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French floral artist blossoms in city
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Twenty-five years ago, a "psychic" told French flower-lover Sebastien Lathuile he would live in China. He dismissed the prophesy but today his career has blossomed in Shanghai.

English country gardens, fresh flowers and rich foliage are not normally associated with the Shanghai concrete jungle. But for one green-thumbed expat it's where he has found his oasis.

After spending years supplying fancy flowers in the UK for clients including Elton John, Pierce Brosnan and even the Queen, floral artist Sebastien Lathuile moved to Shanghai four years ago. He has not looked back.

"I arrived on September 1, 2004, and five small boxes followed. I started a new life and got rid of nearly all my old possessions," says the 33-year-old Frenchman.

A few weeks after he arrived he met Bernadette Chirac, the visiting wife of former French president Jacques Chirac, and arranged flowers for her. He later created a floral art exhibition during French Week which lead to appearances on local television and in magazines.

Now his company Sebastien supplies floral art to hotels, parties and events, including the 2008 Pirelli calendar launch party.

"What appeals to me about this work is that it's made by hand and not machine,'' he says. "It is all about beauty and I am only here to enhance it." Lathuile was born in Albertville and used to spend summers at his grandparents' chalet with Mont Blanc hovering in the background. "They would cut hay and I would pick mountain flowers to make bouquets for my grandmother," he says.

He was six at the time. His childhood pastime became a Saturday job in a florists' shop which in turn lead to a year at a French floral art school.

At 18 he decided to go abroad but as a child he had been fascinated by the lives of his ancestors. His family tree includes priests and missionaries who ventured to exotic lands during their lifetimes.

"When I was 18 I was told by a 'psychic' I would be living in China," he revealed, "although I didn't think much of it at the time."

He moved to London in 1998, working as a freelance florist for big floral companies on big events. They included what was then the most expensive wedding in the world (US$78 million) in 2004, for Vanisha Mittal, daughter of Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal.

He also worked on arrangements for parties for Elton John and the British royal family and actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. Based in London, he flew to Spain, Ireland, Greece, Scotland and Cyprus to arrange party flowers. "One hundred pounds of flowers for a big wedding was not uncommon."

Despite his European success, he decided to make the move to China, just as the "psychic" had foretold. "A Vietnamese friend kept telling me I was wasting my time and energy in London trying to start my own business and that I should discover Asia."

Three months later, he visited Shanghai for 10 days.

"Within the first two days, my future was decided. I flew back into Heathrow at 8am, at 2pm I called my estate agent, the following day my flat was sold.

"There was no business plan, no extra research. I knew my future would be in China. During my first year, I met my boyfriend and future business partner."

Lathuile has quickly made a name for himself using Chinese elements like bamboo and orchids. He never gets involved in marketing himself. People find him through word of mouth or media.

Working in China can be tough, but he says he has "never come across so much loyalty and depth in relationship between me and my staff."

(Shanghai Daily January 29, 2008)

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