Based on a little side street, just off Rye Lane, sits Sage Flowers. What started as a pop-up shop in a Peckham car park has blossomed into a critically acclaimed floristry business with community at its core. Neither Romy St Clair nor Iona Mathieson had formal training in floristry when Sage Flowers began in 2018. Prior to a chance meeting on a train platform between Iona and Romy’s finance, the two had “always bumped into each other at clubs and on nights out and said hello, but didn’t know each other that well.” After hearing from Romy’s fiance that she was working with flowers, and Iona being on the same journey herself, the two decided to schedule a meeting. Iona explains,“Our references and what we want to do really aligned. And we just thought yeah, let’s do it! So Sage was born, after that one meeting.”
Since then, the two have reached astounding heights within floristry, racking up clientele including Fenty, Glossier, Gucci and Hermes. Their unique perspective to floral arrangement, incorporating elements of modern subculture and art, sets them far apart from their contemporaries. Sage Flowers even expands past floral decoration; on their website you can find Ichendorf Milano glassware, hand-painted cards, and votive candle sets amongst other beautiful things.
Located in the heart of Peckham, Sage Flowers upholds their community as central to its growth. Both Romy and Iona have lived in the South London area for many years, Romy now residing there for close to a decade. “The businesses that are in Peckham, you know, the local people that are there…it’s so a part of what we do and so a part of Sage.”
Peckham is an area that is known for its vibrancy, historically having a high population of working-class African and Afro-Caribbean residents. Down Rye Lane fishmongers, fabric shops and family-run food stores bring different people to the ever-busy road and over the years a regeneration of Peckham has made it a popular place to live. Like many Black working-class parts of London – e.g. Hackney, Brixton and Lewisham – the influx of middle-class white millennials and Gen-Zers to the area has led to noticeable gentrification, ousting local residents and destabilising businesses that have existed in the community for decades.
This makes Romy and Iona’s community-focused approach to Sage Flowers even more important. Keeping contribution to the local area a priority means an expansion of culture driven by love as opposed to a loss of culture driven by profit.
It goes without saying, Peckham inspires a lot of Sage Flowers’ work. “The shops, and the colours, and the textures” of the area are woven into their arrangements. Beyond this, Iona cites streetwear, art, design and music as inspirations for their floral work as well as “nightlife culture, things like rave fliers – colours on that.”Indeed, their references shine through when you look at their bouquets. With seasonal flowers and non-local flora shipped from abroad, Sage use brightly coloured petals, complex textures and intricately crafted shapes to create their arrangements, invoking the same surreal aesthetics of 90’s neon rave-fliers.
Aside from community, Romy and Iona stress the importance of decolonising floristry in Sage Flowers’ ethos. Although the term decolonisation surged back into the popular lexicon following anti-racism protests in 2020, the concept has been studied for decades, as far back as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth (1961). In short, to decolonise in this context is to remove institutional practices and systems that reproduce colonial relationships of racism, classism, nationalism and xenophobia. Over the last two years, workplaces and educational institutions across the UK have discussed what it means to uproot Britain’s colonial legacy and create a more equitable society.
It’s really about spreading our knowledge and teaching people so that there can be more people of colour in the industry.
After seeing the disparity in race and class demographics, and witnessing microaggressions themselves within the floristry space, Romy and Iona decided to set up FutureFlowers. The programme is a free, three-month floristry course for people of non-white ethnicities, made up of six workshops – three practical and three theory – that teach the basics of floral arrangement. So far, FutureFlowers has had over 100 participants, with several going on to freelance floral work. For the pair, “It’s really about spreading our knowledge and teaching people so that there can be more people of colour in the industry.”
Free redistribution of knowledge and resources through the FutureFlowers programme is a great example of how to tackle societal barriers that make floristry inaccessible; by freely equipping more Black and Brown people with the tools to engage in the floral industry, power is decentralised from white middle-class women who tend to dominate the space.
