kathleen hyppolite I Floral Designer | Kat Flower
"Having this business has tested me in ways that I’ve never been tested, and it has brought me low. It’s been a struggle in a lot of ways. It’s hard in a way that I’ve never experienced, but I believe in myself and that’s what keeps me going. And sometimes I don’t even have a reason to believe in myself except for the fact that I believe in myself. I have purpose. I have a voice. I have a gift. I have something that no one else has. We all have something that no one else has because no one else is you. So however that manifests, you gotta find it and you gotta do it. You owe it to yourself to do it and go for it. It may not work but shit..gotta do it anyway and figure it out."
Where did you grow up?
I was born right in this neighborhood right on Bedford and Eastern Parkway (in Brooklyn). We moved to Queens when I was four, but my extended family stayed still in Brooklyn and so I came to Brooklyn every weekend. My grandmother is still here and my aunts are still here.
What’s your family like? Tell us a bit about your childhood…
My mom is one of 10 so I have lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. My family is from Haiti. I’m first generation American. So certainly growing up, I feel like I led a dichotomous life where I was equally Haitian and equally American, just straddling that world. When you’re younger, sometimes it’s difficult to manage that because sometimes you are different. Just by the nature of me being black, I’m different. The fact that my parents speak accented English also made me different, but I was fine with being different.
I went to predominantly white schools my whole life. I was usually 1 of under 5 kids that were black or of any other color, and so I was used to being different. I thought that was just the way life is, to my parents’ credit. Some kids don’t do well with that non-assimilation and some kids do. I guess my parents, in their heads they thought, you’re a minority, so you’re going to be a minority all the time. I had comfort when I was home. When I was home, I was in a safe place and people looked like me.
Being a first generation American, certainly created an overachieving kind of kid. I was the eldest child. I was precocious and extremely proficient and capable. I was really pushed to excel and I felt the pressure of being the oldest and the responsibility of it. I just didn’t want to trouble my parents, didn’t want to be an embarrassment to them. I felt like they did so much for me and my brother, and that was my job to be good. I didn’t understand the kids who weren’t good because that’s your job – to be good and go to school and get good grades.
Failure, as my dad said, was not an option for me because I had to succeed. I had to be twice as good as my white counterparts, but I was a child who really embraced that and so I was an overachiever, a classic good student. I went to competitive schools and this whole notion of being twice as better, I feel like, prepared me to compete - because the world we live in, regardless of race or gender or ethnicity, is a competitive world, especially in New York. School felt very natural to me, and I was up for the fight.
What are some things you loved doing as a kid?
I was a voracious reader as a child. I really found comfort, solace, everything in books. I read a lot, and I read everything. I’d read cookbooks, Highlights, novels, and maybe even some inappropriate books. I definitely read a lot and I’m trying to get back to reading again. There’s something so enriching about losing yourself in a good book.
I’ve always been a kid who loved to daydream. I would spend hours just daydreaming. I used to lay in the grass and look up and daydream. I still do that. I lose myself in it, and I think that’s important. I feel like I’ve chased beauty my whole life. Books are beautiful to me, daydreaming is beautiful. I grew up in New York with so much to look at with the museums and fashion and art….It’s all so beautiful. So I feel like growing up in this urban, cultural playground, I’ve chased beauty and that certainly led me to this business, Kat Flower. I grew up in an urban setting, but you can still respect nature in New York.
Do you feel like a true New Yorker?
I feel like I’m a New Yorker, really a New Yorker. I felt like I was really exposed to so much growing up in New York. Not only with the obvious things people talk about in New York like diversity, but also culturally. Even though I had parents that were not from here, they made it their business to know what this city had to offer. Any kind of intellectual pursuit was stressed in the home. I was also exposed to different people. There was a sameness in my family, but there was an expanded world of family friends that were non-Haitian and non-black. I felt really exposed. I love being a New York kid.
Did you ever leave New York for a period?
Just for college. I went to college in Boston. I studied French, much to my parents’ dismay. They just didn’t understand what I was going to do with that, but I insisted on going to school for enrichment. I just felt like at 18 or 19, how was I going to know what I was going to do that would decide my future?
