COUNTRY BOY I come from a country with incredibly luscious rainforest. Growing up, it was very beach-and-mountain for the first 19 years of my life. I've always relied on nature for inspiration, bringing the outside in, and a lot of my designs are flower driven. My childhood was poor, poor, poor. My parents always hoped to send me to America, though I was not that great in school. At 19, they just shipped me off to New York to be with my sister; but it was very modest, basic.
NEW KID IN TOWN It was my first city. I was excited; being from a small country ... to being able to move to this major place; it was overwhelming. I'm one of those people who loves New York to live in because everyone is an outsider, and I am myself; [I was a] black man in New York in the 70s, when all the racial things were happening. I was not terribly educated and at the time, those were two things to adapt to. I did have a great 'fro [afro hair style]. I didn't shave my hair until 10 years later, when I started losing it. I was signed by a modelling agency called Black Beauty and I did quite a few catwalk jobs: bell-bottoms, very pretty suits. I was a kid at the time but it was a great ego booster and a really good learning ground.
It was decadent, the 70s - lots of drugs and partying and, at the same time, working. But even then I started saving my money. Eventually me and a few friends got it together and opened a boutique. It lasted two years. I look back and I realise that I went from one thing to the other and yet there weren't many disasters. I'm a bit of survivor in that respect. There were drug problems at one point, years ago. I've been sober for years - since 1990 - but there were issues that developed, it's all been about growing. I've been rather fortunate, especially where things are now, and my family are very proud.
FLOWER POWER My business is really in a good place and I invest all of my energy and finances to keep it growing, which is why I'm [in Hong Kong]. I started it in 1980 and it was a complete accident. I needed a job and a good design friend suggested I do weekly flowers for one of his high-end clients. I'd never worked with flowers or design before but it sort of developed from there, and I think it came naturally. I tried at all times not to copy other people's work and to come up with something of my own. Now we transform spaces and events, but even back then I was conscious of having a product that was a little different and of the best quality. But the first 10 years were a nightmare. Pricing was an issue. As you start you don't believe in yourself - partly because you don't know what you're doing - so you don't charge enough. There were disasters, too. I had clients having dinner parties calling at the last minute to say, 'Preston, all the flowers are dead!' and I'd have to run to a corner store to get more.
It took a while to get it right but now we have clients in the Middle East, Indonesia, the south of France; we've been steadily busy and we're pretty booked for most of [this] year.
STAR MAINTENANCE I do get tough customers. I think the higher the market, the more savvy and demanding they are. [Donald] Trump is one of my clients and I've worked with him many times; his daughter, [Ivanka], just got married and I did her wedding. That family is really wonderful to work with. Because it was his daughter he was very hands on, which didn't surprise me because I also did his most recent wedding and many parties in between. He wants to know what's happening. He's got where he is by knowing what's going on and he has strong opinions, and often you have to talk him into something and explain it. If it makes sense, he'll approve, if it doesn't, he'll put it down - and that's a learning curve.
I did Michael Douglas' and Catherine Zeta Jones' joint birthday [in September], her 40th, his 65th. They're fun to work with. They invited me as a guest, which is always lovely, but in cases like that you've been working all day to make it right and you want to go home.
FESTIVE FLAIR My creation for Hong Kong was a holiday decoration, but I didn't want it to be that obvious. When I saw the space [The Landmark atrium], I tried to imagine a rain of crystals, so to speak. Hong Kong Land wanted something beautiful, something elegant. With the grotto I wanted to create an elegant playroom with a traditional feel. 'Dramatic' is a key word of my work. I love people to walk into my spaces and see something with impact, that has that sense of awe. I was careful not to make it all white because of what it represents here [death] but from what I've seen, Hong Kong is very versatile with design. I think Hong Kong has the same vibe as New York, and that fashion-wise they do their thing. What makes New York outstanding is that everyone goes there to do something, people don't hang around; if you hang around too long, forget it. I get that sense here.