Statistics from IBIS World show that roughly 12,500 people in the UK trade in the floristry industry, significantly less than the 73,000 reported by Statista that engage in artistic mediums like photography. Iona acknowledges the financial requirements of the practice that can prevent people from participating; “Buying flowers is expensive, so that’s probably why it hasn’t been as appealing. You can buy, like, a tin of paint or pack of pencils and they last for ages… But with flowers, you can buy them and they die in a week. And once you’ve cut them down and used them in an arrangement, it’s much harder to use them again.” Nevertheless, the “transient” nature of floral work is something that Romy and Iona find “quite romantic”; their beauty not lasting forever spurs deeper appreciation for the art while it’s alive.
I like making bouquets because they’re always going to someone’s house or they’re for an occasion and they’re really special. It’s kind of like a physical embodiment of someone’s love, one person giving it to another. It’s an honour to be able to make that for people.
Despite the stats, Iona does feel a “shift” within the floristry industry in the last 2 years. “Floristry is becoming more and more appealing to creatives,” she says. “I think it’s actually starting to be taken more seriously as a creative medium, as opposed to just kind of a traditional Grandma, church flowers kind of vibe.” Floral arrangement, although somewhat overlooked, is a crucial element of curating spaces and events. They characterise love and romance, mourning and grief. Flowers are a universal form of gift-giving that transcends language, highlighting floristry’s importance as an artistic medium. For Iona, the beauty of this exchange is what she loves the most about her work: “I like making bouquets because they’re always going to someone’s house or they’re for an occasion and they’re really special. It’s kind of like a physical embodiment of someone’s love, one person giving it to another. It’s an honour to be able to make that for people.”
While floristry’s importance as an art form is clear, the use of natural forms brings into question sustainability. Working with perishable resources like flowers unfortunately doesn’t make for long-lasting art, although perfectly beautiful. In addition, importing non-native flora will produce a larger carbon footprint than using native plants. Sage Flowers as a business aim to reduce their waste by using recyclable plastics and avoiding floral foam. However, Iona makes a salient point about human sustainability being just as paramount in the conversation; “Sustainability is not just about the products you use, it’s about how you run your business…Yes, we are trying to be more sustainable, more eco-friendly, always. But actually, we’re creating a sustainable business as well by paying the people that we work with really fairly.”
Creating a sustainable business model of course involves waste reduction but, as Iona stresses, fostering an equitable work environment where employees feel secure, supported and paid enough to continue the job exponentially increases a business’s longevity.
Sustainability is not just about the products you use, it’s about how you run your business…Yes, we are trying to be more sustainable, more eco friendly, always. But actually, we’re creating a sustainable business as well by paying the people that we work with really fairly.
Romy and Iona continue to pioneer positive business management with their book due for release in 2023. They aim to empower others starting a creative venture through sharing their past struggles with Sage Flowers; “I think the lessons that we learnt are quite pertinent to other creative businesses. Even if the industry and the practice is different, the kind of theory behind it is the same.” The book discusses topics like finances, branding, and marketing as well as community and diversity in the workplace, with both Iona and Romy sharing “things that we wish someone had told us that we found out the hard way by fucking up.”
So, what does the future of Sage Flowers look like? Firstly, Romy and Iona want to expand the FutureFlowers scheme to a full time training course, offering deeper teaching to students. However, sponsorship to facilitate this is vital to the programme’s continuation, which can be done through their online shop.
Beyond FutureFlowers, Iona says “people can support us by buying a bunch. We send our bunches UK-wide, it’s not just Peckham, it’s not just London. So buy a bunch for yourself, buy a bunch for a friend and just follow us, keep up to date with what we’re doing. We always love hearing from people… support doesn’t have to be buying something, it could be liking an Instagram post, something as simple as that.”
Sage Flowers are evidently a force to be reckoned within the creative industry. Beyond their beautifully crafted bouquets, the two entrepreneurs are building a business that enriches the community around them and emphasises the importance of this act. Maintaining decolonisation as a priority helps to disrupt the already skewed demographic of the creative scene, where privately educated individuals – usually white – hold the most control. Romy and Iona epitomise what contemporary creative businesses should aim for; equity, community and a love for the craft.
“You know, we started this a few years ago with nothing, no floral training at all. We taught ourselves how to run this business so when people say that they like what we’re doing it’s amazing every time.”
Liza became part of the BRICKS family in 2020, appearing as a Digital cover star for her anti-racism activism during the pandemic, and has since become the BRICKS Production Assistant and a Staff Writer, focussing on pop culture and sociopolitical issues.
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