Phil John Perry was working for Rebel Rebel, a flower shop on Mare Street in Hackney, when the job to deck out the world’s most famous singer came through.
Vogue was shooting Beyoncé and needed a floral headdress. “At first I didn’t know it was her,” the 33-year-old designer from Manchester tells me. “When I found out who it was, I changed my idea. I wanted it to be this alien kind of Queen crown type thing – a strange shape that I hadn’t seen before. When it all came together, I couldn’t help but think ‘that came from my head, and it actually looks like I thought it would look like’. That was incredible. It’s one of my proudest moments.” It would change his career forever.
Phil John Perry was born in Manchester to a policeman and a nurse in 1988 and in the intervening 32 years has seldom stopped creating, whether as an artist, actor, or latterly while working with flowers. It was natural then that when we were looking for someone to bring to life our Wild Garden Collection, Perry came to mind. Here he talks about his extraordinary career, the beauty which inspires him and how being dyslexic changes the way he tells stories.
You’ve had a varied career – talk me through how you got to where you are today?
I've done lots of different things. I went to go and sell Christmas trees at a place when I was seventeen. They had a garden section, and an interiors section, it was all kind of outlandish displays and florals. It suited me: I've always been obsessed with the outside and always made dens. I was an outdoor child, even though I’m from Hulme. Then, I went to London to learn to be an actor. I had small parts in Cucumber on TV, things like that. But I always had another job that I did on the side. I studied fine art, so I’ve always been making and painting and drawing. On TV sets, plays and things, I liked seeing the overall project – seeing all the different aspects. I’ve always wanted to make the fantasy world real. This summer I'm going to Wales. My parents are buying this house there for their retirement. I'm going to go to the island of Anglesey and be a wild man of the woods, which is actually instinctively what I think I should have always been.
What motivates you in your day-to-day life?
Beauty. I like things that are out of the out of the ordinary, when something manmade has been encroached by something that’s otherworldly and strange. I’ve been at the beach this morning. There are all sorts of alien-like things on the beach. When the tide goes out all the rock pools are full of sea urchins and weird florals and seaweeds. I like the way it all attaches to the rocks – it’s so different to soil.
Talk us through how you approached our collaboration for Wild Garden.
On the first prep day I had to drive from Kent to London and straight to New Covent Garden flower market to buy stock for the shoot. It was hectic, but it was worth it. For me, it was the sensory aspect of the Wild Garden, and that it was menswear, that made me really excited. I was inspired by changing silhouettes. I wanted to give the models armour, a sort of antigravity effect to counteract the clothes. One model was 6'5" and when he had the headdress on, he was over 9 feet tall. I love that sense of scale. The orange shoulder piece structure is something I’ve been working on for a long time and it finally worked here. I chose the flowers based on the colours in the print. I started bouncing ideas around in March. I want people to think 'I haven't seen this before. Who are these creatures?' I wanted to create something that looked like it had grown on the models. Like if they had sat down in a garden for too long, the flowers and plants would have taken them over.
How do you go about your projects?
It depends what kind of job. The first thing I do is I'll write something, a few sentences about what I think the concept is. Then I’ll go back to my back catalogue, and think, what should I do? The main thing I do is draw. I sketch out shapes. Often, I have an idea in my head that I've wanted to do for a while, and then I'll try and attach that to something. Then obvious it’s the sourcing of different flowers, and then the making itself.
Were you interested in flowers and design as a child?
When I was a child I was mainly interested in drawing and stories. I always wanted to be outside and always had a dog. I’d collect interesting shells. I'm severely dyslexic. So, I think that because of being dyslexic as a by-product you have to think of a different way of telling your stories.
Is there a difference creating a floral structure for a guy versus a woman?
Practically speaking there’s the issue of hair. If there's more hair, I can do bigger structures because there’s more hair to pin to. It’s easier with men – you can attach your florals to softball caps, to chicken wire. I actually prefer working with men when it comes to florals because the imagery is much stronger. Flowers can be seen as gendered things. That's why I like playing with that boundary.
Would you like to see more men using flowers in dress?
Absolutely. I'd love to see more head dresses; the stuff that's traditionally feminine. I’d like to see flowers in the top button instead of a tie, or a dicky bow. My dad is from Dublin, and we were an Irish Catholic family. And on St. Patrick's Day my uncles would have a big chunk of soil with the Shamrock pinned in. I love the fact that it's kind of ritual to it. I like that.
I know you are very into films, does that seep into your world?
One of my biggest inspirations are silent films from back in the day. I love them. I watch them constantly. I just like the trickery of them. I like things to be tangible and with silent films there’s no CGI. That's definitely something I want to recreate. I tried to do bits with sort of deep-sea landscapes with flowers and stuff before and that’s something I want to explore more. My mum’s a nurse, dad was a policeman. I'm inspired by work that means something and being proud of what you do.
If you could change the world, in what way? would you do it?
I wish the starting posts were equal. It's very hard to get a seat at the table.