Old adages aside, if there’s any truth to the notion that every woman loves flowers, then the proof is on full display at the Los Angeles studio where Hollywood’s most in-demand florist, Eric Buterbaugh, has corralled three longtime friends and clients—Gwyneth Paltrow, Demi Moore, and Nicole Richie—for a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. Quite the glamorous foursome, there they are poking fun at one another’s camera faces and joking about who has prime positioning (“Why am I always in the back?” Richie teases) as they arrange themselves around Buterbaugh in front of the bright, blooming arch he has created for the occasion. It’s composed of magnolia branches, nearly 2,500 Geraldine roses, and more than 30,000 carnations. “I’ve worked hard to be the best, and I have the calluses to prove it, sweetie,” says Buterbaugh, cheery, warm, and bespectacled as he buzzes around in a gray Lanvin suit, his one indulgence to ostentation a pair of Cuban-heeled Christian Louboutin boots.
Despite appearances, Buterbaugh isn’t used to being the center of attention. His handiwork, though, frequently is. Operating for the past 16 years out of a suite in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, he’s become the go-to floral designer in L.A. and for some of the most discerning heavyweights in entertainment and fashion. When Tory Burch and Michael Kors came to town to open West Coast outposts, Buterbaugh was enlisted to help set the mood. The white calla lilies at Madonna and Guy Oseary’s Oscars after-party last year? Buterbaugh’s doing too. His client list also includes virtually every major luxury brand, from Dior and Valentino to Ferragamo and Cartier, and he’s done parties for the British royal family (including one at Windsor Castle). The king of Thailand even recruited Buterbaugh to create portraits of his country’s native flowers, but in a more modern style, a project done to commemorate both the king’s birthday and the anniversary of his ascension to the throne. One of Buterbaugh’s most memorable gigs was Salma Hayek’s 2009 wedding to Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault at the Venice opera house, for which Buterbaugh commissioned a series of tall, cylindrical vases that surrounded the couple on the altar. “It was a three-day affair with the most amazing group of people—Bono even sang,” Buterbaugh remembers. “The vases were so delicate that they had to be brought to the opera house along with the flowers on these tiny little motorboats that could navigate the canals without the glass breaking.” Awards season remains his busiest period. “Besides the parties, it’s all the flowers you have to send people, send to the stars, the thank-you for wearing the dress, the thank-you to the stylist for getting the person to wear the dress,” he says. “Oscars week, there’s blood on the shop floor.”
Now Buterbaugh is venturing into fragrances with a collection of scents inspired by—what else?—flowers. A year and a half ago, he met Fabrice Croisé, a former Lancôme executive who wanted to develop a new range of perfumes, and the two hit it off immediately. “I was looking for a story,” says Croisé, “and Eric is a living story.” They quickly agreed to work together and began to sketch out a business plan. Buterbaugh says the mission was clear: to make the most beautiful floral fragrances that have ever existed. “I’ve always wanted everything to smell good,” he explains. “I’ve always had Rigaud candles burning in my room. I hated showers from the beginning, so I took baths filled with gorgeous-smelling bubbles. And I’ve always been obsessed with personal fragrance. I had my moments with CK One and Issey Miyake, and I really loved the French fragrances like Chanel No. 5, Yves Saint Laurent Jazz, and Dior Eau Sauvage. I didn’t care if they were for men or women—if they smelled good, they smelled good.”
Buterbaugh’s line, called Eric Buterbaugh Florals, will launch online this month with seven scents, each based on a different flower, which he and Croisé hope will appeal to women who are both deliberate and particular when it comes to their fragrances. “Scent is a very personal thing,” says Buterbaugh, who yearns for the kind of care and attention that went into making perfume during the heady days of the pre-Victorian era, when scents were painstakingly crafted in small batches for members of the noble classes and bottles were handmade and decorated with etchings. “Different scents smell completely different on different people, and also you so often relate a scent to something from your past, so this is a range of scents the wearer can explore to find the right notes for their unique chemistry, preference, and mood,” he adds. “There’s this ridiculous notion that one scent is all a person needs. Would you want to wear the same outfit every day? Men and women truly see scents as part of their identity, an essential part of how they express themselves.”
The line, Buterbaugh says, will aim to return some of the romance to perfume. “These fragrances are sort of like going back to something more old-school and special, like opulent, luxurious flowers, which I do now in a modern way,” he says. “I’ve been working creatively with flowers for a decade and a half, and this is a new mode of floral expression for me that is exciting and feels very natural. I’ve always been fascinated by how flowers blend the visual and the olfactory. Unfortunately, very few flowers have real scent anymore because of the way they’re grown in hothouses, so creating a line of fragrances based on florals is a way for me to preserve that and share it with others.”
The secret of Buterbaugh’s success—and, it seems, his friendships—is his attention to detail. He’s been known to unfold the petals of a rose individually to reveal new spectrums of color. Vases may be lined with leaves or wrapped in silk or leather—nothing is simply plopped in and sent off.
Paltrow remembers her first Buterbaugh experience, when she was sent one of his bouquets by a friend. “It was white roses, but roses on roses on roses—basically a plate of roses balanced on this tiny vase that defied the laws of balance and physics,” she says. “I just thought: ‘This is so above anything I’ve ever seen. It’s art.’ Eric is very economical in terms of the beauty he creates with his flowers,” she continues. “It can be over-the-top, but just the perfect amount. And he’s like that as a person too.”
