Sara Perez-Ekanger's road to "flower lady" status may have begun with a Springfield, Missouri big-box-store peace lily named Alejandro that she bought for her college dorm room.
Or it could have been the exotic flora she encountered in El Salvador (the country of her parents’ birth), Nicaragua, Guatemala or the other Central American locales to which her work as a translator for missionary groups brought her. Or it could have been the plants that her mom cultivated in their home — no matter how large or small the home — and transported with them any time the family moved.
“Those plants represented home for me,” Perez-Ekanger says.
Or it could be simple coincidence. Perez-Ekanger grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and after a brief stint in junior college and two semesters spent abroad working as a translator for Christian missionary groups, a family friend encouraged her to apply for a basketball scholarship to attend Evangel University in Missouri. There, she met her husband, Trevor. Shortly after they graduated, they married. A few months later, they moved to New Orleans.
Perez-Ekanger’s “career” was an elusive concept when she first arrived here. Her husband worked as a photographer; she worked as a server in a few restaurants and also had a gig at a Starbucks coffee shop for a bit, but the real architects of her future were around the corner from the apartment they rented: Carrollton Flower Market and then-proprietor Lisa Rogers. Perez-Ekanger (jokingly at first) mentioned to her husband how much fun it would be to work in a flower shop.
“He literally pushed me through the doors,” she says. She was hired, and “the owner, Lisa, took me under her wing, teaching me a lot of things about aesthetics.”
As Perez-Ekanger’s skills evolved, Rogers encouraged her to “keep practicing and owning it,” and Perez-Ekanger began freelancing as a floral designer for venues around the city, including Stella Plantation. After three years of working for other businesses, the plan to open Antigua Floral + Styling took shape. The company turned three in February, quickly surpassing its humble beginnings in the living room of the Ekangers’ one-bedroom apartment. Now, she and her team have a dedicated studio space in Gert Town.
“At one point, I couldn’t take more business because of how small the studio was,” she says. Now, she and her team can travel for special events. They’ve been flown as far as Key West, Florida to design and style a wedding for a client.
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“It was an incredible opportunity,” she says. “It was cool to represent [a class of creatives] from New Orleans.”
Just as her work space evolves, so does her design aesthetic. The most-viewed photos of her work feature exotic tropical flowers, such as proteas and anemones, and vibrant colors, such as coral and fuchsia, but Perez-Ekanger likes to think of those designs as a “branching-off point” (pun intended).
“We can do more,” she says.
Her designs incorporate elements as varied as late-winter peonies, smilax climbing shrubs, burlap, lace, live succulents, miniature disco balls and even out-of-season pampas grass for those ever-so-trendy, Pinterest-inspired spring weddings (she’s got a guy for that). The most important thing for her and the Antigua team is that in the end, the aesthetic embodies the client.
“I want to make sure that people walk in and think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so Elizabeth, this is so them,’ or if we work with a company, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, this so Spotify’ — if we can bring their brand or tell their story through just decor, it’s a reflection of who they are,” she says. “If we do that, we nailed it.”
Perez-Ekanger also is enjoying opportunities to create large-scale installations, such as the ones she designed for retail boutique Saint Claude Social Club and for New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. But surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), she doesn’t intend for floral design to be the end-all, be-all of her working life. One day, she may start a nonprofit, or create a scholarship to help the children of immigrants pay for college, or maybe she’ll open a coffee shop offering cash-and-carry floral arrangements.
“I think (the shop’s success) has given me permission to dream a little bit more of the what-could-be,” she says.
Favorite thing about living in New Orleans? “The food. I used to be so skinny when I first moved here.”
Favorite flower or plant? “Cafe au lait dahlias. I almost called the business Cafe au Lait Florals, but then everyone thought I was going to open a coffee shop.”
Favorite summertime treat? “Blueberry pie ice cream from Creole Creamery — it tastes like Pop Tarts.”
Indie Anna Jones, her golden retriever/cocker spaniel mix — “We got him the day before we moved to New Orleans. … He keeps us grounded.”
Potted plant — “My love language is plants.”
Wedding ring — “My husband Trevor has been my support and encourage[ment] since the beginning.”
Cup of coffee — “About 90 percent of the time, I have a cup of coffee in my hands.”
Crescent moon necklace by Mimosa Handcrafted — “I hold this city close to my heart.”
Floral clippers — “This tool is always in my purse. … I love what I do for a living.”
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