Meet Jeff Leatham, the Florist Beloved by Royalty and the Kardashians
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When Iranian fashion model Nazanin Jafarian Ghaissarifar married Nigerian oil heir Folarin Alakija in June 2017, the wedding was held at Blenheim Palace, an 18th century pile in Oxfordshire where Winston Churchill was born. The day featured a 12-foot cake and a performance by Blurred Lines singer Robin Thicke. But it was the flowers that stole the show.
Billowing waves of white roses—1 million in all—cascaded across the floors. Thousands of white orchids dripped from chandeliers and reached in marshmallow arcs over fireplaces. The church altarpiece was made of hydrangeas.
The floral wizardry, which dominated social media and the Daily Mail for days afterward, was the work of Jeff Leatham, who serves a Hollywood clientele out of a Beverly Hills studio and also acts as the artistic director at Paris’s Four Seasons George V. The florist had done extravagant weddings before—check out the photos of Tina Turner’s Zurich nuptials in his book, Jeff Leatham: Visionary Floral Art and Design, published by Rizzoli in 2014. But this celebration was something else entirely. “It was, like, walls of orchids and walls of hydrangea,” Leatham recalls. “It was a floral orgasm dream.” The cost of a floral orgasm dream: $1.2 million.
It’s also a sign of the times: The rich are spending more on parties, music, and food. But according to Leatham—and industry experts—flower sales are a true bellwether for a society’s excess. Charlie Hall, an economist and professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University, says that before the last recession, in 2007, spending on floriculture reached $30.3 billion a year. That fell in 2008, to $28.9 billion, and again in 2009, to $25.7 billion, before climbing back to prerecession levels in 2016, hitting $30.8 billion. “The sales of flowers are what I call a coincident index,” Hall says. “There’s leading indices, lagging indices, and coincident indicators that are reflective of what’s happening right now. If you match up flower sales to GDP, it’s almost a perfect correlation.”
Cut flowers are a good barometer for the economy because they’re a luxury item for most consumers, says Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. “If incomes go up, do cut flower sales go up just a little bit or quite a lot?” he asks. “The answer is quite a lot compared to any other agricultural product.”
Perhaps nobody has had a better seat for this decadence than Leatham, 47, whose phone case features an image of reality mogul and client Kris Jenner giving the finger. At his studio in the basement of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills—a windowless, fragrant workspace stocked with vases of all shapes and sizes—handsome men artfully assemble arrangements such as a $1,400 “Gigantic Rose Bowl.” There’s a framed thank-you from Dolly Parton on a side table in his office—it reads: “Anytime I need something spectacular I know where to look.”
Leatham has more than 900,000 Instagram followers—due in part to his work with Jenner and the Kardashians—and his life is occasional fodder in tabloids such as Us Weekly and In Touch. At the George V, his opulent arrangements have turned the hotel lobby into a bona fide tourist attraction. “We’re using over 13,000 stems of flowers a week,” he says. “Just in that one hotel.” (His budget there is more than $7 million a year.)
In 2014, in a ceremony at Versailles, Leatham was awarded the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of his contribution to French culture. Now a Post-it above his desk reads: “Remember you’re a f---ing knight.” Not bad for a kid from Ogden, Utah. As a teen he worked the box office at a movie theater. At 19 he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Gap before being discovered by a modeling agent and shipped off to Europe to do runway work.
He fell into flowers by chance in 1995 at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, working a part-time job for the in-house florist. Four years later he was hired by the George V, where he was able to hone his craft, thanks to the lavish budgets provided by owner Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia.
“I remember us being able to play and have fun,” Leatham says. “We’d make something, say, ‘I don’t like that,’ and throw it away. Just thousands and thousands of stems of lilies. It would be in the lobby, and I’d be like, ‘No, I want to do purple.’ ” He credits his early success to “his Highness,” as he calls Alwaleed, who provided room to create his signature look. The “Leatham Threes” are “clean, simple, chic,” the florist explains. “Never mix more than three types of flowers.”
Leatham moved back to Los Angeles in 2016, but he travels to Paris every five weeks to style the George V. “In L.A. they don’t respect artists. They respect television stars,” he says. “There’s a respect for artists in Paris. They could give a f--- about celebrities.”
Even so, it’s celebrities who drive his brand. When Jenner stayed at the George V in 2014, he filled her room with flowers. The George V is where he met Turner and Oprah Winfrey. “My biggest clients, my greatest friends—how did you meet them? In the lobby of the George V. I did Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Where did I meet the Clintons? In the lobby of the George V.” (After Hillary lost the presidential election, he sent a handwritten letter. Did she want flowers? “I’m sure that’s the last thing she wanted,” Leatham says.)
The now-iconic flower wall he created for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s 2014 wedding kick-started a trend that, unlike cut flowers, will not die. “Every time I think it’s over, we’ll put some scene up with a couch and a floral wall,” says Marcy Blum, a prominent Manhattan-based party planner. “And that’s the thing everyone is Instagramming.”
In March 2018, Leatham designed Khloé Kardashian’s baby shower at the Hotel Bel-Air, an affair for 80 guests that included more than 20,000 carnations hanging from the ceiling. Roses were imported from Ecuador and displayed alongside huge moss-covered elephants, another Leatham signature. “I’m kind of the New Age Noah from Noah’s Ark,” he says.
The influence from these celebrity events filters to the masses: Call it trickle-down floranomics. According to Kate Penn, chief executive officer of the Society of American Florists, even brides working with a limited budget crave the kind of Instagrammable moment Leatham specializes in. “Some brides will put all their money into the really big showstopper piece,” she says. “If they’ve got this fabulous floral chandelier, they’ll do something more modest for the tables. They want something that’s going to get people talking.”
As his work has been posted and reposted, clients have gotten more demanding—and Leatham more selective. He prefers not to meet with a bride until four months before the wedding. “Brides lay in bed drunk on Instagram and change their minds,” he gripes. But he concedes people are willing to spend a little extra these days. “I’ll say, ‘If you want this you have to spend an extra 20 grand,’ ” he says. “They understand if they see something wow, they’ll need to spend something more wow.”
When asked if brides are concerned with ecological impact, Leatham scoffs. “What are you going to do with all of those flowers? Float them down the Thames River?” he asks. “The last thing brides want to worry about after the wedding is where you’re going to take all the flowers.”
Leatham makes this observation effortlessly, with charm and a corn-fed smile that make his musings seem less catty and more funny. He admits that for his own 2017 wedding, to Teen Wolf star Colton Haynes, he was his most demanding client. “Listen,” Leatham warned his then-fiance. “If you’re marrying Jeff Leatham, you either have to do something where you get married naked on the beach in Cabo with nothing—it’s just you, a horse, and sand—or you go big.”
Jenner officiated at the wedding at the Parker, a hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., before stars like Sofía Vergara, Joe Manganiello, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Melanie Griffith, and Chelsea Clinton. “Nothing prepared me for walking into that space,” Jenner recalls. “He had put up this wall of green and all these red roses sprinkled throughout. It was the most romantic, beautiful setting I think I had ever seen.”
The wedding was covered by tabloids and splashed across Instagram. It was, in the end, an expansion of Leatham’s growing brand. In March he’ll open a new studio in the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. This winter he’ll orchestrate a wedding in Mumbai for one of the richest families in the world, which will require several weeks in India and 45 employees. In a sign of his increasing influence, a flower market in Holland recently named an orchid after him. It’s something Leatham might call a “floral orgasm dream,” if he only got a cut of the sales.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at firstname.lastname@example.org, Chris Rovzar
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