A Family Heir, a Woman of God, and an Art Student: The Last Guard

By James Cawley

Flower’s hold a unique place in our world acting as a physical manifestation most closely tied to humanity’s deepest sorrows and moments of pure elation. You will not find much congruence between weddings and funerals, the one equalizer between joy and grief- the flower. The wedding planner caters to the same audience every day, the young couple with nothing but hope in their future helping them pick out which combination of sweet peas and lillalics will play best with the bridesmaids’ dresses. The funeral director fulfills a similar role for an entirely different audience, walking the bereaved daughter through catalogues of orchids  and lilies  – trying to find the most fiscally responsible way to remember her mother. 

In between both of them, the florist. Weilding a double edged sword the florist must be able to pivot from joy to grief depending on the tone on the other end of the line whenever the phone rings. Serving up emotions by the vase, backyard arrangement or entire stage adornments the florist walks a fine line in putting a price tag on our most vulnerable emotions. 

Paul Norman wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was born with a watering can in his hand. Raised as the prospective third generation heir to his family’s flower shop, Norman grew up among rows of pale green orchids and English Roses’ his playpen located inside his parent’s floral studio. 

My wallet an Alexander Hamilton lighter, I had gotten my first lesson in the florist industry – you don’t keep a shop running for three generations on friends and family discounts.

With a sort of symbolically tragic beauty, similarly possessed by the flower, Thibodeaux’s Floral Studio opened its doors on South Carrollton Ave the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the wake of one of the country’s most vulnerable days with fear and uncertainty running rampant in newspaper headlines, the unassuming first story store front opened for business hoping to offer something of an answer. Rotating through various experiments selling gifts, knick-knacks, and furniture, as well as trying out a variety of different storefronts up and down Carrollton. Today Thibodeaux’s has settled back at its original address with Norman at the helm focused solely on his floral arrangements.

Norman is a purist in the truest sense of the word, he likes things to be done right and he’s not so interested in the glitz and glam. He touts his formal “florist certifications”, a standard that seems to have fallen out of style since he began in the industry. As a young florist, Norman applied to the American Institute of Floral Designers (AIFD) looking to earn his stay amongst floral giants. Bringing $70 worth of flowers to the “hands on” stage of the application Norman soon found himself outmatched by thousand dollar arrangements. His continental bridal bouquet, a small arrangement placed in a piece of  driftwood he found on the beach, might well have been a prius lining up on the racetrack against ten ferraris. “Well just great I thought, I don’t stand a chance.” 

However, where the ferraris might win the sprint the prius will win the marathon every time. Norman was selected by the AIFD committee and awarded his place in the exclusive club of the nations top florists. A club which according to Norman, has since “lost its integrity” once people started filing lawsuits because, “they weren’t getting in”. Returning to New Orleans to run Thibodeaux’s, Norman has done work for the superbowl Saints, worked with Reba Mcentire, and turned down offers from Netflix to do arrangements . He is content with what he has and talking to him on the back patio, a brick landing surrounded by a myriad of plant life – Norman sums up his environment well, calling it his “zen place.” 

Upon leaving Norman’s shop after conducting my interview with him I inquired about purchasing one of the especially fragrant roses I had smelled when I first entered the shop. 

“Ah yes, the white English roses, they smell incredible but you won’t want to see the bill of sale”, taking the remark as a half joke I asked for one for the road. Truly a magnificent flower, Mr. Norman handed it over in a personalized water tube “to keep it from going thirsty on its walk home” and led me to the cash register. While I didn’t intend on any floral freebies my first day out in the field, the thought crossed my mind after talking with the man for a half hour about his feats in the floral industry he might knock a couple bucks off the top. “That’ll be $10.50 for the one”, leaving the shop with my tail between my legs, and my wallet an Alexander Hamilton lighter, I had gotten my first lesson in the florist industry – you don’t keep a shop running for three generations on friends and family discounts. 

***

Monique Chauvin, head florist at Mitch’s Flowers is as welcoming as the botanical garden in front of her shop on Magazine Street. “I’m dealing with your more day to day arrangements, birthdays, get well soon, thinking-of-you, some small weddings.” 

The “everyday customer” is where she finds her niche and as made evident through the incessant incoming calls on three separate landlines throughout our interview – there’s no lack of them. Working on a freestanding arrangement of pink sunflowers throughout our interview Monique and the efficiency of her team at Mitch’s resemble something of a beehive in late June. 

“I was the assistant to a designer, never worked in the flower industry, my idea of getting flowers was going to the grocery store”. When Chauvin was approached by her friend Mitch Abeir with, “too good of a deal, it was a no brainer”, she was thrust into the captain’s seat. Aware of her limited knowledge of the floral industry, Monique worked alongside Mitch to learn the ropes and while it hasn’t always been smooth Chauvin cites God’s grace in “bringing people into my life just when I needed them” for her success.  

