Life Lessons: Florist Melanie Stapleton

Mention Australian floristry and it won’t take long for the name, Cecilia Fox, to pop up. The uber successful Melbourne boutique owned and run with heart by Melanie Stapleton, Cecilia Fox has become an exemplar in the industry, pioneering a sense of both wildness and elegance in their floral displays and installations and an environmentally responsible ethos, opting for local, seasonal and chemical-free flowers. Having dedicated her working life to flowers for over 25 years, and amassing a list of clients which includes the Australian Ballet, Melanie is starkly aware of the romantic associations many of us have of floristry and yet remains pragmatic and transparent when it comes to speaking about the realities of operating a commercial business. We speak to Melanie about what it means to work each day with flowers, the pitfalls and triumphs of aiming to operate an ethical and environmentally sustainable business and raising children with hope for the future.

Florist Melanie Stapleton. Image by Mia Mala McDonald

You grew up in New Zealand. Tell us a little about your childhood. Did you develop an early love of flowers, plants and nature, or was it discovered later in life? I can’t say that I was particularly enamored with plants or nature growing up. I grew up in suburban Auckland NZ climbing trees, mowing lawns, being forced to help weed our garden for pocket money. My family wasn’t the ‘get into nature type’. The first time I slept in a tent was in in my mid-twenties in Sardinia in a eucalyptus grove by the sea.

How did you come to discover floristry and know it was your niche? I was a shy 16 year old when I started as an apprentice florist in suburban Auckland. I learnt my trade the old-fashioned way, sweeping floors and making coffee. I didn’t really know that floristry was my niche right then but I knew I liked it better than school. I grew and it grew up with me.

Tell us about the name of your Melbourne studio, Cecilia Fox. I created the name Cecilia Fox when I started writing my blog many years ago. It is a tribute to both my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother’s middle name Cecilia and my maternal grandmother’s surname Fox.

What has your career in floristry so far taught you, about nature, flowers, people, creativity? Doing flowers has always come naturally to me. I’ve learnt to trust my instincts, to not try to be something I’m not. I’ve learnt to take things as they come and be less attached to outcomes. Being a boss and running a business has not come naturally. It’s taken time and effort and many mistakes. When you are working in a creative industry stress and emotions can be high. The stakes can be particularly high in our work. Managing my own emotional wellbeing and stress levels and my team’s is something that I work on every day! Having staff is one of the most difficult things I’ve faced as well as the most rewarding.

I’m really interested in the imperfect, the daily creative life that often might not be as creative as you think. I also think that this kind of work requires a certain amount of courage.”

Does the visual and tactile nature of your work impact on your broader understanding of the natural world? I do think I have honed my senses over the years to take note of the natural world. Seasons and weather particularly. I love the inconsistencies, imperfections and surprises that serve as a reminder of our humanity.

You often work with natives. Tell us a little about your relationship with Australia’s natural flora. Because I am a guest in and on this land the connection I’ve experienced with Australian plants and flowers and landscape has been profound and vast. It did take me a long time to understand the language of the local plant life here, now I feel like I ‘get it’ a little more.

I imagine your work requires a high level of mindfulness, as it is such a delicate artform. Do you ever find yourself entering a meditative state as you interact closely with flowers? I think this idea of floristry being some kind of mindfulness meditation is incredibly romantic. Flowers absolutely hold a unique power, an emotion and a mystery, but day to day I’m running a business. For the most part it’s a physically demanding production job with intense time pressures and long hours. Attention to detail permeates every part of my day and certainly you can get into the zone when you are making, but I don’t really consider our style of work to be particularly delicate. I do consider the core of our style to be wild and fierce and contemporary and beautiful when the rigors of commercial floristry allows it.

Image by Emily Weaving
Image by Stephanie Cammarano
Image by Tasha Tylee

Florists are often commissioned to produce bouquets that play an important role in ceremonial and sentimental occasions – weddings, funerals, christenings, celebrations, apologies (!) You developed a reputation early on after opening Cecilia Fox for artistically interpreting the clients’ brief and marrying flowers to emotion. Can you tell us a little about your process? Playing a role in those intimate moments in people’s lives is deeply rewarding & over the years I’ve developed genuine and enduring relationships with my clients which has allowed us a huge amount of creative freedom. Responding to a brief, or a space or place gives me deep satisfaction.

It has always been a conscious objective in all our work to try and create an atmosphere or an environment, something that has a palpable emotion to it – drawing people into our botanical world rather than churning out cookie cutter work.”

Your installations involve tricks to shape flowers into works of art, and yet you often do this without floral foam (the nasty plastic stuff used readily by the floristry industry that gets washed down the drain and into the ocean). Can you take us through the methods you use to protect the environment while maintaining your creativity? To be completely transparent, we are not totally foam free as we still use it in some situations. I’m not proud of it and yes, floral foam is a microplastic and is despicable however, I hate the idea of demonising the use of it. Foam is absolutely something that should be phased out and banned just like all single use plastics, like coal fired power stations and asparagus that comes from Mexico. When I look around at my peers I see primarily young women, running small businesses under extreme amounts of pressure to cater to their clients’ every whim, doing the best they can in an industry that idolises that instagramable moment at any cost. We have so far to go when it comes to environmental sustainability in our industry, everything from imported flowers, plastic, water, foam, chemicals used in growing, the list goes on.

There is no magical answer to florist life without foam. It comes down to design and the only alternative we have right now is chicken wire and re-useable water vessels, which can work very well when creating a certain type of look. The most recent addition to our foam free life is the ‘chicken bucket’– a term we coined, after making 100 or so for a huge job. It’s simply a bucket cut down with chicken wire taped inside it. Our other supremely creative foam free technique is the ‘mossy pot’,  as you can imagine it’s a pot covered in moss. We compost all our green waste, we separate our soft plastics, we recycle all that can be recycled and we carbon offset our vehicles. None of which makes make us any more creative and I wonder if all of these efforts are token or not enough every day.

As well as an in-demand florist, you’re a mum. What lessons do you hope to instill in your children as they grow up? Big question, I know! Yes! A very big one. Jamie and I hope that we instill a wonder and a curiosity about the world. We are lucky to have a business that supports our whole family, it’s our only income. Jamie has been mostly with the kids and I have been mostly in the business, but we’ve done it together, our children have grown up in our studio.

They know about hard work, they can appreciate art and music and nature and people. I hope that we are raising feminists, I hope we are raising conscious, empathetic, brave humans.”

How do you feel being a parent of young children and an environmentally aware person who is concerned about the fate of the natural (and by extension, human) world? Well, I suppose I feel hopeful. Our kids come home from school talking about planting trees and protecting our environment.

Do you garden? Tell us what you are growing/trying to keep alive.Yes I do garden, mostly vegetables and mostly for the joy of having my hands in the earth. We rent our house that we have been living in for over 10 years now. We’ve built garden beds and planted fruit trees and really put our hearts and souls into it. Even though it’s not ours, it feeds us in so many ways.

We have houseplants, essential for city living I think.

And finally, if you were a plant, which would you be? This is something we talk about in great depth in our line of work. I’ve thought for years that I was a violet, but as I head into middle life I wonder if I’m something different.

Image by Amanda Alessi
Image by Stephanie Cammarano