These outlandish combos of fashion and floral art have been wowing the design world. And it’s all due to the creativity of two Tucson women. By Gillian Drummond
When floral designer and educator Joyce Mason-Monheim came up with leaf-and lettuce-covered gowns, creations of feathers and marigolds, headpieces of moss, and a halter top of orchid petals, she knew she would turn heads. What she didn’t know was just what a huge hit her creations would be.
Savage Botanicals, an exhibit inspired by the wild and dark fashion of the late Alexander McQueen, has been wowing the floral design trade. And it’s steadily attracting the interest of the public, thanks to shows at Missouri Botanical Gardens, Phoenix Art Museum and Moda Provocateur, the Southern Arizona Aids Foundation’s annual fundraising fashion show in Tucson.
Like many in the design world, Joyce has a love and admiration for McQueen. It was while standing in a branch of Barnes and Noble one day, flicking through a copy of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty that Joyce got inspired to combine floral design with couture fashion, to be romantic and revolutionary – just like McQueen. (The book is about the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which celebrated McQueen’s work a year after the designer’s death and attracted record numbers of visitors.)
Together with fellow floral designer and Tucsonan Gail Chronister, Joyce applied to be part of a runway exhibit at the annual convention of the American Institute of Floral Designers. Once accepted, it was a two-year process to put the production together. This involved buying ready-made dresses and reconstructing them, including lining them with poultry netting and muslin for additional support. The designs were assembled by nine other AIFD female floral designers, all of them at the time living in Arizona.
Savage Botanicals is divided into three ‘galleries’: Nature, featuring gowns covered in moss, berries and leaves; Industrial, with metals and wires; and Breathing, using feathers, butterflies and, in one case, a headdress of antlers. The floral products added – all from wholesale supplier Baisch & Skinner, which sponsored the Las Vegas presention – are permanent decorative silk and dried pieces. “Alexander McQueen once said ‘I use flowers because they die’. We used permanent botanicals because they don’t die,” says Joyce.
He also famously said: “There is no better designer than nature.” When Joyce, Gail and their crew proved that point and unveiled their creations to the AIFD at Paris Las Vegas, they received three standing ovations.
One of the contributing designers was Cathy Grim, a manager at Inglis Florist on N. Oracle Road in Tucson. Cathy’s creation was a re-purposed wedding dress with added hoops underneath, hand-sewn faux Spanish moss and mohair, and the aforementioned headdress of antlers strewn with lace. Was she a fan of Alexander McQueen when she agreed to take part in the project? “No, but I am now! It’s bizarre but it’s also just the different materials that he uses. He was amazing,” says Cathy, who welcomes the “out-of-the-box thinking” that Savage Botanicals and AIFD events in general bring her.
When the call came to floral designer Melanie Burnett to ask her to take part in that inaugural show, Melanie didn’t pause. She describes Joyce as her mentor, someone who encouraged her in her passion for floral art even when she was failing in her courses. “She’s really the whole reason that I stuck with it. She didn’t give up on me. She gave me the confidence to finally pass,” says Melanie.
Taking part in the show was not only a payback to Joyce, it was an eye-opener for Melanie. She chose to design the dress covered in branches and leaves. “I’m getting kind of known for that, using a lot of natural elements like branches and leaves,” says Melanie, who owns Interior Gardens – Florals Unique in Lake Havasu City.
Joyce and Gail (who was not available for interview) made the strapless taupe gown that Melanie used, and picked out the faux branches and leaves to be used. They had already designed the headresses for each creation. Melanie was handed a box of materials and a mannequin and got to work, with a little help. Her husband helped her attach the heavy branches, and seamstress friends helped her sew. She updated Joyce and Gail via photos every couple of weeks. It was an intensive process, says Melanie. “I really had to take breaks every couple of days.”
Although the McQueen camp has remained mum over Savage Botanicals, you can’t help but think that the designer famed for his romance, gothicism and love of nature – someone known as much for his highly tailored garments as for his subversive approach to fashion – would have approved.
At the time Joyce and Gail were first developing her concepts two to three years go, working floral embellishments into runway fashion was still innovative. “Now you see a lot of it,” says Joyce, who is thrilled that her show seems to have inspired other floral designers. “It just takes one instance for someone to see something that’s outside the box. We had about 1200 designers in the audience [in Las Vegas] and the whole intention was to inspire them.”
While Joyce is something of a rock star in the world of floral design and highly regarded in the trade (she takes over next year as President of the AIFD), she’s still flying under the radar in the consumer world. Formerly manager of a floral store in Tucson, she now spends her time teaching floral designers and working with corporate clients. But if the growing fascination with Savage Botanicals is anything to go by, that semi-private persona could soon change.
In the meantime, at her Tucson home Joyce makes sure to surround herself with the same sorts of ideas that made her imagination run wild that day in Barnes & Noble. At Christmas she goes seriously savage with six Christmas trees, several of them featuring florals. And in the middle of her dining room table, supported by wire racks and attached to the room’s chandelier, there is an eight-foot long floral design all in white.
* Find out more about Savage Botanicals or contact Joyce and Gail by visiting savagebotanicals.com