A Floral Studio in Full BloomCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After halting business at the beginning of the pandemic, Karla Smith-Brown reimagined her Brooklyn floral studio for perennial growth. Published: June 08, 2021
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About a month ago, I was having one of those vaguely moody days: nothing in particular was wrong, but nothing was particularly right, either. I checked my phone at some point in the haze, and my mom had sent me a photo of bright fuchsia tulips on her kitchen table. “Spring is here! Go get some fresh flowers at the bodega,” she texted. I picked myself up and did just that, and no, a rainbow didn’t materialize on the street — but the clouds in my head cleared.
COVID has turned me into a small pleasures enthusiast, and as per the above anecdote, a bouquet of flowers is an especially quick and powerful pick-me-up. This week, I’m featuring Karla Smith-Brown, a Brooklyn-based florist whose seasonal designs are instant serotonin boosters. When the pandemic paused virtually all of Karla’s editorial and installation projects, she added an online flower shop to her design studio, OLIVEE Floral, to survive the pandemic — and bring joy and beauty to people’s lives at a time when it was sorely needed. Keep reading for our conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were born and raised in Canada. What brought you to New York City?
I went to university in Toronto for communications and PR, and I would travel back and forth to New York because I worked at a hotel that had sister properties in New York so we could stay for cheap. I always admired the energy and the hustle in New York. I was like, I would love to live here, but it seemed so impossible. I decided to apply for internships [in New York] and got one at a PR agency. I worked in PR for a while, and then that evolved into more experiential marketing and communications. They were really amazing jobs, but I became burnt out and I knew I wanted to do something a bit more creative. I wanted to use my hands in my work. I started thinking through what I would even do ... I call myself a serial entrepreneur, because I started my first business when I was 15.
What was it?
It was a juice company called Juice It Up. I set up in Kensington Market [a neighborhood in Toronto] and started by handing out free samples of my natural juices and then people could buy full-size juices. I did that for two summers, and then when I was 18, I started another company with my best friend to support other young entrepreneurs. We noticed that there were so many entrepreneurs coming up in the city, so we wanted to [help] them network and use each other's resources and also connect to an older generation of more established professionals.
That’s amazing. So let’s cut back to after college, when you were living in New York ...
I really wanted to start another business, but I didn't know what. And then I thought of how much I like being in the garden. I grew up in my mother's garden. I gardened with my aunt all the time. In the summer after I graduated university, I was back in the garden trying to figure out my next move before moving to New York. It was where I always returned. That was my grounding, working with nature. So I took a few [floral design] classes and then I was like, I'm just going to do this. I gave my notice [at a corporate communications job] and dove in. I started working at a flower shop, Edelweiss Floral Atelier in Cobble Hill, which is where I learned the foundation, and over time I've been honing my skills.
Tell me about your early days at Edelweiss.
I walked in two weeks before Valentine's Day, which is one of the biggest flower holidays. I was like, "Hey, do you guys need help?" They were like, "Okay, come back tomorrow and meet the boss." I thought it was [for] an interview. I came back the next day — kind of dressed up, wearing a comfortable heel — and [the owner] was like, "You want to work here? Let's go." I worked a whole shift that day. It was great. They're like my family. I learned so much about design and how to run a flower business there.
What led to the launch of OLIVEE Floral?
While I was working at the flower shop, I was still working on my own brand. In February 2019, there was this market at Playground Coffee Shop, and that was the first big OLIVEE pop-up. I call my pop-ups “Flowerland” … Trying to get that to catch on. I started with pop-ups as a way not only to practice doing the work, but also to engage and build relationships with my community, because it's the relationships I've built doing pop-ups that have really catapulted the business. Now my most consistent pop-up location is Sincerely, Tommy in Bed-Stuy.
What inspired the name?
Olivee is the name of my great-grandmother. I chose that name as an homage to my culture. My paternal and maternal family are from Jamaica, and my mom's side is from St. Elizabeth — that's where Granny Olivee is from. She was the strongest matriarchal figure in our family. She ran a farm on her own. She was fearless. Then also my aunt who I grew up with, she was like my second mother, her middle name was Olivee. She passed away suddenly the year before I started OLIVEE. And that was so devastating for our family. I took a trip to Jamaica with her daughters, my cousins, to try and get some respite from all the mourning. We went to St. Elizabeth and spent a lot of time on my great granny's land. I [realized] Olivee is the perfect name, because it honors my Jamaican heritage, my great granny, and also my aunt.
How would you describe your overarching floral aesthetic?
I have a very natural, wild aesthetic. Color and texture are huge factors for me. I never want things to look overly manicured. But then my branding has a more minimal, sleek, refined feel.
