Hey, I’m Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht

Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht’s career is in full bloom. The owner and creative director of Wild Bloom and florist to the stars was selected to helm the first season of Netflix’ The Big Flower Fight as head judge. Hailed among The Top Florists in the World the last two years by Harper’s Bazaar, his work has adorned the covers of Martha Stewart Weddings, The Knot, and People Magazine. His list of celebrity clientele include Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars) and Brooks Laich (NFL), Donald Webber, Jr. and wife Rebecca Covington (Hamilton: the Broadway musical)—a phenomenal achievement for the late bloomer who only came into the profession the last seven years. 

Kristen’s designs are exquisite in their deftness. More than an arrangement they are poetry, as seen in the level of care he gives to the placement, color and texture of the materials he uses. Their amalgam can be a whole mood or a destination, never letting the eye tire of its visual mastery. A recent Instagram post of coral charm peonies, white ranunculus and bleached umbrella ferns showed how three varieties of flora that are unlikely bedfellows look like they could not exist in any other formation. 

His journey to develop his floral language took an unusual route. Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, in what he describes as a very strict and religious household, he felt like an outcast and a disappointment; he was chided for being too much, too loud and too exuberant, which for all its euphemism was a snide way of saying he was gay—perhaps too much so. To corral him and to keep him out of trouble, his mother put him to work every summer, tending to her flower garden—watering, pruning and propagating. Far from the calling it later turned out to be, he considered it laborious then. What wasn’t laborious, however, was channeling his outsized energy as a member of the Mosaic Theatre Company, a Detroit youth theater group, where he sang, danced and acted alongside his friend Dane Joseph. At 16 years old he left his parents’ home to join Dane at boarding school at Interlochen Arts Academy in upstate Michigan where he was happy to be among his tribe, “It was full of really, open minded, eccentric, beautiful, empathetic people who opened my eyes to the power of creativity.”

His imagination germinated even more while studying theatre at the Boston Conservatory as an undergrad and later when he was cast as Angel, the genderfluid character, in Rent. Kristen leaned even further into his queerness, playing bold, unapologetic gay characters in Drama Queenz, a web series written by Dane, in a short film called Now Here as well as the feature-length film In the Lion’s Den

It wasn’t until 2011 that he rediscovered flowers again, while dating his boyfriend (now husband), Aaron VanderYacht. Kristen picked up some flowers from the local bodega because he thought his apartment needed a bit of primping with its drab white walls and laminate flooring. Over time, Aaron’s reaction to Kristen’s creations went from dutiful support to surprise the more elaborate the arrangement. His hobby quickly became an obsession. During this time, along with his acting, Kristen pursued a graduate degree at Columbia University in counseling psychology, a move he considered an expansion of his interest, “Whether it is connecting people through storytelling, connecting people through empathy or connecting people through gatherings, everything I am drawn to is about fostering change through connection.”

Yet, he himself was suffering a disconnect and an impending remodeling. In an interview with Mayesh Wholesale Florist’s, Yvonne Ashton, he said of his mental state at the time, “These clients deserve a therapist who is going to care about them and not about when peonies season is going to happen.” He knew in that moment that his pastime had become perennial. 

In 2013, he dropped out of graduate school and decided to get professional floral experience and interned at Sprout Home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, under the tutelage of head designer Doan Ly. He found it challenging to follow her creative process of assembling bouquets and centerpieces, which she executed with aplomb, until he realized that she was following her own design language crafted from her years of experience; his would require a different alphabet. 

He decided that his self-mandate was to create artfully-crafted flowers with an editorial eye which required as much of an infusion of his natural exuberance as of his gift of storytelling—the very parts of him that others found in excess. Within a year, he launched his own studio in Brooklyn, which he called Full Aperture Floral that was later rebranded as Wild Bloom. It was a chance encounter in his first year as a fully-fledged florist that took his centerpieces to center stage. Late to drop off bouquets to New York Magazine’s open call for floral arrangements, he unceremoniously burst into the photoshoot to find the fashion editor and the photographer in a thicket of bouquets. The photographer, Erik Madigan Heck, saw the arrangements Kristen carried in his hands and ordered him over. He invited Kristen to stay throughout the shoot where Kristen snagged a two-page spread.

