Colleen Monroe is the creative director and owner of Floraloom Studio, a Los Angeles based floral design studio. Combining fresh and preserved blooms, feathers and painted palms, Monroe’s mesmerizing designs are a cross between a Dr. Seuss landscape and a Lisa Frank trapper binder. She’s designed everything from wedding bouquets to a 30 foot cloud of rainbow colored baby’s breath suspended in a freight elevator. But before Monroe got into flowers, she was the designer and founder of the fashion startup Untucked Workwear (Verily featured an interview with Monroe about the startup in 2017). And before that, she worked in costume design for commercials, film, and television. I chatted with Monroe about making career pivots, allowing the momentum to take that career in unexpected directions, and the creative thread that has run through it all.
Meghan Duke: Tell us about Floraloom
Colleen Monroe: I officially launched my company, Floraloom, last fall (2018). Before that I assisted other floral designers and worked in flower shops to learn all about the flowering world. I now specialize in doing installations and activations for corporate clients, brands, and markets and also teach workshops like this one.
MD: What sort of interests or passions might lead a woman to this career?
CM: For a career in flower installations specifically, I would say, an interest in working with your hands as well as having an eye for spatial design, color, and balance and a sense of sculpting elements into 3D shapes. So many creative industries inform my style and inspire my work and push me to think outside the box—architecture, fine painting, street art, interior design, fashion, technology. It’s not all pretty work though—you need lots of stamina and the ability to be on your feet for long periods of time.
What's something that's surprised or excited you about the floral industry?
Flowers can be designed well beyond a vase! They are another art medium that allows you to tell stories and build sculptures in unexpected spaces using the natural shapes, colors, and textures of the blooms.
When there’s a story connected to a flower arrangement or installation, that makes it so much more meaningful. And I didn’t know that was possible with flowers. Now, when I approach a project, I draw a lot from my experience doing costume design. Costume design starts with the story, the characters, the script. Once I understood the story, that helped me design the costumes in a way that was authentic to the story. In the same way, when I approach flower design, I always think about the brand I’m working for, their color palette, who they are, what’s their mission.
For example, over Grammy season, a company hired me to design arrangements for some of the Grammy-nominated artists like Childish Gambino, SZA, and Drake. And they wanted me to design arrangements that were unique to the music videos they were nominated for. So, for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” I watched the video, really took note of the color palette and the mood and the tone and that lent itself to the overall design and aesthetic of the flower arrangement.
MD: Costume design is another nontraditional career path. How did you end up in that field?
CM: Yes, I’ve lived a very non-traditional career path. But I think the common thread is story-driven design that brings people together. I went to film school to study film directing and producing, and my senior year I fell into costume design. I got hired to be the costume designer and art director for a feature film that went on to win the San Diego Film Festival. And I realized that I can tell stories through clothing. That was really exciting because I’ve always loved history and fashion and building things with my hands.
I have a wild sense of curiosity and learn by doing, even if I make mistakes along the way. So, when I discovered the world of costume design, I set out to shadow and connect with experienced people in the industry by assisting on theater projects in San Diego, designing student films, and taking small gigs in L.A. I even started a costume design podcast to meet professionals in costume design and learn from their stories. I got my break when I landed a job in New York, assisting the designers on the HBO show, Boardwalk Empire. After that, I moved back to L.A. and continued to work in film, TV, music videos, and commercials.
MD: And then you started Untucked Workwear. What was the catalyst for that?
CM: I was applying to an MFA program in costume design when a friend told me about Factory45, a sustainable fashion accelerator. I had been learning more about the incredible waste and garment worker abuse happening in the fashion industry and had been thinking about creating a company where I could use my design skills to create not just another product, but also social change. So, I put a pause on graduate school to try out my idea with Factory45 instead.
MD: What was the story behind the Untucked Workwear designs?
CM: I saw a need in the market for women’s workwear designed for flexible schedules and creative jobs on-the-go, similar to my freelance lifestyle. I wanted to create a small collection for the creative, professional woman.
MD: You launched the Kickstarter for Untucked Workwear in May 2017 and by October 2017 had shipped out orders to customers. A year later, you launched Floraloom Studio. That seems like a pretty big pivot; how did it happen?
CM: To start the company, I needed an extra job to pay for the fabric and samples. So, I picked up flower design. I didn’t really have any background in it, but a friend working as a carpenter for a big event company in L.A. called R. Jack Balthazar told me the company was looking for flower designers. I thought, “I can do that!” I went to the flower market, watched some YouTube videos, bought $100 worth of flower ingredients to create a few arrangements, took photos and sent them in as my “portfolio.” It was a “fake it til you make it” situation, but I got the job. I made many mistakes but I learned a ton! After that, I started getting more work assisting other designers and working at flower shops around L.A. I realized I had a knack for it.