How did you end up back in New York?
It was practical. I was looking for opportunities in New York, and my loans were due and so I got a job as an admin. It was a really charmless, soul-crushing kind of job. But the one pleasure I got out of working was that I would dress really nicely. I used to say in my head, “I’m going to dress for the job I want, not for the job I have.” And someone at work said to me, “You know you don’t have to dress up to come to work,” and I was just like, “Clearly. But I just want to.” The one part of my job that was semi- interesting, was that I had to do the meeting planning. And I was like okay, I’m going to learn as much as I can about this, and I’m going to get into the events world.
I grew up looking at the New York Time’s Style Section with Bill Cunningham’s pictures. I remember reading all the society pages and asking, “Who does those parties? I want to do those parties.” I didn’t want to go to the parties but I wanted to plan them. And then I found out they were charity events and so you get a job at a charity and you put on those events. It’s a fundraising job. It goes back to that chasing beauty thing. That’s what led me to events. You’re raising money for an amazing organization for a good cause, you’re working with all these creative people, and you’re working with the board and these donors who really believed in the arts.
And so I started looking and I found a job as a Special Events Assistant, and it was going to require a pay cut. I was already not making much money, but I decided to take it so I could learn and be on my way. I worked under this woman who is still my friend, and I would sit at her feet and just listen to everything she told me. I was just trying to extract as much information as she was willing to give. She was more than willing to give it to me, and she became my mentor. She nicknamed me “The Rock.” I was young, in my mid-20s, and I was just really going for it. When she left, she promoted me to a management position, and she eventually helped me get another job.
My next job was a special events job for a hospital—events that were going to be in the New York Times Style Section! So I got that! But the job ended up not being as fulfilling as I would have liked, and eventually I just quit with no job lined up.
I decided when I quit, that I was going to do a trip, but before I left, I applied for this job. This is pre-internet. So, I got a call on my answer machine for this job that I applied for on a wing and a prayer. I got called in and I got the job. And it was going to be a good job. High profile. New York Times Style Section. It was everything I was looking for. It was at Alvin Ailey. I became their Director of Special Events. It was a big job, and I had to raise a hell of a lotta money for these galas.
So, how did you get into floral design?
I left my job at Alvin Ailey because I was ready to do other things. I would consult, but I was only working on a project basis. I was exposed to different clients and different organizations and different missions and different people, and I was doing it on my terms. Then the economy tanked, and I had to think about if I wanted to stay in events…especially fundraisers as it’s dependent on how well people are doing. At this time I was also going through a great depression. I had gotten out of a relationship that was really significant. I was really sad, and I was searching for something. My consulting work was really starting to diminish, and I felt like I was flailing.
I did some soul searching. It was necessary. I needed to be grounded and figure out what the hell I was meant to do. Just thinking, “What got me to this point and where I am I supposed to go from this point?” I prayed about it, meditated, everything. And this flower just kept coming to me.
Then I had a friend who decided to open up a collective and said, “Kat, maybe you want to do something.” Because I was a special events person, I was always the friend that “special evented” everything, and everything was always a special event. Ya know, in my job you need to be highly organized and detail-oriented, but you also have to have good taste. And so when she approached me, I said maybe I’ll do flowers. I just said it and then once I said it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That evening I went home and looked up flower design. And from there, Kat Flower was born. It didn’t happen by accident, but it felt like it.
I have to always remember that Kat Flower saved me. She—I call her a she—she gave me so much. Because I needed it and the universe gives you what you need. And when you ask for it, you have to be quiet and you have to listen because it could be the tiniest seed and then it just kept getting louder. It was still never loud because I could hear all this other shit, but the word flower…I kept coming back to it. It just was repetitive and I was like, “What does this mean?”
Did you have any formal training in flower design?
Well, going back to the special events world, you are exposed to all of these things. You’re planning these events and collaborating with the florist, the event designers, the lighting people, the venue, and the caterer and all of these things. I was around flowers a lot. I had to even do flowers sometimes because I worked in the non-profit world. I had been in the events world for almost 15 years, so I started to build this glossary and encyclopedia of flowers.