As Kristen’s profile in the floral industry grew, so did his family. He and Aaron moved to Seattle, Aaron’s hometown, where they adopted their son, Hugo, and opened Wild Bloom. In addition to creating arrangements for fashion and editorial shoots, Wild Bloom design services cover weddings and events, workshops and advertising campaigns internationally. 

Globe thistle, Persicaria & Dahlia
Lisianthus, Hydrangea, Garden Roses, Scabiosa & Aster
Dahlia, Snowberry & Ninebark
Dahlia & Tulips
The Griffith-VanderYacht Family
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It was, therefore, no surprise that producers of The Big Flower Fight would enlist him as their head judge for his sheer talent. An impromptu and blind audition through an out-of-the-blue DM on Instagram for a yet-unnamed show would put him face to face with casting directors in the United Kingdom who wanted to see if his personality matched his professional reputation. He passed with flying colors. Along with hosts Natasha Demetriou and Vic Reeves, and a rotating guest judge each episode, some 10 pairs of hopefuls – florists, gardeners and sculptors compete in a similar format as its sister series The Great British Bake Off to win ‘Best in Bloom’ and a chance to create an installation at the Royal British Botanical Gardens, Kew—among the most preeminent gardens for horticulturalists. 

On display is not only the wild and unbridled imagination of artisans of different ilk who create intricate and wondrous pieces of art, but how Kristen has managed to graft all the facets of his experience into a showstopper, winning hearts with his distinctive and magnetic presence. His years of acting experience make him a natural on camera. His studies in counseling psychology come in handy, as, in his capacity as head judge, he both mentors the contestants as well as extols a form of therapy, knowing how much the competition means to them in their personal and professional lives. And as the one whose artistic and aesthetic standard the competitors must strive towards, his creativity is taken to its extreme by way of his installations they must mimic for each challenge—not to mention his flamboyant outfits; he has truly found home.

We sat down to talk to Kristen about his journey, his passions and his thoughts on the floral industry. 

Describe those early days that inspired you in your mother’s garden in Detroit. 

My time in Detroit in my mother’s garden was one of those subconsciously foundational experiences. I didn’t realize how much I was learning and how much I was connecting, because I wasn’t actively seeking those connections versus later in life where I rediscovered flowers. They immediately came with a sense of nostalgia. I had to trace where that nostalgia came from, why I have these feelings about them and that’s why I take it way back to all those moments in my mother’s garden. And it was really fantastic because that was my summer job. Instead of my mother saying, ‘Go work at a McDonalds’ or ‘Go work at this random place,’ every summer, she said ‘No, you’re going to stay home.’ We had a huge backyard and a fairly large front yard too. I was mowing up the yard, I was taking care of all the flowers, watering, really developing a vocabulary for flowers and a vocabulary for feeling like I was able to experience success because after all of that attention you give it, you get to see the fruits of that labor. That is really where it started. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was able to make those connections.

When and how did making floral arrangements go from being work to wonder?

I was living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend, now husband. It was our first apartment together and it was a six-floor walkup. It was tiny. The walls were white, and the floors were laminate. I remember going to the local bodega (corner store) and bringing some flowers upstairs and being like, ‘Oh, wow! Oh, sure! This place has been transformed!’—one tiny little bunch of flowers. The irony is it was a bunch of little lilies, and my husband was like, ‘That smell! Get that out of here!’ But he also recognized that there was a huge visual impact and warmth that those flowers brought to the space. From that moment on I’ve never not had flowers in my house. And that was almost a decade ago.

Storytelling is an integral part of you as a former actor and counselor. How do you tell a story in a floral arrangement? How is the story structured? How do you compose it?

I think it really depends on what your perspective is as an artist. For me, color and texture and light have always been major components in my design process. It’s really about trying to figure out a way to find which elements of your composition is going to be the star, who are the supporting players, and who is the ensemble just there to prop everybody else up. And once you start to understand those relationships, you’re able to push blooms forward that look more unique and more fantastical, so the eye travels towards them. That’s also the clarity of design that I talk about in the show a lot. Knowing what you want to show, knowing what you want to have be your support and then understanding how to execute that within the parameters of these time limits. And that exists outside of the television show. Often, I get called and they say, ‘You have two hours, and you have to be over here,’ and I’m running around looking for flowers. That’s sort of part of the industry; time is the biggest enemy to flowers, literally and figuratively. 