I never thought in a million years that I’d be doing flower design. But while I was running Untucked Workwear and doing my flowers on the side, I started getting my own flower clients and putting my own spin on flower arrangements. And I reached this point where half my car was filled with fabric I was bringing to my factory for the clothing line, and the other half was filled with flowers. And I couldn’t do both, and I had to follow where the momentum was going monetarily.
After finishing a successful Kickstarter for Untucked Workwear and shipping out all of the product, I had to put the clothing manufacturing on hold to focus on the flower business which was growing. I do want to come back to this clothing line. But I decided that this is a season for flower design. There’s a lot of momentum behind it, so I’m just running with it and seeing where it takes me even though it wasn’t what I set out to do originally.
MD: Did you have resistance to where the momentum seemed to be taking you?
CM: Honestly it was a really hard decision to make that change. I had built up an engaged audience around Untucked Workwear, was involved in a variety of sustainable fashion initiatives and panels, and spent so much time and effort on the Kickstarter campaign. And everyone knew I was gung-ho about building this fashion company. I still get excited when I think about those early days dreaming about it and building it.
I also put a lot of pressure on what I feel other people expect of me once I start working on an idea. I think that’s why it took me awhile to make the decision and pivot to doing flowers. I’d built up this idea of who I need to be. “I’m the fashion girl!” “I’m the costume-design girl!” This is who I am. It was an amazing season. And it’s not something I’m shutting the door on. But I reached this point where I thought, I can’t grow two companies at the same time, so I’m focusing on the flowers for right now and building a successful business from Floraloom, and I will revisit Untucked Workwear when the timing is right and a funding opportunity comes along.
MD: What’s the difference between having a project fail and a project turn out to be something different than you thought it would be?
CM: I never look at anything as a failure. There were so many elements in building the Untucked Workwear brand that I can apply to so many things: I built and launched a brand from the ground up, learned how to manufacture a product and sell it, grew an engaged audience (here’s a podcast where I explain how I did that), completed all the legal paperwork to start and run a product-based business. I also designed and hosted experiential marketing events and panels before and after the launch to promote the brand and successfully funded a crowdsourcing campaign.
It was an incredible journey with lots of skills learned. I feel like I received an MBA after it all (but without the student debt and a real company to show for it)!
So, yes, when I started Untucked Workwear, I thought I was going to grow a fashion company. At the same time, I saw the project from beginning to end: I built up the audience, I funded it, manufactured all the pieces, and shipped them all around the world. When I made the decision to run with floral design, I was able to say, “That was a project I learned a lot of business skills from, and I was able to help the fashion industry in a small way by creating more conscious fashion and building awareness about how the production of clothes can be improved.”
MD: What might it look like to come back to Untucked Workwear?
CM: I’ve realized that people in the flower world and in the event space often have to wear all black as the go-to industry uniform, and there’s no really beautiful, creative workwear for them. I wear my Untucked Workwear pants on almost every single job. Because they’re just so perfect; everything about the design has worked really well when I’m on these flower jobs, and I get a lot of compliments on them from design colleagues.
So it’s gotten me thinking, maybe I’ve found a space where the workwear can really blossom. I’ve been in touch with a pattern maker to update the designs of the pants slightly. And I’m talking to lots of people in the floral industry about what they’re looking for to wear on the job. So Untucked Workwear may be resurfacing, but now specifically as workwear for floral designers and people in the creative event space.
It’s funny how ideas can go into hiding for a bit and then come back in a new way when you make a slight pivot by gaining a new skill or experience. Floral design is helping me re-imagine my workwear line in a way I never expected. If you’re stuck, I’ve found that sometimes you need to pause an idea, to focus on something else, and then come back to it with a new perspective. But don’t let fear hold you back because it might not work. Putting yourself out there by bringing an idea to light, even if it doesn’t go as expected, is not a failure—it’s just the beginning of something else.
MD: Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses: Short quotes that remind us that the world needs more of who we are. Do you have a mantra or quote that keeps you going?
CM: A mentor of mine, William Ivey Long, who is a seasoned costume designer on Broadway once told me, “Just do, just go, just create!”
I think about his mantra often because I’ve had to discover what my passions and interests were over time. I didn’t always know what I wanted to do. But when I “just do! just go! just create!” I train myself to see life as a big ocean of endless opportunity rather than living in fear of failure. This makes me want to try out things that scare me and live in the mess of making mistakes because I get closer to the things that make me more fully alive. You can’t always know what you like doing until you jump in and try!