Retail therapy

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The Independent Online
A TRIP to a Victorian house in suburban Clapham, south London, was an unusually relaxed shopping experience. I arrived at the showroom in Helen Hardy's home to look at her silk and parchment flower arrangements and found her in the middle of arranging the school run. As a mother of three, working from home has its obvious advantages but it also, Ms Hardy hopes, provides an inviting setting in which to sell her flowers.

A former interior designer, Ms Hardy was inspired by the idea of selling silk flowers after a trip to Hong Kong where she encountered numerous examples of high quality work. She had also decided that dried flowers were passe: 'They fade and look dusty after a while but parchment flowers are very in, very vibrant, you can do wonderful things with them.'

The parchment flowers are definitely the highlight of her collection. The recent improvement in quality means you have to look twice (sometimes three times) before deciding if the flowers are real. Of course, touching them gives the game away, as the plastic leaves and stems sometimes do. But much depends on how the arrangement is put together: a silk spray of country flowers might consist of 'Bell of Ireland', 'Gypsophila', 'Lantana', 'Ranunculus', 'Snowball' and 'Viburnum' to create a light, airy 'just picked' look. Conversely, a mix of parchment roses can look dusky and 'lived in'.

A luxurious arrangement will average about pounds 60, but a pretty spring bunch can be put together for pounds 25. There is a loan service for weddings or events and a monthly exchange service so you can reflect the seasons. Helen will run a course later in the year to teach the making of garlands and decorations for Christmas.

Semper Floreat, 33 Larkhall Rise, London SW4 (071-720 5780).

SITUATED in a cool and shady converted Victorian printing shop and tucked away down a small alley, Parterre Flowers is only a couple of hundred yards from the bustle of Oxford Street in London. But it feels worlds away.

Parterre Flowers is one of a new breed of upmarket designer in an increasingly competitive market. It is run by Jane Durbridge and her partner Nigel Wooller. One of them goes to Covent Garden every day to buy the freshest of flowers and to scrutinise the stalls for one-offs or unusual finds. 'Today we saw, and resisted, waterlilies. They had 18-inch stems with beautiful flowers. But we would have had to sell them at pounds 5 a flower, which is too much. We have had to become more innovative to counteract the price of flowers,' explained Ms Durbridge. 'I wake up in the early hours trying out an idea or racking my brain. It has gone beyond flower arranging.'

With declining demand for expensive or exotic flowers, they have developed a way of making inexpensive flowers look good with unusual pots and containers. A pot covered in moss, dried mushrooms and bamboo twigs looks dramatic with just three flowers. The pots may be covered in mussel-shells, cinnamon sticks or poppy seed heads, or they may be troughs covered in dark magnolia leaves and filled with dried yellow roses. 'The appeal is that they cut down on the expense of the flowers'. Prices for the containers are from pounds 35.

Parterre Flowers, 8 Marylebone Passage, London W1 (071-493 1232).

(Photograph omitted)

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