You’re married with a kid, which many would not have imagined for queer people not so long ago. Do you think you’re breaking ground?

I think that my experience is so basic in so many ways. I never really tried to live by someone else’s ideas of what a person just— (I’m sorry, my son just woke up from his nap and I can see him over there, and he looks very cute!)—I’ve never really tried to live within those margins and because of that, I’ve never actually looked at my life as this extraordinary against-the-grain situation. When I think of what is very American, it’s you’re married with a house and a kid and a dog and a car. It sorts of fits into this mold of what we’re fed growing up in these [straight] cisgender relationships that we were seeing on television. I actually think the more courageous lives are the ones who reject those sensibilities: if you want to go and you want to have two partners, you want to be a throuple, you want to go and do whatever you do, you want to be single for the rest of your life, you want to travel. I think it’s those sorts of people that I really admire because the courage that it takes to listen to yourself and listen to what you want and then to actually live your life that way is something that is very brave. So, I love that about the LGBTQ+ community, that there are so many different options and range of opportunities and it’s so much wider because we were living on the margins for so long.

How are florists thinking about or trying to respond to the threat of climate change and the diminishing bee population?

The first thing that we have to really address is what is happening in the White House before we can do anything in terms of addressing climate change. You cannot address climate change, unless your leaders are going to put programs and systems in place to address those issues. I can’t speak for the floral community mostly because the floral community encompasses a wider range of personalities where some of them are climate change deniers themselves, which I find to be incongruent with the industry they work in. Some of them are true artists and they really do think about sustainability and practices and how to ensure that our environment and farms are engaging with sustainable practices. The floral community has a long way to go. A lot of flowers are sourced from all over the world, they’re not necessarily locally sourced. We don’t necessarily know all of the information to track the sort of work environments everybody is working in and, like I said earlier, I think it starts at the top.
 
What I’ve been doing is trying to educate myself as much as possible. I’ve been trying to work with local farms as much as possible. When you live in a state that experiences all four seasons that isn’t easy to do all the time. However, I’ve been really trying to reduce my usage of flowers that are not locally sourced, because when you have relationships with farms, then you sort of know what they are doing and who they are working with. I know the farm owners and there’s an amazing syndicate here called Seattle Wholesale Growers Market and it’s a group of local floral farms who have committed to doing sustainable slow growth flowers—not using harmful pesticides and really being conscious of how they’re impacting not only the economy but also the environment. Taking time to have that research and engaging that research is important and I cannot say that every florist is doing that. I don’t know; I would hope that we would be. 

Flowers have been a part of our everyday human experience and a marker of our various milestones in life, traditions and celebrations where we are centered in that narrative. It’s your aim, you say, to give flowers their due respect. How do you intend to do that? How can the everyday person do that?

I think first you need to shift your perspective on what a flower arrangement is. It is art. It is someone’s creative energy that they have poured into this work. It is more than just someone blindly throwing flowers into a vase and hoping that they land in a pretty place. A lot of florists are incredibly intentional with their designs and something that looks like, ’Oh, this just looks this way’ took someone an hour and a half to make. So, respecting the artform is really what I want to help bring to the forefront of the conversation. It is an art and I think because of its constant availability; it’s everywhere. You go to the grocery store, you go to Trader Joes, you go to every single place and there’s flowers available. But it’s not that way with fine art; you have to go to a museum, or to call a dealer. You have to go through hoops. And I would love for the narrative to shift to a place where people respect these creations as works of art.

I actually think they are so uniquely special and beautiful because they are so fleeting. It’s their momentariness that makes them beautiful. When before the narrative is: ‘Well, they always die, why should I care?’ It’s because they die why you should care. It is a metaphor for life. You grow, you bloom, you thrive, some of us procreate and some of us don’t and then you wither and die. That is literally the life cycle of a flower. You just experience it in five days in your vase. So, shifting the narrative and shifting the perspective of what an artist can do with flowers is really an important thing for that reason. 

You started the 'behind every bouquet there is a fist' call to action in response to the civil unrest we are seeing. Describe what the campaign is and what you hope to inspire by it.