Flowers are important in Mitch’s, but Monique Chauvin knows who she is and she’s got the receipts to show. 

“I had a guy call me today, from Chicago… he said ‘Look I just want you to do two things for me, don’t use carnations,’ I said, ok, ‘and two, I was supposed to do this yesterday but can you kind of make it look like you didn’t get it there’, I said nnn-nooo, I’m not gonna say I made the mistake when I didn’t, and he’s like ‘so I’m giving you a $100 order and you’re not gonna do that’, and I’m like you’re gonna have to call somebody else.”  My second important lesson in the floral industry: personal emotions must be put to the side when putting a price tag on an anniversary arrangement, but the store’s reputation, that’s not for sale.   

***

If people are a product of their environment, Kim Starr Wise has the Chelsea flower market on W 28th St. to thank for the success of her businesses. As an unsure student at the Fashion Institute of Technology everyday Kim walked back and forth between class and her apartment through the Chelsea Flower Market,  examining the checkerboard lilies and appreciating the mid-afternoon perfume which hung heavy in the market.  Finding herself work at Gramercy Park Flower Shop her journey in the floral industry began and has not seemed to slow since. Bouncing around New York working in SoHo then moving to wholesale Kim formed connections with major event planners in the city. Unsure of the exact moment, maybe it was when she stepped on the train of Catherine Zeta Jones’ wedding dress while in charge of  “changing out her bouquets”, Starr Wise saw event arrangements as her golden goose.   

Kim Starr Wise is a name that catches your attention. It feels incongruous on the tongue but something in the ear won’t let it drift into the deep abyss of names never committed to memory. Kim carries with her this same motivation, throughout her journey time and time again she seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. However this was no deterrent in creating what is now a large scale event florist business accompanied by a traditional flower shop. Leaving New York to take a break from the city, Kim moved down to New Orleans and found herself caught between a failing flower shop job and Hurricane Katrina. Her first round in the ring with New Orleans was over and the city sent her all the way back to upstate New York. But her draw towards the floral industry was not washed away in the floods – or maybe it was a burning desire to not be living at home in upstate New York now several years removed from college, because soon enough she was back in the city running the floral program for the St. Regis hotel in 2007. If one city in the world screamed stability and secure banks, New York City was not that place in 2007 and as Monique Chauvin said in our interview, “flowers are a luxury”, luxuries are often the first to go when the banks fail. Flowers seem to span the emotional spectrum, however something about going bankrupt and a bouquet of flowers feels like marshmallows in cheese fondue. 

Packing up her boxes, Kim returned to New Orleans not ready to throw in the towel. Taking work in flower shops around the city, by 2012 “Kim Wise Floral Events” was its own company and they weren’t here to sell roses at $10 a piece. Working mostly “bat mitzvahs, dinner parties, and weddings,” the event minimum is $3000, which prompted the question of “is it difficult to work events where a lot of emotion is involved and keep your own out of the work?” Her answer was simple, “No, sometimes I forget what the function even is, it’s about executing a look and an art piece.” Impeccably succinct, without even a pause as if it had been prepared by a PR assistant ahead of time, Kim Starr Wise is about her business and knows the service she provides. Maybe it has to do with her education at the Fashion Institute of Technology, or her time living in New York City, but Kim brings a unique perspective into the New Orleans floral market and a passion and drive that feels as if it was forged in the cold winters of upstate New York waiting for the school bus.   

***

           A third generation heir, a corner store florist who stumbled into the industry, and an event conductor who is not easy to get a phone call with – what do they all have in common? Aside from being florists, not much. Judging from my interviews I’m not sure the three would even enjoy each other’s company all that much but they all hit on the same notion at the close of our interviews – what the flower means to a community. In a world where streamlining, cost-cutting, and efficiency seem to be of utmost importance the floral industry objects. Sure, grocery stores can run lost cost, cellophane plastic arrangements out the door but it feels detached from the romanticism, the passion, the air ripe with loyalty and forgiveness that exists inside the flower shop. The promise of things to come or the remembrance of beauty that was displayed by an arrangement, the timelessness of a bouquet of roses, the natural light which seems to emit from a pot of begonias – this is the importance of flowers. Beauty standards change with time, what is considered fashionable is only so until it is not, but the flower swims upstream, the flower is unperturbed by changing tastes, and the florist serves as its champion. To recognize and appreciate the florist in the community is to ensure the sponsors of this beauty continue their work, despite “market trends” because emotion cannot be streamlined. 

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