After installing her latest flower flash at a maypole near Hudson Yards before dawn, Spence’s own “Banksy of Floral Design,” Irini Arakas ’93, stopped by Middle School Assembly to speak with students about her career path, which has always had creative expression at its heart.
Arakas currently works with famed floral designer Lewis Miller on conceptualizing and creating floral street art throughout New York City, but she explored several different career directions along the way. “If you are a creative person and you want to have a creative career, it doesn’t have to be a linear thing,” Arakas told students. “You can take chances. You don’t have to fall into a comfort zone.”
When Arakas launched her career writing for Vogue, she “was scared out of [her] mind.”
“I sat next to an editor who always encouraged me to be myself,” Arakas remarked. “He used to say to me, ‘when the world tells you to shrink, expand, darling,’ and I loved that. I always remembered that. I embraced my other-ness and personal style, and came to terms with the fact that a good portion of my insecurities were in my head.”
“I got to meet and interview and write about the most amazing upcoming talent, and I had a front row seat to some of the incredible fashion shoots the magazine has ever produced,” Arakas shared about her time working as a fashion writer. However, being surrounded by creativity, Arakas herself “had the real strong urge to also create,” which led her to begin making her own jewelry.
“I would come home from work and make my necklaces on my coffee table,” Arakas told students. Before long, Barneys New York purchased her first collection of necklaces, and soon after, Arakas decided to leave the magazine and “focus all my energy on designing and building my business.”
“It was a very difficult decision, and scary, but … I knew I wanted to take a chance and try my hand at design.… My label was called Prova, which is a Greek word for ‘to try,’ so I tried.”
During her 10 years running her label, Arakas designed thousands of necklaces, scarves and other accessories. Her collections appeared on the runway during major fashion shows, in department store windows three times and in an advertisement for a national makeup brand. “I had a very unexpected and rapid success to my business,” Arakas explained, despite having had no formal design training and marketing her very first collection mid-season, a historically difficult time to attract buyers’ attention.
“Don’t be bogged down by whatever rules the industry is setting for you,” Arakas told students, noting that if they create something “beautiful and someone loves it, there will be someone to buy it, especially now in the age of Instagram and Etsy, where people are making a direct link to their consumers.”
Arakas’ career took another unexpected turn when she began working with Miller to come up with the initial idea for flower flashes. Over the past two years, she, Miller and the rest of their team, including a driver with a getaway van, have created and executed over 50 flower flashes throughout New York City. The pop-up flower arrangements are meant to be “disruptive,” but also to make “people feel like they’re connected in some small way,” Arakas told students.
During the question-and-answer portion of the assembly, students’ hands shot up in the air to ask Arakas a variety of questions about her work—from her favorite flower flash to where her team gets their flowers. Arakas shared that her favorite flower flash was one in which they adorned the iconic Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park with a garland of multi-colored roses. “I got to go back later in the day, and there were all these children enjoying it and playing on it … it was in that moment that I realized that we were contributing something really special to the city.”
Arakas explained that her team recycles their flowers from events when their schedule allows it. They also use so-called “trash flowers,” or flowers that florists cannot sell because of minor imperfections. “Hundreds of New Yorkers can take in [the floral installations] with their eyes, but they can also take home the flowers to their loved ones, so these flowers have a first, a second and a third life, which is wonderful and romantic,” Arakas added.
“Living in such an urban environment, we’re so removed from nature that it’s a real luxury to be able to experience this in all its glory,” Arakas emphasized. The event ended with carnations being given to every Middle School student in attendance, allowing each of them to take home their own little piece of nature.