Have you ever noticed that an orchid is essentially a giant, petal-y pussy? Robin Hilleary, founder of the NYC flower shop Fleurotica, talks to Sophia Larigakis about love, queer community-building, and the erotic power of flowers.
Meeting Robin Hilleary and discovering she is a florist is, I imagine, like finding out Steve Irwin was a crocodile hunter, or that Patti Smith is…Patti Smith. You can’t imagine her doing anything else, anywhere other than surrounded by flowers. With her white-blonde hair and sugary (but not saccharine) voice, Robin manages to look sparkly and femme in Carhartt workwear, brandishing shears. But up until a few months ago, when she landed her first brick-and-mortar shop, flowers were still a side gig—she was managing restaurants, like she had been for the past decade. Now, Robin’s time is all flowers—all Fleurotica—all the time.
All images by Sophia Larigakis
The name—which encompasses work in fields ranging from fashion to art to retail—is no Freudian slip. Or maybe it is. Fleurotica’s arrangements, even at their most sculptural, their most minimalist, are always spilling over, abundant with the slinkiest, glossiest, most velvety petals and leaves. The Fleurotica logo is an orchid with a pair of legs sticking out of it, the implication being that the orchid is some kind of giant, petal-y pussy. “I was worried people would have a spark of shock when they saw the logo,” she says, “since we all have a little bit of Catholic guilt, this weird old guilt and shame around sexuality, so it’s been really fun to see how most people are actually excited by it.” Even old ladies, a demographic she was worried about scaring off or offending, are merely titillated. “They go, ‘Oooh how cute! How raunchy!’ Just because people are stuffy doesn’t mean they want to be,” Robin explains, ever the optimist. “They just need to be presented with really unapologetic forms of eroticism that don’t feel scary, and flowers are like that—they exist in such sexy abundant beauty, they’re drippy and have winding stuff and tickly stuff and it’s just sexy.”
Fleurotica designs arrangements for fashion editorials, restaurants, storefronts, private residences, as well as for circulation between lovers, family, and friends. Robin was recently brought to the Cayman Islands to do the flowers for a new, boutique hotel there, and ended up doing the landscaping for much of the hotel grounds, which involved, among other botanical experiments, uprooting and replanting 50-year-old black walnut trees, and placing a money tree in the middle of the hotel restaurant. (The money tree immediately lost all of its leaves, but Robin “cried, watered it a lot, and talked to it about how it should come back,” in addition to lighting it with LED floodlights, which function like grow lights, and it is now thriving.)
For six months, Robin ran Fleurotica out of a shared shop space on Bleecker Street in the West Village. She was offered the space at a subsidized rent rate for this period as part of a developers’ scheme to Make the West Village Hip Again—a Sisyphean task given it’s been a good 30-plus years since the gays and the artists (and the gay artists) called it home (with the exception of a small brigade of wealthy gay white dudes with dogs and really precise facial hair). Bleecker Street in particular is infamous for its accelerated transformation from hosting small businesses to luxury stores to empty shop fronts, with absurdly high rents serving as the neighborhood’s collective hangover. Robin, while skeptical of developers’ attempts to backtrack the gentrification they caused in the first place, took the opportunity seriously and with grace.
“I was trying to consider who doesn’t get space and how I could, with my brief but mighty zone in this fancy area, figure out who needs it. I felt like it was my duty to share the space.” Fleurotica became the site for poetry readings, workshops, family meals, life drawing classes, screenings, and performances—to name a few—predominantly organized and attended by queer folks. “It’s accessible, there’s no creepy old white guy dangling the key, going like, You’ve got to be out by this time, you’ve gotta pay this much money, we don’t want this type of person,” Robin noted. As such, in addition to being a showcase for Robin’s craft and a resource for all things botanic, Fleurotica’s first brick-and-mortar shop provided a space for queer community to return, if fleetingly, to the Village.
She now works out of a studio space in Chinatown with other artists, but—despite the shift from a public storefront to a more private atelier—Robin’s sense of responsibility to her community remains the same. “A lot of my clients are queer, which makes me very happy, and a lot of people have told me that they’re excited to have found a queer florist,” Robin tells me. It’s easy to wonder why something as negligible as a florist’s sexuality would make any difference, but it’s also easy to forget about the world that exists outside of our small, queer, sex-positive bubble. “Much like the crazy homophobic cake people, you might accidentally encounter someone who might not want to do arrangements for a gay wedding,” she points out. But it’s not just a question of combating really basic instances of discrimination—“finding that community and recognition in a world you don’t really expect to cater to you”—which, when you’re queer, is most worlds—can’t be underestimated.
Moreover, the world of flowers is “dominated by straight exchange,” Robin explains. Flowers in gift form—the florist’s bread and butter, so to speak—are primarily associated with heterosexual love, or men doing shitty things to their female partners and then apologizing for them with a fistful of stems. “It would be cool to create a new, updated, queer language of flowers,” says Robin. This might mean adapting or intervening into traditional networks of gift giving—who gives who what, and what does the act of giving say about power? It might also mean resignifying aesthetic associations. In other words, how could flowers come to communicate a new set of meanings that have nothing to do with straight, gender-normative love and regret?
Flowers can, and do, work as proxies—their meaning morphs according to what the giver intended, and what the receiver reads into that intention. Bouquets are loaded, heavy with the weight of signification. “We don’t trust words all the time,” Robin says. “And with flowers you can just rip this thing out of the earth and transfer it to this person, and it speaks for you.” Delighted to facilitate any gesture of affection—queer, platonic, or otherwise—Robin’s relationship to flowers borders on utopian. She genuinely wants to make the world prettier and bring people together, and actively does so, as if the world weren’t going up in flames. “There are all these traditionally agreed-upon meanings for flowers, like lilies are for death,” Robin explains. “But I use lilies all the time, everywhere. They open over the course of five minutes—they just pop—and that to me doesn’t feel like death, it feels like life.”
Sophia Larigakis is a Canadian writer and editor based in New York City, and an editor at Slutever.