Moore met Buterbaugh—which, she’ll correct you, is pronounced “Booter-bah” (“No butts here!” she admonishes)—at a mutual friend’s birthday party in 2002. The pair were introduced and chatted, then bumped into each other again at the valet. “In those days I used to carry around with me a small, hard cooler full of Red Bull and I smoked Marlboro Reds,” she recalls. “So as I was waiting by myself for my car to come, sitting on my little cooler, Eric looked over at me and said, ‘I like you, because you’re just not right.’ ” Moore laughs. “And we’ve been best friends ever since.”
“He has a true appreciation of beauty—and I don’t mean that in a superficial way,” says Richie, who compares Buterbaugh’s company to that of a rose, which has become his signature flower. She explains that, like his extraordinary arrangements, he gives off an energy that makes her feel better when she’s happy but also when she’s not. “Every time he walks into a room with his boots, I know that we are going to have more fun than Nancy Sinatra.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Moore. “We’ve shared a lot, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I haven’t wanted to have Eric with me,” she says. “Whether we’re in palaces in Asia or pajamas in Idaho watching Downton Abbey, he’s the same guy.”
“People who have a great eye for beauty and opulent details have always gravitated toward me!” Buterbaugh jokes. “I feel very lucky to have such amazing friends. My friends are truly my family. They are also very discerning people whose opinions I trust, so we’ve gotten their feedback as the scents were developed. They believe in what I’m doing. I’m very lucky to have such a chic test audience.”
Before flowers, Buterbaugh worked in fashion, first in retail and later on the corporate side. By the early ’90s—at the height of Versace mania—he was running the U.K. side of the company’s business for Gianni Versace. “Now, that was fun,” he says. “I’d wake up at the Ritz in Paris after a show, and Christy [Turlington] would be asleep on one side and Naomi [Campbell] on the other. And we’d look down and there’s Donatella at the foot of the bed.”
Buterbaugh, though, eventually decided to leave the industry in 1998 (“It was a little bitchy,” he says with a laugh) and to settle in L.A., where he’d lived briefly before moving to England. “I never wanted to work in flowers,” he says. “I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” He didn’t have a game plan yet, but when one of his London friends called to say she was throwing a dinner party in Beverly Hills, he volunteered to do the arrangements. “They were red roses and purple Dutch hydrangea. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Buterbaugh says. “I wrapped all of the vases in three colors of taffeta that were tied around each one so they looked like gorgeously cut Dior couture gowns.” Still, a career in the floral arts was the farthest thing from his mind. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ I did a few arrangements. That was that,” he says, clapping his hands. “But the women at that party said they had never seen anything like it and asked for the number of the florist. My friend, with that English sense of humor, actually gave them my number even though I told her not to. I’d tell the women, ‘I’m not a florist,’ and they would say, ‘Great, can you not be a florist for this luncheon I’m doing next month?’ ”
Nevertheless, the idea of working for himself appealed to Buterbaugh, so he succumbed to more trips to the flower markets. Word spread and soon his movie-star, musician, and industry friends were all booking him. “I called Herb Ritts and said, ‘We need to do a photo shoot,’ which I mailed to everyone in town,” says Buterbaugh. “And, boom, I was the new cool flower guy.” Six months after he officially went into business, the Four Seasons invited him to take up residence in its Beverly Hills hotel, and his studio has remained there ever since.
Buterbaugh grew up near Oklahoma City in a railroad town called Purcell (“the Quarter Horse Capital of the World,” he notes) and spent his childhood living vicari ously through fashion and lifestyle magazines. “I didn’t give a fuck about Hot Wheels,” he says. “But I loved scented candles. And I was captivated by people with glamorous lives in big cities like London and New York.”
His nascent design sense displayed itself early: As a kid, Buterbaugh liked to pick out his mother’s clothes, and by the age of 14 he’d redecorated the family home, where flowers were also a presence. “My dad was an amazing flower gardener,” he says. “He had a tulip garden, and people would crawl over the fence to have a look. So flowers have always been a part of my world.”
Dallas was the closest big city, so after two years at the University of Oklahoma, he headed there and got a job at the Versace boutique. He eventually moved to the shop in Beverly Hills, where he helped Gianni and Donatella dress celebrities, and ultimately to London, where he worked his way up to heading the company’s U.K. operations. “I adored living in London,” Buterbaugh says. “I love how they dress, how they make conversation, how they entertain. They make an effort, and flowers are important to English people.” (Paltrow admits that she often quizzes him on the Brits: “He knows a lot about the royal family, so I’m always grilling him.”)
It was while he was in Europe that Buterbaugh began to recognize the power of fragrances and how they could be synonymous with a certain lifestyle—a thought he returned to in developing Eric Buterbaugh Florals. In addition to the line, he is opening a shop in West Hollywood later this year, which will include a small perfumery and an adjoining gallery and garden space for entertaining. “It will be a little oasis for the fragrances,” he says. “I’d treat it like the Chateau [Marmont]—I would be very selective of who’s in. Also, in the gallery we’ll do shows. Naughty flower photography if they want it. The hook is the flowers—everything will be inspired by flowers. I wonder if I can find someone who does erotic floral photography?”
However, Buterbaugh’s clients need not fret: His new enterprise won’t distract him from his day job. “When I started [doing flowers], no one had seen what I was doing,” he says. “My friends will still be able to walk into a party and know that I’ve done it.”
At the end of the Bazaar photo session, Richie was lamenting the way she’d replied to a text Buterbaugh had sent her that morning. “He wrote me to thank me for doing the shoot, and I responded, ‘You can thank me with some peonies for my entryway,’ ” she says. “But then I regretted it because Eric could come up with something so much better than just some peonies.”
To find out more about Eric Buterbaugh Florals, click here.