After nearly a decade of hard work and literally digging in for the long haul, everything is coming up roses for Cao Xue, a 26-year-old florist in Beijing who has carved out a niche for himself in the industry. Cao specialises in weddings, parties and galas. He opens up about how the mainland flower business has slowly developed over the years but continues to lag behind other countries.
When did you join this industry?
At 17, after studying gardening at a vocational school for a year, I decided to quit school because I thought I'd rather get into real work. So I started working for flower shops. In 2005 I found that floral services for weddings were booming, so I jumped ship to work for wedding planners and saved my earnings to take classes conducted by Taiwanese designers. Later, as my savings accumulated, I took more classes by well-known designers from the Netherlands, Germany, Singapore and Japan. In 2009 I set up my own studio and started my own business.
What is your primary job now?
For flower design services, the usual steps involve determining what theme and atmosphere the clients want for the event, then producing a design proposal and discussing changes with them, before finally ordering the flowers and decorating the event venue. Because I mostly do weddings, I am busiest during the peak periods for marriages, that is April, May, June, September and October. For the rest of the year, I hold training courses for people who are interested in floral design.
Though it's a very small part of the business in terms of profit, I enjoy it because we share ideas.
I normally handle 20 events a year and hold three training courses.
Who carries out your designs at those events?
Usually it's me and my assistant. If we're shorthanded I also seek help from students who have taken my classes and therefore understand my style better.
Who attends your classes?
Mostly flower shop owners and wedding planners. Some are housewives. As people get richer and seek more spiritual lives, such classes are becoming popular among housewives in Beijing.
How have people changed in terms of their demand for flowers?
Seven to eight years ago, clients would take a look at some pictures and say, 'I want this, exactly the same as this.' But now they describe the feel they want, such as elegant, or luxurious. Few of them copy from others.
When it comes to floral gifts, people used to ask, 'Do you have blue Enchantress flowers?' Now they ask, 'Is there anything new this year?' In the past, many people cared more about the price. Now they focus more on design.
How did you get your first opportunity to design for celebrity events?
My first celebrity client was Li Xiang, the famous television hostess. She wanted to throw a 100th-day celebration for her baby daughter. A friend of mine was the planner of this event, and he asked me to take charge of the floral decorations.
Where do you get your flowers?
At first, I was not very picky. I thought that as long as they were flowers, I could do well with my ideas. Later I realised that good design required the best products, so I began to deal with foreign flower producers. Now, about 70 per cent of flowers for a wedding come from abroad, mostly from the Netherlands, the kingdom of flowers, and a few from countries such as Kenya, Germany and Ecuador.
Why do you have a preference for imported flowers?
Because they can be very different in terms of colour and texture. One reason for this is foreign growers have better seeds, thanks to more advanced biotechnology. The other is they are more professional cultivators with better technology.
While most flower houses on the mainland still rely on growers' own hands, those in the Netherlands adjust the temperature and humidity using a computer-controlled system. They are even able to make the flowers blossom on the exact day you want to use them.
The way growers deal with clients is also very different. Domestic ones might deliver a batch of poor-quality roses without letting you know in advance, even though I asked for better ones.
What are your plans for the new year?
After the Lunar New Year, I will expand my business to three areas. Ideally, weddings will account for 50 per cent, training for 30 per cent and floral gifts, a new service, for 20 per cent.
This new business seems to overlap with ordinary flower shops, but I aim at the high-end market. For example, for this coming Valentine's Day, we are providing only 10 gifts, priced at 2,000 yuan (HK$2,470) each. They're made of the best imported flowers, and with my special design.
Another new service I'm considering is selling foreign magazines and books on flower design. As far as I know, there is big demand in this industry on the mainland for those publications, and I believe it could help improve the whole industry.
Cao spoke with Mandy Zuo