When I looked up floral design on the internet, I decided to take a flower class to see if it was something viable and that this was something I really could do. I already was an enthusiast, but maybe I just didn’t have the talent. I took the class, and it was pretty elementary. But when I touched the flowers, I felt like they talked to me, that they communicated something to me, like “Yeah, we like you, We want to work with you.” And I was like, “Yeah, I want to work with you too.” It was visceral. When I touched the flowers, I felt like I want to be doing this all the time.
And when I told my brother, he said, “I think this sounds great.” And that was all I needed!
What do you love about flowers as a medium?
I love working with them because they’re such a dynamic medium and they change. I like how free flowers are, and you can create all these different shapes with them.
Do you have a process?
It is a very organic process for me. Left to my own devices, it usually just starts with one thing. It may not even be the feature player, but I’m drawn to something and it builds from there.
When I work with a client, they give me parameters. The challenge is marrying my client’s needs and vision with my artistic vision and style, all the while maintaining the integrity of the materials. You don’t want to force the flower to do some shit it doesn’t want to do. It’s important to get clients that trust you—trust your expertise, trust your vision, trust your style. That can be hard for someone, especially when it comes to their wedding day when they’re just trying to manage every single detail. They’ve had this dream since they were 6 years old of what they want, and you have to execute that. You are taking responsibility for interpreting that dream in a way they love and exceeds their expectations. This is the challenge we take on as florists, but it usually works out.
Do you ever get creative block?
I think everyone has a style, a go-to or a default. Playing with different flowers can help with that. If you keep using the same shit, you get the same results. It’s like everything in life, you gotta switch things up.
How would you describe your arrangements?
People tell me it looks fresh out of a garden. Lush. Organic. Textured. Whimsical. Pretty. My designs have movement. Constance Spry, one of the most famous British florists said something like a butterfly needs to be able to fly through the arrangement. There needs to be room. There needs to be negative space. There’s some breathing room in there, so loose and airy could be words to describe my designs. Oh, and seasonal. I believe you should arrange the way you eat. This business has made me hypersensitive to the seasons, and I like that because it makes you feel more alive and connected to this bigger platform.
Do you have favorite flowers you work with?
Rose. I love roses. They are the flower that so many brides say they don’t like, and I say, “It’s because you don’t know them.” They come in every color, and there are so many shapes with roses. They change dramatically.. You can also get them year ‘round.
Is there a strong community in the flower business?
I talk to people in my industry. I’m friends with people in my industry, and I speak to everybody in the market. We’re in the trenches together. The people that do what you do understand what it is that you do and understand what you’re stressed about. They can be really happy for you when you have a victory because they know what it means. We share information and we share resources. We’re competing, but at the same time, no one is you.
What’s your favorite part of your business?
My favorite part is a blessing and a curse. It’s the autonomy. It’s the autonomy of figuring out what direction you want to go, the autonomy of planning the work day. Just figuring out your path. You get to figure out your path. Yes, life does dictate and sometimes, the path is paying those bills over there.
And I love working with the flowers! The breadth and scope of the materials. The possibilities.
What does the word authentic mean to you?
I said to my friend the other day, “Whoever is around me just has to like me and just be okay with me being me, because I’m not willing to be anyone else but me. I’m not going to change myself for anyone.” That includes the people that love me. However I was made, this is how I was made and I just gotta roll with it. Not that that’s an excuse for bad behavior, but it is about being true to yourself, being true to your experiences.
Am I leading an authentic life? Yes, I am. I think believing in myself is me being authentic. Sometimes life does kick you in the stomach and make you doubt, but you just have to believe in yourself for the sake of believing in yourself.
Certainly having this business feels like that is an authentic part of my life, but the struggles and the challenges of owning your own business sometimes compromise that authenticity…Wait, I take that back because authentic doesn’t mean you’re getting what you want, it just means that it’s real. It is real. The struggles, the challenges, the ups and the downs are fully authentic.
Anything you do to prepare yourself for those challenges?
