Jeff Leatham can make any venue, party and destination bloom with the power of flowers. He is an American designer, the creative director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris along with the Four Seasons Hotels in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Known for his elaborate and larger-than-life floral arrangements and installations, Leatham has done everything from decorating the weddings of A-list celebrities such as Chelsea Clinton and Sofia Vergara, to collaborating with luxury brands such as Balenciaga and Swarovski.
Leatham’s signature style is simple, with floral arrangements built upon the careful consideration of the shapes and colors of each flower used that culminates in an unforgettable floral statement. Leatham was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture in France for his significant contribution to French Culture in 2014 and continues to create floral artwork around the world. He talks with Agnes Lew, East West Bank’s senior vice president and director of private banking, about his foray into flowers and gives a tutorial on how you can make your own floral arrangement, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
This will probably be my 25th year of working with flowers. I was actually a model before, and I was going back and forth between Europe and here in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Utah, so I was a good little Mormon boy, and when I moved to California, I didn’t have a job. I love to work and have amazing parents, so I was super stressed because I needed a job. A friend connected me to someone who had a flower shop at the Four Seasons, and I got an interview the next day. This was in July of 1994.
When I came to the hotel for the first time, I saw the flowers in the lobby, and it blew me away. I didn’t know you could create such beauty with art and flowers and have that come to a mix. I knew I had to be a part of this, and the first time I ever touched a flower was literally right here at the Four Seasons. Now, 25 years later, here I am!
Two Christmases ago, I did the wedding of the daughter of the Ambani family in India. It was the largest wedding in the history of India, and it was an honor for me because I love Indian culture, and I love the flowers they use, the arts and everything to do with their culture. It was an amazing experience for me. I’ve also worked with the Queen of England, and the amazing thing about what we do with flowers is that we touch people’s lives every day.
We have stressful days as everyone does, but I’m lucky that I’m able to work in a job and profession where I bring a smile to people’s faces.
So, I worked for the Four Seasons of Beverly Hills for four years, and then when they reopened the George V in 1999, I asked for the job. I had no idea what I was doing, really, and they had initially turned me down by saying, why would we hire an American to do something that the French already do so well? But the one thing you forget about flowers is, it’s one thing to see a flower in a photograph, but to actually experience a floral composition in person is a different story. So they saw the flowers in person here at the hotel in Beverly Hills, and then they asked me to move to Paris. We had the largest flower budget in any hotel in the world with $1.4 million a year.
The secret of my success is talent and inspiration, but the real secret are the flowers themselves—they’re the real star. It comes down to the quality of the flowers, so make sure you buy high-quality flowers and make sure they last a long time. You want the colors to remain beautiful and make sure their heads aren’t drooping. You know, in Paris, I get all my flowers directly from Amsterdam.
“We have stressful days as everyone does, but I’m lucky that I’m able to work in a job and profession where I can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
We’ve done flowers everywhere that you can imagine in this whole world. It’s just sometimes the language factor for me. It’s easy to say to someone, “You know what, let’s put this rose in here.” But doing complex floral arrangement can be a struggle sometimes. There have been times when we’re in India or Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and there’s a language barrier that’s frustrating. But it’s nothing we can’t overcome—that’s why we have those cool language apps on our phones!
My favorite flower of all time is the magnolia. Listen, I’m not trying to be like the Dalai Lama here, but the magnolia reflects experiences in life. It’s absolutely beautiful when you pick the flower, but because the life span of a magnolia is so short, the flower loses its beauty day-by-day. So, you have to enjoy it and love it while you can. Magnolias are probably the rarest flower and also my favorite.
I’m kind of like a Jackson Pollock meets, you know, a Picasso in a way with flowers. Every time I look at the lobby of the hotel, it’s like an empty canvas for me to create something new to touch people’s lives. We change the theme of our flowers every month to do something new and exciting at all of the Four Seasons Hotels.
What flowers do and what art does is it brings a soul, and a personality, and an identity with the property. A touch of something personal and in a cold building, that can transform everything. That’s what gives my whole career meaning.