Flowers for Nigella. That was part of Olivia Wakem’s memorable first day at a floristry job in London that saw her bringing beautiful blooms to fashionistas and the famous including luxury brand Alexander McQueen, the Beckhams and Kate Moss. “You get a bit blind to it when you’re in it,” says Olivia, who worked at Scarlet & Violet for close to five years. Looking back though, it was mind-blowing: “We did flowers for Sir Elton John and I even made a bunch for the Queen.”
Fortunately for Box™, the tug of home brought her back to New Zealand – “My partner and I wanted to put some roots down, to be close to family” – and whenever we need flowers for a photo shoot, to welcome a new staff member or to thank a client, it’s Olivia’s talents we turn to.
She says her floral design is “natural and creative”, and she still draws deeply on her experiences in London. The former dancer, who toured New Zealand with the show Starlight Express, always loved flowers. “I remember as a child cutting flowers in my mum’s garden and playing around,” she says. Born in Christchurch, she was living there when the second big earthquake hit: her cue to embark on her OE. The move to the UK meant she could dance to the beat of a new drum.
Olivia studied floristry on a two-week course in Knightsbridge, having chosen it because it was located in a ‘posh’ area. At the Judith Blacklock Flower School, she learnt how to create bouquets and buttonholes along with a broad-brush understanding of the business of floristry. A work placement followed and, long story short, she secured that dream job at Scarlet & Violet.
Returning to New Zealand in 2018, she began making bouquets in the laundry of her mother-in-law’s North Shore home. “That meant a lot of driving back and forth to the flower market in Mt Wellington in a not-so-trustworthy white van,” she laughs. When a warehouse came up in Kingsland, she jumped at it and, having fallen in love with the area, eventually set up her own studio on the main street, in the former premises of well-known café, The Fridge. “I worked from there and only opened it as a shop on Fridays and Saturdays,” explains Olivia.
That was November 2019. Four months later, New Zealand went into lockdown. When we eventually emerged, she reasoned she better open the shop doors full time.
From the glamour, glitz and go-go-go of London’s West End to a boutique flower store in Kingsland is a huge change, but Olivia is loving it. Her business, named Kensal, in fond recognition of the area in London that set her on this path, is going from strength to strength. She’s also kept the English, wild relaxed style. “I buy the prettiest flowers I can and work closely with local growers,” she says. You’re unlikely to find traditional blooms such as lilies and gerberas in her bouquets. She favours delphiniums, hydrangeas, daisies and cosmos, “those little filler-y flowers that are so beautiful”.
Her aim is to make flowers accessible for everyone, from a $20 posy to cheer up a friend to a $200 bunch for big occasions. A coffee machine, operated by Crumb Café, at the front of the shop encourages passers-by to come in and soak up the fragrant atmosphere. “Some people just like to sit here and be amongst it,” she says.
Online sales are devoted to seasonal bunches. Just pick a size and let Olivia do the rest. “There’s a lot of trust involved.” When making bouquets for Box™ photo shoots, she knows the houses will be light, airy and spacious so she can let her imagination loose. “In one house, the client loved yellow – they had a yellow front door – so we chose citrus shades of limes and oranges to go with that.”
Olivia and her partner are now well settled back into Kiwi life, having bought a railway cottage in Avondale at the beginning of last year. “It’s one house away from the train line and it’s tiny,” she says. No matter. She’s happy to be part of the team of 5 million. And we’re certain, with Olivia’s knack for design, it will be feeling cosy and cheerful in no time.