I’ve always been that person that says, “Every day is a new day.” It’s so basic. You may not wake up. Every day you have a chance at being better than yesterday. Just a little bit.
I also try to stay grateful, and that’s hard because sometimes the default is to think about all the shit you don’t have or all the shit that’s not working. I also pray. I think that helps me because it gives me perspective. Prayer and that sense of the divine makes me feel like I’m just this small spec in this vast and infinite space called the universe. It’s not just me.
I’m always looking for an escape. Running helps me escape my thoughts. Or sometimes I just like to look at flights.
How would you define success for yourself?
How one defines success is up to you. Someone told me I was successful just by the nature that I’m still doing what I’m doing. If money was no object and I didn’t need money, could I potentially just be doing this just "because"? Definitely. If you were to summarize the past five years of this business, it does tell a story of success. But I want more. I know I’m not there yet, and I’m not complacent. I feel like the challenges, the ebbs and flows, can compromise the best of me. I’m not my best self yet. I have so much more to learn, to be, to do.
What does your best self look like?
I think it would be for me to separate myself from my business. I’m looking for the balance between me and the business. I could work 12 or 13 hours a day, every day, and I’d still have work to do. And it’s hard because it’s your name, it’s your integrity, your business. So that separation…that is living at my best and being successful, all in one. And I’m getting there.
There’s a time to grind and a time to not. I take those breaks. I go to yoga in the middle of the day, I go to the botanical gardens, I do take myself for a nice lunch, I go to the shops. My business isn’t just producing a product. I have to be inspired. It’s really hard to do this job and love it if you’re not inspired.
Negativity breeds negativity. Go back to that gratitude. You’ve been doing this and it’s hard and it’s challenging and the business isn’t exactly in the place you want it to be, but you’re making it happen. You’re still going and moving forward. You do have to constantly tell yourself these things so you can nurture this environment of growth and positivity.
I think we do have the answers. Especially as women, we are highly intuitive and you have to trust that. Trust your gut, trust your instincts. Take a chance. Having this business has tested me in ways that I’ve never been tested, and it has brought me low. It’s been a struggle in a lot of ways. It’s hard in a way that I’ve never experienced, but I believe in myself and that’s what keeps me going. And sometimes I don’t even have a reason to believe in myself except for the fact that I believe in myself. I have purpose. I have a voice. I have a gift. I have something that no one else has. We all have something that no one else has because no one else is you. So however that manifests, you gotta find it and you gotta do it. You owe it to yourself to do it and go for it. It may not work but shit..gotta do it anyway and figure it out.
Any advice for starting a business?
I would say learn as much as you can. Learn about what it is that you want to do. Intern or apprentice if you can. You should be exposed before you make the leap. Be prepared to pay your dues because it’s not going to be easy. Nothing worth it is easy.
Be a student of your craft and realize you will never learn anything. Forgive yourself of that. You’re not going to know everything, but that’s the fun part. Stay hungry.
Respect it. Sometimes it’s bigger than you. It’s like the ocean. You can love the ocean, but it’s bigger than you and can break you.
On the practical side, you need to save money. You need to have resources, a nest egg. It’s not going to just take off. Build slowly.
Don’t let people piss on your dream. If you have it in you, trust yourself.
Are there any badass bitches of history you admire?
I don’t really have famous people, but for me it’s my grandmother. She’s a total badass and is still alive. She raised 10 children. She worked outside the home as a merchant, and she traveled through Haiti selling stuff. She was doing that at a time when women didn’t do that, when women were in the home. She’s super wise and she’s funny. What I remember growing up is her good and modern advice. She’s a woman of any era. Timeless. And she laughed a lot. I think humor has really gotten me through life.
My grandmother is the source of all the goodness in my life. She gave me my mother, who is pretty close to perfect. She is gentle and kind and she’s patient. She’s just so nurturing. My mom is a badass, and all of her sisters are badasses. All my aunties. They’re amazing, powerhouse women. They’re so modern and reinvent themselves. They’re really great ladies. I like them. I love them. I hit the lottery with my family. I’m so fortunate.