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Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010

Flower designer's success blossomed under rising sun

Nicolai Bergmann shook up floristry after finding calling early in Denmark

Special to The Japan Times

The Nicolai Bergmann brand radiates upscale elegance, taking flower fashion to a new level. In addition to his famous floral designs — he revolutionized Tokyo's flower world in 2000 with his original Flower Boxes, a best-selling trend that landed his name in more than 500 publications in Japanese, Danish and English among other languages — his exclusive designs can be found in Ecco shoes, Seiko watches and many other brand products.

News photo
Bergmann's popular flower boxes COURTESY OF NICHOLAI BERGMANN

His store locations read like a roll call of fashion meccas in Japan: Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku, Yurakucho and Scandinavian interior shop SUMU in Tokyo Midtown. Traveling all over the world to give demonstrations, Bergmann has been catapulted to international acclaim with his fresh designs.

Within Bergmann's offices, tucked in behind Gucci and a stone's throw from Omotesando Dori, the man himself is much more down to earth, changing his 18-month-old son's diapers between his more glamorous commitments.

Working with the outdoors came naturally to Bergmann.

"I was more or less born into it, always working with nature," he said. "My grandparents owned an apple plantation and my father was in the potted plant industry. He was a wholesaler. So I was always around flowers, also going to exhibitions."

Bergmann grew up in the small town of Dragoer, near Copenhagen, a fishermen's village dotted with identical yellow houses with thatched roofs. Bergmann grew up with a large extended family and surrounded by nature.

Although he went through a period wondering if he might want to pursue something completely different, by age 15 he had made up his mind.

In Denmark, one of the final experiences before graduation is an internship, and Bergmann tried a flower shop for a week. He was enthralled and decided to enroll in Denmark's intensive training for floristry.

"You study for three months, and then work at a florist's for three months; after that, it is a combination of education and work experience," he said. "For example, two days at school, three days at a flower shop. You go through different combinations like that, and then your exams. The process takes about 3 1/2 years."

After finishing his exams by the age of 19, Bergmann, unlike most of his classmates, was still eager to open a shop.

"I remember clearly when I started the flower education course, our teacher asked, 'How many of you plan to start a flower shop?' and all 28 of us raised our hands. Three and a half years later, she asked the same question, and me and only one other person raised her hand . . . that's the back side of the coin. It looks so beautiful, but it's really difficult."

It was 1996, and the young Bergmann wanted to combine his serious plans for a shop with a little adventure. He looked into working on a cruise ship but instead decided to come to Japan. "My father had been dealing with Japan for many years, selling mother plants or cuttings, so he had a few connections here."

Bergmann came to Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, for three months to work in a plant nursery and experience Japan.

"It was so interesting to be in a completely different place, 100 percent different from how it is at home. The people as well were so friendly, they introduced me to a florist right away."

Once Bergmann connected to the small florist in Kawagoe, it quickly led to connections with another florist in town, Hama Florist. Hama focused on weddings, with a small office in Tokyo's Omotesando district. Bergmann considers himself a visual person, naturally attracted to design. Arranging flowers for upscale weddings was a good fit and a chance to put his talent and training into practice.

The three months passed quickly and Bergmann returned to Denmark, immediately making plans to get back to Japan. It took time to sort out the visa. He had no real work experience but luckily qualified for an artist's visa because he had participated in many floral competitions.

By 1998, he was in Japan to stay. Working exclusively for Hama Florist, Bergmann expanded his designs and experience, settling into the Japanese work ethic.

"I thought it was crazy at first, coming from Denmark, the No. 1 vacation country." He worked from Kawagoe, commuting to Tokyo or surrounding areas for weddings.

After three years, he knew where he could make the most of his talent — right in the city.

Rental prices were too outrageous, but luckily Hama Florist had a small office in Tokyo and Bergmann was allowed to use it as a shop.

"It was on the first floor, one street behind the main road in Omotesando, but literally nobody walked by. The same 20 people passed every day," he recalls.

