As a small child Steph Willoughby would never have dreamt that one day she would win the ultimate accolade of a Gold Medal at the world’s most prestigious flower show.
But growing up breathing in heady floral fragrances and surrounded by beautiful blooms set the pattern for her future as an exceptionally talented, award-winning florist.
With her fabulous Chirpee Flowers business in Ditchling, close to Brighton, Steph is now the third generation florist in her family, following her grandfather and parents’ footsteps to forge a career in the wonderful world of floral art.
She specialises in beautiful, bespoke creations and as well as winning a coveted Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, she has in turn proved to be an inspirational teacher, passing on her skills and artistry to many students who have achieved similar successes and gone on to run their own thriving businesses.
One of Steph’s earliest memories is being positioned at the bottom of a long flight of stairs in her father’s florist shop in Grantham when she was just six years old and told to shout ‘Shop’ at the top of her voice if a customer came in. Both her parents worked upstairs creating floral designs and downstairs was filled with masses of fragrant, colourful blooms.
“Recalling this brings a smile to my face as it sounds reminiscent of ‘Open All Hours’ but I remember the feeling of responsibility at that tender age as well as knowing it was a place I loved to be,” Steph says.
“The lovely scents, the rainbow of different-coloured blooms stuck with me and the love of flowers became ingrained – I have done other jobs but I was drawn back to the flowers and they are my lifelong passion.”
Steph has inherited a strong family tradition. Her grandfather had a large chrysanthemum nursery in Lincolnshire, the centre of the floral world in the 1930s, and supplied the old Covent Garden market in London.
By the time she was 18, her family had three florist shops in Sussex and she was persuaded to run one of them. But before too long, after early mornings spent meeting refrigerated vans full of flowers from Holland at 7am, working very long hours, usually being very cold and her hands continually red and sore, she decided she would like go back to studying, embarking on a degree in interior design.
“But with my interior design degree under my belt and two children growing up, I found I missed flowers, so I started a fledgling wedding flower business,” Steph says. “I worked from my garage to start with, alongside part-time hours in the family business and temping for other florists in Sussex. A busy life.”
Returning to the world of flowers set Steph on the path to a chain of remarkable achievements. Competitions intrigued her and she quickly became recognised for her skill and artistry, leading to the privilege of working with the world president of Interflora who sponsored an exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show.
“It was a real honour to be asked to do that, although it was nerve-wracking,” Steph recalls. “We created a huge and very heavy Bonsai tree, about 20 feet high, covered in masses of white dendrobium orchids, a few thousand of them and each one had to be individually placed. We were taking the mickey out of bonsai by making one which was extremely large and it won a Gold Medal. That was a very happy moment.”
Steph also became involved in inspiring others to make their mark in her chosen sphere, passing on her passion for creative floristry. She taught at a local further education college where she became head of floristry and was privileged to be offered a role working with WorldSkills International, training young students to compete around the world. These talented students gathered many impressive awards, including 18 Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show between them – an enormous source of pride for Steph.
She became a highly-respected international teacher and judge which took her to many countries all over the world, including Brazil, Canada, Japan and Finland, as well as at local shows. Last September saw her head to Russia to help train the Kazan floristry team for their debut onto the world stage.
“That was an amazing experience,” she says. “I was there based in Kazan which is very modern and trendy. Young Russian florists are some of the best in the world but they are relatively unknown. Their ideas are very different from what you see in Britain – their arrangements are huge, taking about ten or twelve hours to create and with a lot of skill involved. I hope to go back out there again next year.”
In the meantime, Steph’s wedding flower business has been steadily growing and has now become the main focus for her and her team at Chirpee Flowers, creating stunning floral designs for such an important visual and decorative element of a wedding day.
“A lot of couples this year want that meadow-fresh look, as though the flowers have just been picked,” she says. “That fits in well with my philosophy of using locally-sourced seasonal flowers and though it is more challenging to get that lovely informal look than a more formal design, the fantastic, result is worth all the effort.
“Nowadays weddings are often planned well in advance and the best wedding florists are booked up very early. It gives the couples the opportunity lots of time to imagine and look at the kind of design, colours and themes they are aiming for. One of Steph’s greatest pleasures is helping them along this path.
“The wedding ceremonies are also now held in all kinds of venues, and on any day of the week. We’ve been working on a wedding where the bride is in America. It’s a huge job involving not just the bride’s bouquet but massive archways and amazing arrangements for the church and the reception.”
While Steph loves the honour of playing such an important part in making a bride’s dreams come true by creating beautiful floral works of art for that special day, she also takes pleasure in carefully-chosen, beautiful and natural sympathy flowers, often bespoke ‘alternative’ arrangements with a very personal and unusual element.
“It can be a very stressful time but it’s a privilege to help people who are upset to choose a fitting tribute for their loved ones, the last thing they can do for them. We put a lot of love and caring into those arrangements.
“A little while ago we made a peacock for the funeral of a Mr Peacock – we used real peacock feathers in amongst the flowers and it looked lovely. The family were delighted with it.
“Some wedding requests can be unusual too. We decorated a rabbit hutch for a couple who, with the church’s permission, wanted it to stand at the top of the aisle with their rabbits in it for the ceremony. Dogs are often surrogate bridesmaids at weddings now and we have made some lovely floral collars and decor.”
Steph is now holding workshops at Chirpee Flowers, using her own passion for floristry to inspire others. These can be either for groups or individuals and she particularly likes one-to-one sessions where very personal coaching takes place.