Natural Selection

A Brazilian-born florist creates a magical kingdom—populated by New Zealand peonies, porcelain plums, and swan-shaped garden seats—in the middle of Manhattan.

New York’s Sutton Place might be the exclusive stomping ground of power brokers and Ladies Who Walk Small Dogs, but even this tony Manhattan enclave suffers from the occasional intrusion of urban blight. A stone’s throw from the chic maisonettes and their East River views, this stretch of First Avenue is anchored by a Domino’s Pizza and a Duane Reade drugstore. Its saving grace: Zezé Flowers, a florist shop–cum– cabinet de curiosités stocked with endlessly amusing, provocative wares that marry the natural world with the decorative arts.

Curated by Brazilian-born proprietor Zezé and his wife, Peggy O’Dea, the 30-year-old store’s fanciful flora and fauna—in mediums such as ceramic, wood, and metal—are sometimes so realistically depicted that they make browsers wonder if the hundreds of roses, orchids, and other blooms here might possibly be fake. (They’re most decidedly not.) "I love nature and gardens," says Zezé, whose distinctive handlebar moustache lies somewhere on the facial-hair continuum between Captain Kangaroo’s and Geraldo Rivera’s. "Growing up I was always looking at butterflies, birds, and orchids. It’s hard not to in Brazil where nature takes over everything."

Nature exerts the same magical power in his store. Mingling with Zezé’s trademark myrtle topiaries and potted cyclamen are framed Malaysian dragonflies ($550), exquisitely detailed whippets from Belgium ($1,700 each), and whimsical ceramic garden seats in the form of snails, swans, and tortoises ($5,000 a pair). In addition there are loads of garden ornaments collected on the couple’s trips to Europe and weekend shopping excursions in upstate New York. "I find lots of garden pieces in Holland," Zezé says. "And England has beautiful things. I also shop in Italy. I go to Paris and Argentina. But it’s so competitive now. You look, look, look."

If the gargantuan cobweb window ($30,000), salvaged from a historic barn in Maine, is any indication, he needn’t worry about losing his edge. Zezé also offers plenty of small-scale alternatives, from Viennese glass tumblers delicately hand-painted with Chinese, Persian, and Indian motifs ($200 each) to cement stepping-stones in the shape of button-tufted velvet cushions ($300).

"Zezé stays true to his aesthetic, which is eccentric and touched with wonderment," says fashion designer Ralph Rucci, a longtime client and friend who is particularly fond of the shop’s English ceramic horse chestnuts ($1,600–$1,900). Decorator Charlotte Moss, who owns her own Manhattan boutique, praises Zezé’s selection of cachepots, jardinières, and vases.

Zezé’s clients agree that his staying power is the result of service as much as style. "The quality of things is terribly important, but so are the people you deal with," says Deeda Blair, the Washington, D.C., society doyenne who recently relocated to New York. "I remember having to do a luncheon at the world’s most awful restaurant—I won’t say which one—and I said, ’Let’s do myrtle topiaries with moss.’ Zezé and Peggy went out and found the best."

Though utterly devoted to his clientele, Zezé remains characteristically unfazed by their accolades, as unchanged and innocent now as he was in the seventies when he and his wife first met, dancing the nights away at clubs such as Paradise Garage and 12 West. "Life is beautiful," he says. "And instead of letting it pass by, why not celebrate it? When customers buy something, it’s not the sale that makes me happy. It’s more like, Wow, now it is in the hands of someone who really appreciates it!"

938 First Ave. at 52nd St.; 212-753-7767; zezeflowers.com.