Fabulously bold

PUBLISHED: 11:21 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

Fabulously bold

Fabulously bold

Debbie and Iain Coplans of Hereford's Hibiscus Room tell Jackie McCarrick how they staked their future on a passion for flowers

Debbie and Iain Coplans of Hereford's Hibiscus Room tell Jackie McCarrick how they staked their future on a passion for flowers

People thought ex-City banker Iain Coplans and his designer florist wife Debbie had taken leave of their senses when they announced they were giving up their lucrative careers in London for a little flower shop in Hereford.

Even after the couple had moved into the former butcher's shop on Widemarsh Street and transformed it with rustic willow fence panelled walls, an upturned ancient oak door for their workbench, and masses of exotic and tropical flowers, there were still those who called in just to fold their arms, shake their heads and announce that Hereford wasn't ready for anything like this. All of which was rather unsettling for a pair of 30-year-olds who in 2003 had just taken the biggest gamble of their lives, staking their future on a shared passion for flowers and a yearning for a less frenzied way of life.

"We just kept telling ourselves that if we stuck to our vision of what a really good florist's shop should be like, then it had to work," says Iain.

That vision had been sparked in the late 1990s when the pair met while backpacking in Iain's native Australia. Inspired by the glorious colours and dramatic forms of the country's native vegetation, former office worker Debbie took a job in a florist's shop in Melbourne when they set up home together at the end of their travels.

"I fell in love with the strong, vibrant colours and the exciting way that flowers were presented in Australia," she says. "I could never have gone back into a boring office job after that."

On their return to the UK in 2002, Iain worked as a business analyst in the City of London while Debbie found herself designing bouquets for celebrities including Jerry Hall, Gaby Logan and the Attenboroughs, in her new job in a smart florist's shop in Richmond. But outward success wasn't enough. They recall the tension that hovered in the City following the 9/11 attacks, and Iain tells of one particularly uncomfortable Tube journey that triggered their decision to move back to Debbie's native Hereford.

"We were all crammed in there, absolutely sweltering," says Iain, "when I noticed a headline in the Evening Standard that somebody was reading, saying it was too hot to transport livestock. 'But not humans?' I thought. "It really made me question what on earth I was doing."

When it came to escaping the capital, Hereford was a natural choice - not only because Debbie's roots are here, but also because during their regular visits to her mother, Jan Joseph, they saw that the market seemed to be wide open for an alternative type of flower shop. They finally opened The Hibiscus Room just in time for Mother's Day 2003, having scoured architectural salvage yards for pieces of display furniture that give the place its distinctive rustic-chic atmosphere. While they both love sleek, fitted shops in big cities, they say they wanted theirs to reflect its rural environment and listed building status.

They also took the decision to have their workbench - that old panelled oak door mounted on legs and topped with thick glass - right out in the shop rather than hidden away in a mysterious back room, because as Debbie says, customers enjoy watching the florists at work and love to see a bouquet being created before their eyes.

In the early days of the business, Debbie and Iain ran the operation between them, but almost five years on they now have three additional florists and three drivers to help service the growing list of regular contract customers, county-wide deliveries, Internet bouquet sales all over the UK, and a growing wedding order book.

Debbie and Iain - who, less than six months after opening the shop, worked on the flowers for their own August 2003 marriage at St Paul's Church in Tupsley - have since been asked to provide bespoke flower arrangements for scores of county weddings, and are now recommended by top venues including Eastnor Castle, Hampton Court, Llangoed Hall, Castle House, Homme House, Penrhos Court, Ford Abbey and Hereford's Left Bank.

They say that their wedding season now stretches far beyond spring and summer, and indeed their first bridal booking for this year was on January 19. It seems that November is now the only unpopular month for getting married.

Many brides opt for the kind of look Debbie chose for her own wedding - elegant burgundy and pink Calla lilies twisted inside giant goldfish bowl containers - although there is still a great demand for the classic English country garden look with blowsy cabbage-headed roses, peonies and tulips.

One of the Hibiscus Room's largest weddings, for a local farming family, made use of hundreds of lusciously-scented pink Sarah Bernhardt peonies, masses of giant pink hydrangeas and buckets full of blue delphiniums, all worked into 25 huge table arrangements and dramatic metre-wide, hanging spheres of blooms.

Events at city centre venues such as the Left Bank call for more minimalist designs of tropical flowers and grasses in geometric-shaped containers of metal or glass.

Debbie and the three staff florists, Lizzie Rouse, Dorothy Hill and Louise Rees, have a total of 30 years' design experience between them and each brings her own distinctive style to the workbench. "Lizzie is fantastic at small, delicately wired work," says Debbie, "but my style is big and bold with lots of vibrant colours."

It seems that, despite those early doubters and doom-mongers, Hereford quite obviously was ready for this fabulously bold approach to flower design.

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