Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
With its fantasy Tudor architecture and majestic doors flanked by two Imperial Guardian lions crouched among baskets of geranium, sweet pea and red roses, Liberty’s entrance always makes me think of the set of some silent Hollywood epic. It’s somehow rendered even more cinematic by the stylish female figure tending the blooms of this grand store’s floral emporium, Wild at Heart.
You can’t miss Astrid Haynez, the store manager, and you certainly wouldn’t want to! I’ve come to photograph the flowers, but she’s just as beguiling as they are, a statuesque figure with a Louise Brooks bob and a very French air of quiet expertise that quickly convinces you that Wild at Heart has the answers to all your floral dilemmas.
Founded by famed florist and entrepreneur Nikki Tibbles in 1993, Wild at Heart is in perfect symbiosis with its parent store, offering a wonderfully scented introduction to Liberty’s courtly charms. This hugely successful business, with a wealth of A list clients to match its luxurious setting, is the product of Nikki’s intuition and talent – a talent she discovered 25 years ago when, unhappy with her job in advertising, she jumped at the chance to design flower arrangements for a friend’s wedding. Nikki’s muse had blossomed.
Astrid, whose childhood dream was to be a taxidermist, trained under Nikki and has been with Wild at Heart since 2007. Her wry sense of humour and taste for the extraordinary has brought her a legion of loyal admirers.
“I’ve worked for many other florists but Liberty is where I feel I belong! There is nowhere like it… the neighbourhood, the clients, the Soho community. And what a building! I pinch myself when I have to open those two iconic black doors! It’s one of a kind.”
And amidst the crowds and constant tumult of Soho, she feels there’s something therapeutic about working with flowers. “The beauty of flowers never ceases to amaze me. Handling them calms me, brings me so much joy. I really love what I do.”
And who wouldn’t love the challenges posed by Wild at heart’s clients when they include having to create arrangements for film sets, fashion shoots and advertising. For designer Solange Azagury Partridge, Wild at Heart created incredible wilted bouquets. “We kept the flowers for days on end in the shop. It looked great – there is something so romantic in wilted flowers. All the colours fade… the petals fall… like a Dutch painting. Beautiful!”. Creating bouquets based around paintings has proven a popular request, with the Dutch still life style being the most popular. “But I’ve had requests for flowers like in Douanier Rousseau’s works, with lush exotic foliage and Birds of Paradise, as well as more Gainsborough influenced arrangements, with meadow-like flowers.”
A recent commission veered more towards pop art than fine art when Wild at Heart had to make some bouquets for Lady Gaga, who was guesting on a well-known TV chat show. “We sprayed the flowers black, added some orange glitter and finished it off with dolls heads among the flowers – that was a little out there!”
What Astrid loves most is to pair her buyer with their perfect flowers: “I always engage with the customer. It can be a small token like a posy or an engagement bouquet – whatever the size or budget, I will choose the right flower, the right colour. I know so many secrets!” She laughs, and carrying a huge bouquet of Geraniums to the front desk reveals her dream arrangement. “I would like to recreate the Morticia Adams moment when she cuts all the heads of a large bouquet of Black Baccara roses… so red they appear black… all the roses heads cut with only the stems in the vase. That would be perfect to tell someone: I don’t love you anymore!” But for her spiritual home of Soho she has a far sweeter bouquet in mind. “I would create a nose-gay full of fresh herbs, mint, lavender and so on, tied with a big rainbow ribbon!”