Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
Jeff Leatham lives life in color as a floral designer to the stars and creative director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. He has designed installations at the Chateau de Versailles and has written books. From designing the weddings of stars like Tina Turner and Chelsea Clinton and having clientele from the Kardashians to Oprah, Leatham’s petals have been seen across the globe.
USA TODAY caught up with Leatham to talk about everything from coconut milk and Keith Urban to the creative process behind his floral installations and the role of loyalty in his career.
Question: How did you get your start with floral design?
Jeff Leatham: I was working retail for the Gap and modeling part time. I came home from Europe and got a job at the Four Seasons at Beverly Hills. Before then I had never touched a flower, never even wanted to work with flowers, and that’s where my career started. Four Seasons really gave me that whole spectrum: I started making big, grand flower installations, so that really helped me be the artist I am today.
Q: What does a typical workday look like?
Leatham: It depends. I’m not a morning person – I want to make that very clear – so my best workday starts around 11 a.m. It depends on what city I am in (last week I was in China). I suffer from constant jet lag, so anyone who meets me knows that every day of my life I have jet lag. I find out whatever we have to do here at my studio in Beverly Hills for the day, I usually have about two or three conference calls every day, and then I’m the type of person who’s usually about six months ahead. So, right now, all my meetings have to do with the holidays and things in the fall. My favorite part of the day is on the rare occasion that I actually get to work with flowers. Sometimes that’s the problem when you’re the name of the business.
Q: What is the process behind designing a floral installation?
Leatham: For me, seeing the space is the most important. I can never just work off of a photo – I’m a very visual person, so I actually need to go to the space and see what’s going on. The color is the next important piece to me: deciding what color to use, a color that goes with the space. Then, we decide on the shape we want and then we decide on the flowers. It’s kind of the reverse process that people think: usually, people would think ‘oh, you choose the flowers first,’ but the flowers are actually the last thing I choose.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Leatham: I create lasting memories, and I put smiles on people’s faces every day. That’s the best part of my job, from when we do a huge installation and people are like ‘oh my God,’ a knock you on your ass kind of thing, to the simplicity and the beauty of one of my guys ringing someone’s doorbell and there’s a beautiful flower arrangement in their hands from someone that they love. The fact that I create something that makes people smile? I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Q: What do you credit your success to?
Leatham: Loyalty. I know that’s a little bit strange, but loyalty because a lot of people, when they achieve success at a young age, tend to take every offer that they get to grow their brand and do different things. The loyalty that I’ve had to Four Seasons and to my clients has probably been the biggest secret to my success. This is my 20-year anniversary this year in Paris at the Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris, and if I would have left there after, like, year six because the flowers were amazing and been like, ‘I’m ready to start my own brand,’ I would not be the guy I am today. People still say, “I want to hire that guy that does the flowers in the lobby of that hotel in Paris.” They still say that, all these years later. Even if they don’t know my name, they know where my flowers come from.
Q: How do you balance such a busy work schedule with life?
Leatham: My team is everything to me. I always hashtag #TeamLeatham – I have teams all over the world. I have a team in upstate New York right now working on a project, I have a team in Philadelphia, I have a team in Paris, an amazing team in China. I have people all around the world, and I am nothing without my team. They make it possible for me to do all of this travel, they make all these beautiful things possible, and I have the most brilliant, talented team in the world.
Q: What have been some of your highlights?
Leatham: For me, working on things like when I opened MoMa in New York – the thing is, with us, we’re not that type of the company that does every job. Every job that we do is so iconic and so amazing, so I’d have to say career highlights for me would be doing Tina Turner’s wedding, Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and when I got knighted by France five years ago. I got a big honor at the Chateau de Versailles. I have the most amazing, big experiences.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Leatham: Stay true to yourself, never stop being true to your own talent, and have patience. Still, to this day, I have those days when I get down. I’m this huge brand, and I have had all of these amazing experiences, but I still have some days where I’m like, will I ever get hired again? That’s just to let some people know to never give up, and if you’re true to yourself, you’re true to your brand, and you’re true to your designs, things will always go your way.
• What is your coffee order? A coconut milk latte.
• What is your favorite book? I love to read biographies, but in general “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
• What is your favorite song of the moment? “The Fighter” by Keith Urban – I’m obsessed with Keith Urban at the moment.
• Who have been your biggest mentors? The Four Seasons Hotel Group, because they’ve basically given me my entire career. I’ve worked for Four Seasons my entire career, and they’ve always been there and been super supportive. Also, Oprah Winfrey is a client of mine and a friend, and she’s always been an amazing mentor. Whenever I get down or I need a little pick-me-up, I’m always picking up one of her books and they always make me smile. I’m honored to have her as a mentor, as far as someone who makes me feel good about life.
• What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done? I swam with the whales in Hawaii, and that was probably the most amazing experience of my life. I was so close. I was like a five-year-old, and I got in trouble with the guys on the boat because there were these big pilot whales, and I was just swimming up to them. I should have been super scared because there were like 20 of them, but I was swimming right to them and they were four times my size. You realize the awesomeness of nature.
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