Pink roses, orchids, peonies: the van was stuffed with flowers. Tourists at the Pan Pacific Hotel lined up to see these massively gorgeous flower creations make their way upstairs.
The floral arrangements were too big to fit into the service elevator; twelve people had to angle themselves awkwardly on the escalator to haul them up. Throughout this dramatic floral transport, onlookers were cheering, clapping and taking pictures. Finally, the brilliant pink flowers found their rightful places at Michael Bublé and Luisana Lopilato’s Vancouver wedding; Suzane Lee and the Granville Island Florist team could exhale.
The high profile 2011 Bublé wedding was an exciting achievement for Lee. “These were the biggest arrangements we ever created.” It was such a moment of pride, after so many years of working hard and establishing herself in the world of flowers in Vancouver.
Lee’s background was in fashion. “My sister was a fashion designer in Hong Kong. She trained in Japan. When she graduated, my Dad’s plan was to put me through fashion business school and we would work together.” As they matured and got married, though, the sisters lives and priorities changed. Suzane’s in-laws were in the flower business and she quickly saw how her design training could be applied in this new context. “I always see my flowers as flower fashion. I’m interested in new colours and trends.”
When Lee and the family bought into a floral shop downtown, she thought she should enrol in floral training. However, Hector – the original shop owner and her mentor – cautioned her against it. “He said: ‘do not go to flower school to learn. They will poison your vision.’ He didn’t want me making those old, ultra-tacky triangular displays with carnations. He stopped me. Instead, I apprenticed with him for three years.”
“Flowers are about the characteristics of the flower,” says Lee. “You shouldn’t force them into a certain shape. Hector taught me to avoid a contrived style and to go with the flow of the flower. It opened my eyes and it worked. He said to try to understand each single flower, instead of forcing it to do something ugly.”
Locally, Lee was also inspired by Thomas Hobbs and his floral originality. “At that time, Thomas Hobbs ruled Vancouver in the flower industry. I admired him so much. He was one of the reasons I went the high-end route.”
Lee and her entrepreneurial family made their way through a number of Vancouver locations: Royal Centre, Robson Street, the Westin Bayshore, South Granville. They did retail and wholesale. Eventually, in the mid 80’s, they arrived in Granville Island. “There were not a lot of people down there at the time.”
These days, Granville Island Florist is aswarm with market customers and admirers. “We also have a boutique store in the Fairmont Pacific Rim. It’s a very tiny store, a concept store. You get a lot of celebrities going through. Lots of hockey players. It’s definitely high-end. In the Market, it’s more casual, but there is an abundance of everything and it is so fresh.”
With our milder weather here in Vancouver, tourists are often surprised to learn how many of GIF’s flowers are sourced locally. Glorious peonies have just come into season (swoon.) “We get so many more fresh flowers here – lilies, tulips, orchids. In springtime, we get a beautiful variety of bi-coloured daffodils and tulips. In summer, we have hydrangeas, sweet peas, delphinium.. In the fall, we get lots of dahlias too.”
Lee will buy her local flowers at auction. She and her team will also work with local wholesalers to bring in flowers from all over the world – Italy, Holland, Ecuador, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand.
In her many years of business in Vancouver, Lee has seen tastes change. “About fifteen years ago, everyone wanted big, big bouquets. These days, people ask for more small bouquets to fit their smaller apartments.”
Meanwhile, wedding bouquets and budgets have blossomed. Lee and her Granville Island Florists were one of the first local groups to create elaborate, stylish wedding arrangements. For some fancy weddings, “the flowers alone can be 20, 30, 50 thousand dollars.” To keep up with all of the demand, GIF has over twenty full and part-time staff.
For statement events, Lee and her GIF designers will often work alongside teams from Upright Décor or Countdown Events. “We are trying to raise the bar, to create work that is as good as what they create in New York, Paris, England.” Lee enjoys visiting sister stores that share her aesthetic, stores like McQueens in London.
Lee is creatively inspired by the adventures and discoveries of her daughter, Vanessa Hong, a successful fashion blogger who has clearly inherited her mother’s flair for creative entrepreneurship.
With all that she has on the go, Lee cannot even imagine retiring. “I want to work until I’m 85. I still have a lot of things I haven’t done.”
What advice does Suzane offer to those of us who are lucky enough to bring a bouquet home? How best to keep the flowers blooming and alive?
Minding Your Flowers
1. Keep flowers in the shade or cold, unless they are orchids.
2. Keep them in a room with good air circulation.
3. Give them clean water. Spring cuts last better in fresh water. With everything else, the flower preservative works well.
4. Give the flowers space to breathe. “If’s like if you put a lot of people in a small room. It will stink up real fast. It’s the same things for flowers.”