Gerard Depardieu. Or possibly Gabriel Byrne! I sat next to Benicio del Toro once at a Vanity Fair dinner (but that’s another story)…
What do you look for when interviewing for staff?
Creativity. When I’m interviewing florists, I can tell pretty quickly whether they’re right for us or not. I’m not that worried about their floristry skill set – if they’re bright and keen they will learn quickly at McQueens – but you can’t teach creativity; the either have it or they don’t. And I love the fact that so many of our team come from all kind of different artistic and creative backgrounds. They all tap into each other’s creative sides, and McQueens has become a huge melting pot of artistic talent as a result. There really is nowhere else quite like us for this.
What is your best piece of business advice?
Follow your instincts. And play on other people’s strengths. Don’t surround yourself with ‘yes’ people – employ people who will challenge you, question you, push you harder. That’s the way to drive your business forward.
How has social media changed things?
Well on a very prosaic level, our bouquet orders have gone through the roof! But from a broader perspective, social media has opened up our business to a much wider audience. there are all kinds of people out there – nationally and internationally – who have never been to London but who know all about McQueens, who we are and what we do. That is fantastic. It also gives us the chance to play to our creative strengths in all kinds of areas. Duncan, our social media manager, makes the most wonderful short movies to promote McQueens and tell our clients more about us, and social media gives us the perfect platform to show these off. It’s not just about selling flowers these days, it’s also about positioning – we sell a whole lifestyle on one hand, a very specialist art form on the other – and social media allows us to spread that message on an international stage.
What’s your recipe for a happy customer?
It’s all about service. If you provide the highest standard of service, your clients will come back. Also, you need to listen to your clients – really listen, don’t just nod and smile. If you understand what you clients really want and ask the right questions, you will get the brief right. So often it’s our clients who inspire us, and we’re always grateful to them for that.
What are your plans for the future?
We have some very exciting expansion plans in the pipeline, but I can’t talk about them right now! But watch this space; all will be revealed in the not too distant future…
An interview with McQueens founder, Kally Ellis – Tuesday 13th September