Fashion, royalty and the new power brokers — how the Chelsea Flower Show became cool
The capital comes alive in the summer. From the Serpentine’s glittering June party to the Royal Academy’s must-bag-an-invite summer bash, and onto Wimbledon, Henley and Silverstone — the city’s movers, shakers and power brokers have a packed calendar of places to see and be seen. Quaintly, it all kicks off with a gardening show. Yes, RHS Chelsea Flower Show is back.
The usual set strutted through the Royal Chelsea Hospital gates for the VIP gala preview this week. Among them the pukka aristos (Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi), the horti-hotties (Monty Don) and the Queen. She arrived resplendent in a pink Stewart Parvin coat and rose print dress, gliding through the crowds on a nobility scooter (a Danish-made luxury golf cart to you and I) with Keith Weed, the appropriately-named president of the Royal Horticultural Society, at her side.
After that came a stream of celebs —the thesps (Dame Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons, Laura Carmichael, Vicky McClure and Dame Joanna Lumley), musicians (Will Young, Cerys Matthews), fashion folk (Jodie Kidd) as well as Guy Richie and Grayson Perry. There’s nothing as eclectic as a Chelsea guest list.
But among them was a younger, cooler crowd. Alexa Chung made a flower show drive-by, singer Imelda May dropped in for an impromptu appearance and DJ Calvin Harris arrived with presenter Vick Hope, as tabloids buzzed with news of a possible engagement.
Down in the groovy House Plant pods — a zone that appeared at last year’s show where garden rooms are packed with lush house plants, succulents and tropical plants — an altogether more buzzy scene prevailed. DJs hit the decks outside the designer Patrick McDowell’s freshly minted Planet Studio, a houseplant studio/garden bar inspired by Studio 54 and created in collaboration with plant curator James Whiting. The bijou space was packed trippy lights, bespoke ceramics and textiles (seating and soft furnishings were made from 30 pairs of reclaimed jeans), while outside drag queen and designer Sam Astrid, performance artist and model Jordan Crawford and writer and model Luko posed for pictures.
Over in the main floral marquee, there were more fashion people including US Vogue’s erstwhile reporter Sarah Mower perusing the alliums and woad on the Fashion Revolution Textile Garden designed by Lottie Delamain to illustrate how we could use plants to make clothes through their dyes and natural fibres. There’s more to this year’s show than posh petunias.
Beyond the Instagrammable moments, there are, of course, also vast sums of money involved at Chelsea — which along with other RHS events helps to fund the charity’s year-round work in education, communities, research and communication to encourage the nation to grow. On gala night, droves of City bankers, chief executives and lawyers descend (not for nothing do some dub it the Chelsea Power Show).
This year marks the first headline sponsorship by The Newt in Somerset — owned by South African hotelier Karen Roos and her husband, the billionaire telecoms entrepreneur Koos Bekker — in a deal to run over four years. Past sponsors such as M&G Investments and Merrill Lynch paid about £1.3 million annually for their backing of the show. For garden sponsors — who this year include Meta, Boodles, Brewin Dolphin, Hamptons, Savills and The Body Shop — main show gardens can cost upwards of £350,000 to build and plant, but it’s rewarded in media coverage (last year there were 9.4 million social media impressions during show month and three million people watching coverage on the BBC and iPlayer) and in hospitality, schmoozing guests with VIP visits. The site also houses a Raymond Blanc restaurant where a day visit (with breakfast, a four-course lunch, show guide, afternoon tea and as much champagne as your guests can guzzle) costs £700 plus VAT.
Still, in keeping with a shift towards activism over profit, the message is in some ways more important than the money at the show. The majority of gardens this year came with a point from a charity sponsor or a call to action — whether about social change, mental health or climate change. The feel good power and social potential of gardens has become more pressing perhaps than entertaining boozy bankers — and the gardens look better for it.
The younger, thoughtful vibe of the show is echoed in a wave of new designers too. Tayshan Hayden-Smith began gardening under a concrete flyover in west London after the Grenfell Tower tragedy when he founded the not-for-profit organisation Grow2Know. His Hands Off Mangrove garden is a community garden with a central arching corten steel centrepiece representing the roots of the mangrove tree that will be relocated after the show. Many of this year’s gardens have been backed by Project Giving Back, a charity that wanted to fund projects that support the power of plants and nature.
Alexandra Noble, who designed her first Chelsea garden last year, was back helping on the garden of another first-timer Pollyanna Wilkinson — a counsellor-turned-garden designer — whose beautiful Mothers for Mothers garden was also a charity piece that will be relocated after the show, to Hartcliffe City Farm in Bristol close to the charity Mothers for Mothers’ base.
Away from the gardens themselves there are the horticultural influencers who are also helping a new generation discover a love for horticulture. Jack Wallington, author of Wild About Weeds and the recently published A Greener Life, was stalking the showground in a T-shirt emblazoned with a plea for more sustainable gardening free of peat, pesticides and plastic. Plantsman Alexander Hoyle, whose incredibly lush planters are on show at nearby Sibyl Colefax as part of the Chelsea Fringe festival that happens alongside the main Flower Show, was also perusing the stands.
And then there’s Arthur Parkinson, the gorgeous young gardener and florist whose ebullient arrangements and incredible container gardens have taken him from Emma Bridgewater — where he created an oasis in the middle of urban Stoke-on-Trent — to collaborator and podcast co-host with Sarah Raven. He’s currently working on his third book all about his lifelong passion for chickens.
Along with other plantfluencers and houseplant fanatics, they’ve fuelled a new generation to start growing. Although it’s clear that the trend has been turbo charged by the pandemic lockdowns in which growing your own veg in whatever space you might have became something of a national obsession, forcing seed sellers to shut their websites and leading to national shortages of compost and plants.
Chelsea has always been a hot ticket, kicking off as it does the English summer season. The most prized tickets of all are for the preview evening but even in the thronging crowds later in the week the displays of horticultural excellence, the towering stands of eye popping, tall delphiniums and lilies, immaculate narcissi or miniature hostas that fill the three acre Great Pavilion and the 39 pristine designed gardens have become a must see — and a place to be seen.