I think that there are a lot of people out there who are afraid of their power. I’m trying to create a space for everyone where they feel like they can participate in the conversation. I’m asking people to tap into their creativity and tap into their own voice and their own sort of methods to engage in this moment. For me, this is my art; that’s me making flowers. Every time I make an arrangement, I’m reminded that there’s a fist behind that, holding that literally and figuratively. I want people to feel like they can participate in this moment and use their own creativity as a conduit for that because it’s healing.
 
Something that I wish people were talking about more is the trauma and the PTSD that is going to come out of this moment. I can’t speak for other people; I can only speak for me. When I saw the George Floyd video, I was shook. I had never seen anyone murdered before. There are all these other videos coming out of people being attacked and having these extreme acts of violence coming upon them from people who they thought should be protecting them. There’s a huge paradigm shift that happens for people, including myself and it’s disconcerting. When you are exposed to that kind of violence it comes with a consequence that can cause you to have a lot of other issues, so I want people to find ways to process those emotions. So, get yourself involved in something creative, whether that is plating desserts, making figure eights on your carpet, or making something creative with flowers. That is what that entire call to action is about. 

But aren’t artists suffering themselves too?

Arts and gig workers all over the country are experiencing extreme hardship. We’re talking about costume designers, cameramen, makeup artists. It’s not just the actors (who are making the multi-millions of dollars) we’re talking about every single person that’s behind and in front of the camera and around the productions. I’ve never understood why the arts are the first thing to get cut because the arts is maybe the 4th largest economy for our country. It’s billions upon billions of dollars. Right here in Washington, I think it’s $48 billion for our economy every year and there is a bill that a couple of my artist colleagues have written and are working on called The DAWN Act (The Defend Art Workers Now). It’s basically trying to get legislation passed for relief for all of these artists. Broadway in New York City—$1.8 billion in revenue. That’s more than New York and New Jersey’s sports teams put together. And people sit there and act like it’s that lighthearted thing that no one cares about when in actuality the arts and entertainment industry is a huge economy. So, again, it goes back to our leadership not respecting the craft. 

What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ in finding their truest passion or know how to recognize it?

I always feel strange answering this question because, for me, it was very much an emotional thing. Growing up gay in Detroit and in a very highly religious environment, I felt like an outcast. What I was looking for was a place to belong. What I was looking for was my tribe, was for a group of people that I could experience camaraderie with, and it led me to the arts. Because I was like, ‘Who are those guys over there with the earrings and the eyeliners?’ ‘Those are my people.’ And you find out this is what you’re into and you start getting into it that way, and that was at a very young age. For other people it’s money. There are economic advantages to it; they want to be doing something else—they want to be producers, they don’t want to be the actor, they want to be the coach. I would say the universal factor is the ability to listen to what your instincts are telling you because your instincts normally are raw, real, sort of deeper moments within our psyche. If you’re able to, listen to that voice inside your head that says, ‘Oh my gosh, I like this.’ Give yourself the opportunity to explore it. And you may hate it and decide you may not want to be waking up at 4am to go to an audition or you don’t have to be going to that crazy art supply shop that is four hours away because it is the only place that sells the canvas size that you need. You may be like, “I’m just going to work a corporate job.” But you have to at least give yourself that opportunity. I would say listen to what your inner voice is saying and give yourself an opportunity to explore it.

What’s the best piece of advice you never got?

The best piece of advice that I never got would be to be yourself. Like actually be yourself. A lot of times I think as people of color and as LGBTQ people we are taught that we need to be able to blend in and code switch and find a way to not bring attention to yourself—diminish our light. I found that that caused a lot more harm than it did good because people can see when you’re not being authentic. Even though you might be giving them what you think they want, they are still turned off because they can tell when something is off about it. It was only when I started to say, ‘Oh f*ck it! I’m just going to do me.’ All I know is how to be myself at this point so that’s what I’m going to be. That is where I started to experience and do well with the freedom that I did not get to experience prior to that. And that is still a work in progress. That doesn’t mean that you cannot get to that place. You just have to be a little patient with yourself and learn how to be yourself and it’s really hard. But I wished someone would have broken that down for me. 

If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

I’d still be worrying about being successful. I’m competitive! I’m a competitive person. And I get bored very easily. I get bored extremely easily. Success to me is not necessarily money or fame, it’s actually did I do what I wanted to do? 

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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