Despite his struggle to get noticed, Bergmann found one advantage to his location.

"Luckily, the store was back to back with DKNY (Donna Karan New York), so I started talking with their employees because they had to go by me to get home." Bergmann's floral designs eventually found their way into DKNY, and he slowly made contacts with other shops along the main drive.

"It was very exciting to have the chance to design for these huge brand stores" Bergmann admits, but he was working for experience, not profit. He then realized he needed a space with more foot traffic to showcase his talents and attract customers.

Again rental prices were an obstacle, but fate intervened.

"One day I happened to drive through Kotto-dori, and people were moving out of an old, run-down building, but just off from Hunting World, in the perfect location," he said. So he called his boss with the information and they opened in six weeks under the Hama Florist store Chlole, in spring 2000. "That was a street where I could really show what I was creating, and in four years we opened four shops."

At the Chlole store, the idea for Bergmann's flower boxes blossomed.

"It was a request from a client. They were an events company and wanted 600 gifts for a client. In two days they wanted a variety of samples with so many requirements — don't take up too much space, the flowers must be stable — I thought it was crazy. How can you stabilize flowers? But on the other hand, it was such a big order for me, 600 pieces."

News photo
Nicholai Bergmann poses at his International School of Floristry in Tokyo's Omotesando. KRIS KOSAKA

Bergmann worked around the clock, creating 20 different sample bouquets and arrangements, with the unique idea to place them inside lidded boxes. Ironically, the original customer was not satisfied. "They were all rejected for the initial events company, but people on the street kept coming in, asking about them . . . I thought, maybe there is something in this idea," he said. Bergmann's flower boxes went on to become a popular gift idea and fueled his rapid-fire growth.

In 2001, the first Nicolai Bergmann store opened in Estnation in Yurakucho.

"It was in a new department store and they wanted to focus on a foreign brand. I suggested we use my name." After some hesitation, Bergmann's boss agreed.

Stores opened quickly around Tokyo as their clientele built up. Bergmann amicably separated with Hama Florist in 2005.

"I had all sorts of doubts about going on my own, in a foreign country, but I finally took the step to move on," he said.

Hama Florists took the two Chlole stores, and Bergmann kept the two stores with his name in Roppongi Hills and Yurakucho. He opened a new shop in the Isetan department store in Shinjuku and another in Sumu, the Scandinavian interior design store, in 2007. Last year, he opened a store in Copenhagen in the Royal Copenhagen Department Store, his first in his home country.

Although Bergmann obviously has the talent, he gives credit to hard work and a good partner: his wife. Since 2005, Amanda has handled an online shop and website, sharing with Bergmann the responsibilities and duties as director of the company.

"We are good at inspiring each other to make it what it is today. I am very visual, she reads a lot, so we are a good match. I don't think much, she thinks more; I say yes to everything and take a lot of crazy chances."

Despite the glamour of the design world, Bergmann insists that "we really are a family business."

Bergmann works hard to keep internationally connected with his work. He runs the International School of Floristry, which attracts a mix of international and Japanese students, and the online store — in English and Japanese — which also satisfies his growing international fan base.

Because of his success with floral designs and the innovative way he uses flowers with a variety of products, Bergmann has been inundated with design requests from all over the world.

Once Japan fed his muse: "I like (the) Sogetsu (School) in ikebana; it was quite inspiring for me as they use a lot of natural materials." Now he finds inspiration in the many places he travels, leaving once every four to six weeks.

"Working with flowers, you learn so much about colors and shapes — I've designed glasses, watches, shoes. I am now designing a series of vases and watch for a Danish company — I always try to sort of connect anything I design somehow to the natural world, to flowers — but it has become bigger now," he said.

With an updated website out in early autumn and various design plans in the works, Bergmann's success continues to grow as well. As the interview ends, Bergmann looks over at his son, now sprawled asleep on the white leather couch in their office. If it's true the Earth laughs in flowers, Bergmann has plenty to smile about.

The Nicolai Bergmann Flowers & Design website is at www.nicolaibergmann.com

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