Flower power underfoot on a fashion week runway

Lichen consists of at least two organisms: fungi and algae, photosynthesizing in symbiotic harmony. The other day, the Brooklyn Museum was seized by lichen of unusual composition. The wide, messy pools that spread across the museum floor—swirls of green, pink, brown, red, and yellow—were made up of approximately twenty thousand chrysanthemums, carnations, zinnias, and rooster’s combs.

They were the work of Emily Thompson, a floral designer from New York whose tastes run toward the wild and over-the-top. Lichen is a fascination for pets. “I grew up in a very beautiful rock country,” said Thompson, who is from Vermont. “And, of course, the best rocks are those that have developed lichen.” Thompson trained as a sculptor before turning to flowers and has created projects for fashion shows, restaurants and the White House. At last, she had found a client willing to fulfill her longtime fantasy of lichen-inspired floral arrangements – designer Ulla Johnson, whose Spring-Summer 2023 collection was making its debut in the Beaux-Arts atrium of the Brooklyn Museum.

Johnson’s show was scheduled for 10AM on Sunday and the flowers started arriving at 8AM on Saturday. Thompson had cycled to hail the trucks. She worked with a team of fourteen other florists, who wore mostly black; Thompson, who has curly hair and wore reading glasses attached to a thick green chain, was dressed in a stiff cotton shirt and forest green pants; she compared her appearance to a parka uniform. After a few freight elevator loads of blossoms had been sent up, she gathered her team in a circle in the center of the ten thousand square meter space. She shared boards with a floor plan, reference photos of psychedelic-colored lichen, and photos of a sample mosaic of lichen flowers that she had assembled in her Manhattan studio.

“This is not a map you will follow,” she said. The floor plan showed what appeared to be five continents of irregular size and shape, carpeted with stemless flower heads laid flat on the ground. “What I really want to see are your ideas about how colors blend and contrast,” she explained. It was also noted in the plan “Vogue shot”: the path down the runway that the press cameras would capture in their final photographs of each outfit. Ideally, things wouldn’t get too pretty. “Enticing-acceptance, always!” Thompson said.

The florists set to work arranging flowers on cotton cloths that they had spread across parts of the floor. Thompson began building a wall of crab-apple branches, one of the few elements of the installation that rose more than an inch off the ground. “It’s like being a beaver,” she said. Her dam high and strong, she paused to take a lap around the atrium to examine the patterns taking shape on the tarps. Chrysanthemums with pale lavender petals, tipped with neon green, set next to scratched burgundy carnations, punctuated by ripples of yellow rooster combs.

“I like this horrible gray-purple,” said Thompson, pointing to a bunch of carnations. “It’s like a corpse, a rotting corpse.” The progress excited him: “It’s much better than when we did it in the studio. It’s so much better with all these human brains.”

However, progress was slow. (True lichen often grows less than a millimeter a year.) “Sweep your carats,” she advised the team—that way the flowers would take up more space. “We have to dance. I want to see fifty percent soon.” After lunch, she went to the vantage point of Vogue shot and surveyed the space, hands on hips. She considered getting into the tarps, but trusted the other florists more because they had been at it for hours. “There’s a weird community going on,” she said. “Your minds melt a little.”

Ulla Johnson was scheduled to inspect the lichen early that evening. (“I’m very ready,” she explained.) Thompson spent the rest of the time calling in favors from florists; more pink mothers were on the way. “The florists are always making something out of saliva and toothpaste,” she said.

Johnson, when he arrived, was concerned that the green and brown spots looked too much like camouflage. “The coffee is killing me a little,” she told Thompson.

“She’s bringing out the ugly,” Thompson told a colleague. But that was to be expected. The work of mind-bending florists was being incorporated into the larger ecosystem of the event.

A few minutes long parade brought into existence a pulsating biome that disintegrated almost as quickly as it took shape. By Saturday night, the atrium was full of photographers, electricians, lighting technicians, carpenters and musicians with dramatic hair, in addition to Johnson’s tight-knit group of mostly blond employees. A migrating flock of models arrived on Sunday morning, followed by the show’s three hundred and twenty-five guests – many of whom paused to photograph the flowery ponds before taking their seats.

The cleaners, a team from an event cleaning service called Garbage Goddess, were the last to show up. They came after the show, dressed in plant-stained overalls, and transported the now-withered flowers to a composting plant on Long Island. ♦

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