A bouquet by Karla / Photography via OLIVEE Floral
What did the shutdown in March 2020 mean for you?
I always said Olivee is a floral studio: I never envisioned, at least not yet, having a flower shop. I wanted to focus on events, editorial work, and special projects like installations and pop-ups. And I was starting to get some really good momentum at the beginning of 2020. I was in conversation with a huge client that would be the biggest job I'd ever do. I was super excited about it. And then they were like, "Oh, actually we're going to have to postpone this ..." The client was Victoria's Secret. I think we were supposed to activate in May, and they were like, "Let's talk in July." I never heard from them again. That was devastating. I lost some weddings. Production was closed, so I wasn't doing any set design or editorial work. I was like, I don't understand. What even is my business? What am I doing? I went home to Canada for most of the quarantine. I took the time to think through what I want. And when I got back to New York in July, that's when I decided to do a flower shop. I launched the shop in August, and it immediately caught on. I do weekly deliveries on Fridays, that's it. Every week I was getting more and more orders. And then I did a pop-up at Sincerely, Tommy for their big block party last year and sold out completely. Everything was happening really quickly. I realized, Now that I have so many orders, I can't operate out of my house anymore. So I got a studio space [in Dumbo] and moved there in October.
Launching ecommerce must have been a huge logistical hurdle ...
Absolutely, especially since in the beginning, I was delivering everything on my own. And then it just became like, Wow. Yeah, I can't do this. Through another flower friend, I met this guy who had just got a moped and he's like, "I can deliver stuff." So he was my delivery person for a little time. Then I started hiring somebody on TaskRabbit.
Is it still just you outside of the delivery help?
Yeah, it's still just me except I have freelancers’ help with larger projects. I don't have any full-time employees.
How was business in the fall and winter?
The fall and winter were super busy. I feel really grateful because a lot of businesses have really had a tough time during the pandemic, but I've gotten a lot of opportunities and I've been really blessed with work. My shop is doing well, and in the winter I did an editorial shoot with Elle Magazine. But since I'm just one person operating, it becomes pretty exhausting. For Mother’s Day, I did a big job for Kate Spade. Kate Spade partnered with five florists in New York to give a gift of joy to New Yorkers as we reopened the city. On Mother's Day, each of the five florists had a block on Broadway, spanning from Broome to 13th Street, to create a flower explosion. And then we also handed out 1,000 mini flower bouquets to passersby. It was so sweet. People were genuinely so appreciative. I had a team for that ... I mean, 1,000 bouquets took a lot of work. So after Mother's Day weekend, I needed to take a break.
Your online shop is on hold until June 12; what are you doing in the meantime?
I'm going upstate for a weeklong floral residency at Stone Barns, an agriculture center with a restaurant on the property. I'll be using materials from the farm to build an installation in their gallery. They've been doing different chef residencies every month, where they invite a chef to come and pull from the farm and then do dinners every week. I went to one in March, that was my first time on the property, and I was blown away. So it was serendipitous when they reached out [about] a floral residency. As I grow my business, it’s important to me to be more mindful about consumption and waste and weaving in sustainable practices whenever possible. So I'm excited to be on the farm and learn about what they're doing as far as sustainability. It seems like their whole ethos is in alignment with OLIVEE.
Are you planning anything new for your reopening?
I'll more or less pick back up where I left off, but with a few additional things. I do weekly subscriptions, and I've gotten feedback that people aren’t familiar with some of the flowers. So I’m going to introduce a flower identification program on the website to teach people about their arrangements. I'm also thinking of doing a special palette of the month. Right now I sell my arrangements in two palette options, neutral or colorful, so maybe I'll add another color palette for something a little fresh and different.
The past 15 months have been incredibly hard on a whole bunch of levels. What have you learned about yourself and your business?
The pandemic forced me to pivot into something I never thought I would do: an online shop. And that has worked out. It's been a tough year. I mean, me and my boyfriend broke up. We were living together and I was operating the business in the apartment, so I’m sure that played some part in everything [laughs]. Also, dating in a pandemic sucks. But overall, this time reinforced my whole belief that if you want to do something, just go for it. The people that you need to help you grow it will come. It's so beautiful to see how through all the difficult times we went through last year, it also [inspired] people to support small businesses, marginalized communities, and Black-owned businesses more. It flipped a switch on that wasn't on before. It sucks that that needed to happen at such a difficult time, but I feel like that was one of the really positive outcomes from the past year.
How to help:
- Visit the online shop (reopening for orders on June 12) and sign up for the mailing list
- Follow on IG
Until next time,