After 35 years in the floristry trade, Kelly Thomas can spot the difference between a bunch of flowers that has been picked fresh and one that has languished in a fridge for a week. It’s how she knows she’s getting the best blooms at the market. “A lot of people have them sent out, but I go and hand-pick everything that comes to the store,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.”
Thomas owns The Floral Decorator in Erskineville, a boutique florist she established 18 years ago. Three days a week, she sets her alarm for 3.45am to head to Sydney Flower Market at Flemington. By 4.45am, she’s “frantically” buying flowers for the shop as well as any weddings or corporate accounts due that day.
While the Sydney markets have a huge variety of flowers – thanks in part to imports coming in from across the globe – Thomas tries to stock seasonal products. “We don’t just sell gerberas, irises, lilies – I try to get the best of what the season is going to provide,” she says. “Right now, peonies are in.”
By 8am, Thomas is back at the shop, almost done with unloading the van and getting ready for the first walk-in customers. A solo mother, she tries to sit down with her 12-year-old daughter for a quick hot chocolate on the way to school. Then it’s back to work. On an easy day, she works until 3pm. If it’s busy, she stays at the shop until it closes at 6pm – capping a 14-hour marathon.
While Thomas has called the inner west home for more than 20 years, she grew up in Melbourne. She is a member of the Wurundjeri mob, whose traditional lands stretch from Melbourne to Healesville, 52 kilometres north-east of the city. The Floral Decorator is certified by Supply Nation, Australia's largest national directory of verified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, and Thomas’s Indigenous heritage remains an important part of her life. “I practise culture regularly,” she says. “My daughter is brought up with it. We go down for ceremony a lot.”
When she was 20, Thomas left Melbourne for London, where she worked for a prestigious, royal-appointed florist in the city’s West End. She spent six years in Europe before returning to Australia, choosing a new life in Sydney over a return to her hometown. She opened a private floristry business on the south end of King Street, doing flowers for corporate clients and weddings.
In 2000, she moved her business to Erskineville and for the first time opened to the public. Back then, Erskineville Road was a quiet strip with a few cafes and pubs. No longer – among her favourite local haunts today are Bitton, a French-Australian cafe across from the park on Copeland Street, and Kuki Tanuki, a Japanese restaurant on Erskineville Road. “Both pubs, the Rose and the Erskineville, are completely different types of venues, but the food is really good at both,” she says. “And Fleetwood Macchiato do the best coffee and the best breakfast burger you’ll ever eat.”
As for her own shop, a dog bowl out the front attracts local pooches, and Thomas gives a flower to every child who walks through the door. As the local florist, she services nearby weddings, births, christenings, milestone birthdays and funerals. “I love being part of the Erskineville village community,” she says. “It’s a very diverse area.”