California Sister celebrates five years of fabulous flowers and stunning floral photography
By Laura Hagar Rush, Townsy Media, May 17, 2021
This week on May 21, California Sister will celebrate five years of being in business in the Barlow. And it all started thanks to a not-quite-midlife re-assessment on the part of one of the business’s co-owners.
Self-taught florist Nichole Skalski started California Sister on her own in 2013. The company is named after the California Sister butterfly.
“I have always been a gardener, and I’ve always loved flowers,” Skalski said. “When I hit a certain age, I realized I was not using my creativity very well, or at least not to make a living, and I decided I needed to change. So I just sort of went for it solo.”
She began doing flowers for weddings and other events. She also did a few pop-ups at the Barlow, and the Barlow management encouraged her to open a florist shop there. But Skalski, who had limited business experience, worried about the commitment and the expense.
Then in 2015, she met Kathrin Green, who had more than 20 years of retail management experience, and they decided to give it a go.
“We’re a really great team,” Skalski said, noting that Kathrin handles the front-of-house business, while Skalski handles the back-of-house work as creative director. “We complement each other really well.”
To keep up with their growing business, they’ve also had to grow their team.
“For years it was just myself and my right hand Ashley, and recently my adult daughter joined the team so there’s a team of three designers now, including myself.”
Unlike a lot of florists, where you choose from a pre-defined list of bouquets and you get exactly that, Skalski said she encourages clients to trust the artistic sensibilities of her staff to come up with something unique and beautiful.
“We never know how many orders we’re going to get in a day; we don’t know what kind of flowers will actually end up in the studio. There’s a lot of moving pieces,” she said. “So what I’ve tried to do is encourage customers to just trust our artistic ability, rather than offer a specific thing. A lot of florists have a photo of something”— a style of bouquet—“and then they just carbon copy that thing. It ends up creating a lot of waste.”
Skalski said California Sister tries to be as ecologically sustainable as possible.
“We don’t use any floral foam, which is hugely toxic to the environment, and we don’t use any plastic in our designs,” she said. “We support all of our local flower farms as much as possible so the majority of our product is locally grown right here in Sonoma County or in California.”
“I try to use as much locally grown product as possible, and because of that, I just never really know what’s going to show up so I try to give myself and my team really broad strokes to just be able to say, you know, ‘Just trust us, we’re gonna pick what’s the best this week and make something really beautiful for you,’” she said.
There are bouquets on the company’s website that people can choose from, but Skalski says they’re more suggestions of color and mood, rather than an exact design to be copied.
“Because I ask people to take that leap of faith and trust that we’re going to do something really pretty sight unseen, I like to send them a photo,” she said. “So I send a photo of each and every bouquet to the person who purchased it so the sender gets to see what their gift looks like.”
And what photos!
Skalski takes spectacular photos of her team’s work, the best of which have a haunting resemblance to 17th century Dutch still lifes. Her floral design owes a lot to this school of painting as well.
“I’ve always really loved the way that light plays on flowers and plants. I often found myself in my garden trying to capture when the sunlight is coming through a leaf or onto a flower, and I’m super-inspired obviously by the old Dutch masters,” Skalski said.
A California Sister bouquet from 2020. (Photo by Nichole Skalski)
“I joke that I wanted to be a painter, but I’m too impatient to wait for the oil paint to dry,” she said, noting that she actually tried painting for a while, but found it frustrating. “There’s so much technique involved.”
Instead she switched to photography.
“Katherin’s husband is a photographer, and he taught me a few basics, including how to get the light just the way that I want. So I sort of took that and ran with it,” Skalski said.
She always shoots their arrangements against a dark or black background.
“I love the way that black really sets off and makes colors pop,” she said.
A California Sister bouquet from 2021. (Photo by Nichole Skalski)
Celebrating in absentia
When asked what they were doing the celebrate California Sister’s fifth anniversary, Skalski said that both she and Green decided to go on vacations. Skalski went to Hawaii and when she returns she plans to post some photo flashbacks of the last five years.
The best way to keep track of what’s happening with California Sister is to follow them on Instagram at @californiasister. You can also visit them in the Barlow at 6790 McKinley St. in Sebastopol or visit their website at https://www.californiasister.com/.
A California Sister bouquet. (Photo by Nichole Skalski)