Chapple gasps. She wrenches her steering wheel to the right and hits the brakes. The minivan stops, half off a country road near Chapple’s home in Waterford, Va. She leaves her keys in the ignition, grabs her clippers and heads for a flowering dogwood tree she has spotted on the side of the road.
Now your event is going to smell a little like dogwood, too.
This is the not-so-secret secret to the success of Holly Chapple, one of the industry’s best-known proprietors of a style of floristry that has taken over Instagram, Pinterest and Martha Stewart’s aesthetic. It is sometimes called garden style or botanical style or “Holly-ish.” “It is really so ridiculous that that’s a phrase, but that’s what people tell me,” she says. Gone are bouquets arranged in perfect spheres (“roundy moundies,” in the biz), traditional red roses and jarring color schemes; today’s floral designs are lush and loose and look as if they’ve been foraged from the back yard of Mother Nature herself — because they have.
This approach is more than a matter of taste or trend; it’s a renaissance that has emerged from a new business model. Traditionally, being a respected florist meant becoming certified through expensive formal training and the purchase of a brick-and-mortar business. Chapple has neither of those things. She plucked flowers from her garden, learned as she went and became a success in large part because of social media, not because the industry’s influential power players deemed her one.
A turning point for Chapple will come this summer, when the American Institute of Floral Designers hosts its annual symposium, the largest floral education event in the country. She will take the stage as the featured opening presenter.
“She’s in the hot seat, poor lady,” says Suzie Kostick, the symposium’s organizer.
Kostick is hoping to break down the wall that exists between brick-and-mortar florists and home-based florists like Chapple. It’s a divide that likely goes unnoticed by customers, but for those in the industry, the rivalry can be fierce and fueled by animosity. To many traditionalists, Chapple is like the team captain for the other side.
“They hate her,” says Hitomi Gilliam, an AIFD-certified florist who has befriended Chapple. “They don’t see her at [floral-industry] meetings, so they develop this thing about her. They say, ‘Oh, she works at home. She’s just a Basement Betty.’ ”
Basement Betty (n.): a derogatory term for a woman who runs her business from her home. Implication: a bored housewife who went to Hobby Lobby, made the bouquet for her niece’s wedding and now claims to be a professional.
“It’s such a misconception,” Gilliam says. “I have become a huge defender of her. I tell them, ‘Basement Betties don’t do $100,000 weddings.’ ”
Chapple’s business began not in a basement but on a front porch in 1992, when she was working as a travel agent. She’d just had her second child at 25 years old. She grew up working at her father’s garden center and had always said she had no intention of going into the business herself. But she wanted to be around for her children, and in Loudoun County, there was zero chance of her family subsisting on one income. “What are you going to do?” a neighbor asked.
“I think I’m going to do weddings,” she responded.
“Great,” the woman responded. “You can do mine.”
She had her first client. Eventually, “we put an addition on the house and had some more children. Then we put another addition and had some more children,” she recalls. All the while, her business grew.
Then came a blog, a social media following and an idea: She knew there were other home-based florists out there, looking for the camaraderie the traditional floral world reserved for its members. So, in 2010, she assembled more than a dozen of them in New York City.
Before long, the gathering had turned into a full-fledged organization, the Chapel Designers. Today, there are 238 designers from 35 states and 11 countries in the group, all working under Chapple’s mentorship.
A few times a year, they gather at a farm she and her husband, Evan — who now works on her business full time — bought in 2015. There, they grow peonies, dahlias, abelias, amaranth, zinnias, clematis, jasmine, cockscomb, hydrangeas and sunflowers that can be incorporated into her designs along with the flowers she imports from around the world. The property includes two small houses, where other florists can stay, and two barns, which have housed charity events, floristry training camps and birthday parties for her children. The oldest are grown, but Chapple and her husband are still juggling school, soccer games and sleepovers for their 9-, 11- and 13-year-olds.
“She worries about us and her kids,” says Parie Donaldson, a Texas florist who has known Chapple for 13 years. “But her kids include everybody in Chapel Designers and her brides.”
One of those brides, Meg Coffey, had Chapple art-direct her May 2017 wedding at the District’s Mayflower Hotel. It included more than 10,000 flowers. “My photographer joked, ‘I think you’re more excited to see Holly on your wedding day than your husband,’ ” Coffey says.
Through the years, the gushing over Chapple and her work has won over some in the world of old-school flowers, but far from all. When she presents at AIFD next month, she’ll be speaking to some of the people who she knows have scoffed at her business.
“I’m afraid of doing this, I’ll be honest,” she says. “It’s not my tribe. But I am doing it because I hope it will make a change in the industry. The only reason not to do it was because I am afraid, and that seems ludicrous. So I’m going forward.”
She’ll have to prepare enough designs to furnish a fashion show of her work, create floral installations and find the right words to convey what she really wants the audience to know: “That I am a good person, and I care.”
“I hope I’m prepared for it,” she says. Because in the two months before the July presentation, she would have 26 weddings and events on her calendar.
Jessica Contrera is a staff writer for The Washington Post.