The Dirt: Saskia Havekes

Magnolia grandiflora. It’s a stately tree, a southern belle, with an elegant and strong form and a flower almost obscene in its fleshy beauty. This flower, this tree, is Saskia Havekes’ muse.

Saskia is an internationally acclaimed florist, author, and perfumer. She has written three books and has a fourth in the pipeline, has a bespoke fragrance collection, and owns Grandiflora, Sydney’s premier floristry business. Over the last 20 years she has collaborated with a seriously impressive list of international fashion houses, brands, celebrities, stylists and fancy people on extravagant, theatrical, and extremely beautiful events, installations and more.

Yes, Saskia Havekes is quite a name. The biggest, perhaps, in Australian floristry. Once, many, many years ago she made a bouquet for Princess Diana, and on the day I visit we fondle hydrangea flowers for Akira Isogowa’s upcoming fashion week show. As well as being a name, Saskia Havekes is a genuinely delightful human. She is warm, passionate, generous, and entirely committed to her craft.

This commitment is evident in her hands, one of the first things I notice about Saskia. They’re not the hands of someone who uses a keyboard, or delegates tasks to others; they’re proper working hands, with dirt under the nails and deep lines – indicative of a capability and strength particular to people who create physically. It’s clear from her hands that Saskia is the real deal.

The story of Saskia begins in Kenthurst, in northern Sydney, way back in the 1970’s. She grew up on a rambling property on the edge of the bush. Her father was a ceramicist and sculptor and her mum was from a family of still life artists. Flowers, plants, art, and creativity were always in Saskia’s orbit, in one form or another.

My love of plants came from the bush, and also our garden. It was beautiful and unruly, with a lot of my dad’s sculptures in it. I remember my mum pottering in the garden, raking up bundles of leaves and making fires. I love that smell now.

Sometimes the simplest of interactions and experiences can have a substantial ongoing influence in a person’s life. This is evident in Saskia’s story of the old lady up the road from her home who used to make posies. Saskia would buy a posy for her mum on her birthday and Mothers Day and was transfixed by the woman’s studio, the ritual of the gifting of the flowers, and the specialness of it all…‘They were a bit cheesy but because I was a little girl I absolutely loved them. They were wrapped in a doily sprayed with perfume – probably Yardley or something. I would be really excited to go and pick it up, I felt like it was really precious.’ The beginning of a lifelong affair with floristry, perhaps?

When Saskia left school she worked in an advertising agency in Sydney. It was the 1980’s, a time of big hair and even bigger floral displays, often used for events organized by her employer. It was then that she became aware of the power of flowers to transform a space. Soon after, Saskia moved to New York, where she kept finding herself in flower shops. ‘I was always fossicking around in them. I loved the smell, the wetness, the people, and the mood of it all’, she says. When she came back from New York she decided it was time to take flowers seriously.

Her first floristry job was with avant garde florist, now installation artist, Alison Coates. ‘Alison has the most amazing eye. She is really, really talented. I learnt so much from her’ she says. After around five years of working with Alison, Saskia decided to do her own thing, and Grandiflora was born. The business is 20 years old this year.

Starting a bespoke fragrance collection is not the usual addition to a highly successful and very busy floral design studio, but in Saskia’s case it seems completely natural. Perhaps it had something to do with the perfume sprayed doily posies of her childhood? Or maybe it began as an extension of Saskias passion – an abstract attempt to truly capture the essence of a flower? Whatever the case, Saskia launched Grandiflora Fragrance in 2013, with two unique scents, Sandrine and Michel, both an ode to Magnolia grandiflora.

The fragrance collection began with Grandiflora ‘Sandrine’, made by the late French perfumer Sandrine Videault, who Saskia worked with over a number of years to create the scent. The process was revelatory to Saskia;

The minute I met Sandrine I just loved her. The way she saw flowers was very different to the way I saw them. She took it to another level for me. Not only was I observing and understanding the flower, I was also trying to understand and dissect the scent of it.’

Sandrine would do scent sketches and post them to Saskia. They would then talk on Skype for hours and hours, Saskia often having a magnolia flower in front of her. Eventually the scent was made, launching in 2013. Sandrine passed away soon after. One of the last things she requested of Saskia was that she visit her former teacher Edmond Roudnitska’s family property in Grasse.

She did, and had a wonderful experience with Edmond’s son Michel and his family – visiting fields of flowers so fragrant her head hurt, rolling around in masses of Rosa centifolia petals (the rose used to create Chanel No.5), and seeing the patch of lily of the valley that inspired Edmond Roudnitska’s Diorissimo fragrance in the 1950’s. Soon after, two of Michel’s employees came to Australia on their honeymoon. When they arrived in Sydney they gifted Saskia with a perfume made by Michel Roudnitska a long time ago, also inspired by Magnolia grandiflora. Michel requested it be gifted it to Saskia in Sandrine’s honour, and asked her to produce it as a part of the Grandiflora fragrance collection. ‘It was extraordinary’, she says. ‘It was such a gift. I couldn’t even fathom it, it was so huge.’ The second Grandiflora scent, Michel, was born.

There is a third Grandiflora scent due to be released very soon, also made by Michel, and based on the Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda). The fourth Grandiflora fragrance is in the pipeline and according to Saskia is ‘a really weird one. It’s very esoteric’. She told me a little more about it but I’ll keep it a surprise I reckon.

So, back to the plant that inspired all this creativity, beauty, and renown. The Magnolia grandiflora. I need to know Saskia still loves it, after all this time….

I love that flower so much. Everything about it. It’s just got everything going for it’, she says. But does she ever get sick of looking at it? ‘Never. Never ever. Even when the flowers are old and brown. I love it when they throw themselves apart. You can even hear it happen sometimes.’

Strangely, some of her clients are not as appreciative of the plant as Saskia, ‘People say to me “don’t ever send those flowers to me again, they make such a mess.” I’m like, “Are you serious!? Can’t you see the beauty in them dying?” Things need to be enjoyed as they finish, burn, die. I’m a great believer in that.’

It’s clear, Saskia is a true woman of plants, entirely obsessed and driven to create and communicate ideas of beauty, mood, atmosphere and emotion with them. Whether creating an opulent installation for a luxury fashion brand, a modest posy for a friend, or an ephemeral fragrance, flowers are her medium. ‘I love them’ she says. ‘I’m very addicted! Even when I’m an old grandma I will still be fiddling around with flowers – I can’t not have them around me.’