‘Shanghai is the perfect place to try out various ideas’
Wild Geese: Flower Wall Company founder Mark Byrne
Mark Byrne set up the Flower Wall Company in Shanghai.
After hosting his first fashion show at the age of 17, Byrne left his home town of Newry for Edinburgh in 2000 where he studied event management at Queen Margaret University. Before long, he was working at large-scale events including the MTV Video Music Awards, Live Aid, CowParade, the Environmental Awareness Fair and the Science Festival.
“I did a bit of everything – artist liaison, co-ordinator, organiser. It was a fantastic experience to work with and meet so many interesting people.
“But I wanted to do something different and got a job with the travel company Flight Centre selling bespoke trips. I loved the job and excelled at it, so I was asked to relocate to Shanghai in 2010 to book custom flights and experiences for the growing expat community in China. ”
Byrne says living in Shanghai offers a sensory experience. “There’s so much happening here and so many opportunities. So after two years in China I couldn’t help but venture back into the event-management scene.”
The Chinese economy was booming and people were looking for big experiences, so Byrne created an events company called Highlife in 2012.
“We organised numerous events. Chinese clients like to think big, so it’s like a movie set. You have producers, directors, runners and the days are very long.”
When asked to curate a 600-person engagement party, his career took on a new path.
“I suggested a flower wall for a backdrop and the couple and guests loved it. So when they got married in front of 1,000 guests I was asked to organise another flower wall and that was the beginning of it.”
Real flower walls, such as the one Kim Kardashian West had at her wedding to Kanye West, don’t come cheap and last only about six hours before they wilt, so Byrne decided to look at more affordable options.
“I set about researching, designing and creating lifelike reusable artificial flower walls at a fraction of the price. Shanghai is the perfect place to try out various ideas and novelties,” he says.
“I got in touch with manufacturers, with the intention of exporting the product. It was difficult to find the right flowers without looking kitsch or cheap. When I found the right textures and styles I went about creating the walls.”
Once they started appearing at events, they became a must-have – not just in China but beyond.
The walls were used for major advertisement campaigns for brands including Pretty Little Thing, Match.com, Kohler and Lululemon. Byrne also created two flower walls for Michael Costello’s New York Fashion Week showcase.
“It was just such a buzz watching celebrities gather at the wall and take photos. It’s a real social media star. Once you have a flower wall at a hotel, wedding, or event, people flock to it and want to be photographed in front of it no matter who they are.”
Byrne says people can order the wall in panels. “They are small and you connect them together at the back with the clips and cable ties provided. They are pretty expensive to ship but easy to assemble once they get to the other side.”
Byrne says he has a small team, but everyone works together.“We do marketing, building, liaising with suppliers, branding and set up the website, thetheflowerwallcompany.com, in 2013.”
Just like most businesses, the Flower Wall Company and Highlife have been affected by the pandemic which began in China earlier in the year.
“At the beginning we had strict lockdowns across the country but now, with ramped up testing, life has resumed as normal as possible,” he says.
“How many times have I been tested? Thousands. You get tested here all the time. When you leave the house, when you enter a building. There are testing sites and people test your temperature everywhere – on the street even. People in hazmat suits sprayed the streets too, which was very effective in the beginning.
“As a result of robust testing, Chinese people are spending their money here. But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the export market since western countries got hit,” he says.
“There are no fashion shows, no weddings, no big-spending events in Europe and the US. The Middle East and Asian markets have opened up. But it’s way more expensive for me to ship things out – three times the price.”
Byrne says diversifying has been key since the pandemic began.
“We are using our original prints on a range of fashion accessories like tote bags and phone covers. We are also focusing on home decor, bespoke collections of lifelike flowers, DIY kits and we are offering online workshops.”
Byrne can converse in the local Shanghai dialect but, he needs a local person to work with the logistical matters.
“It’s impossible for a foreigner to do that. Any kind of liaisons, local customs, government approval, exports, imports and any logistical stuff requires someone on the team with inside knowledge.”
Life is expensive in China, he says. “A family-sized home rental is around €10,000 a month – more with a pool. But incomes are high. If you work hard here you will succeed and do very well. I set up a business with a visa for self-employed people, which is not difficult to obtain.”
Despite the travel restrictions due to Covid-19, Byrne says Shanghai is an amazing place to be.
“I am happy here. There’s so much to do. So many places to go. I have a great social life here. Obviously we can’t go home for Christmas, but there are still a few Irish people here I can get together with, so at least we will have a bit of an Irish Christmas, which will be great.”