From Model to Artist: Lily Kwong Tells Us What It Takes to Be Successful
You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series called Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
Despite Lily Kwong's status as a stylish, sought-after influencer and model, she's incredibly down to earth—and we mean that in more ways than one. Quite literally, her current career path has her playing in the dirt with flowers and plants when she's not hosting events and creating botanical installations for fashion brands like Maiyet or working as the project director for the LVMH Miami Design District. As the founder of Lily Kwong Studio—a design firm that creates landscape designs and art installations that bring the beauty of our natural environment into urban spaces—she's established herself a leader in the movement for sustainability in the fashion industry.
Thanks to her eclectic background in both horticulture and fashion, she's full of inspiring career wisdom—and it's advice that only she could give. Kwong's ability to fuse her seemingly unrelated professional fields so organically just goes to show that creativity and passion can make any career trajectory possible. In fact, she's proof that cultivating a wide range of interests and skills can only help further your career and set yourself apart from the pack. You'll want to take notes as you read about how Kwong paved her own unconventional path that led to the creation of her own company. Plus, get a glimpse of a few of her latest meaningful projects from the gorgeous events she's host with St-Germain.
MYDOMAINE: First off, can you tell us a little about your first career path as well as what you're doing now?
LILY KWONG: I graduated with a degree in urban studies from Columbia University, and my first job out of school in 2012 was working as a project director for an urban design firm based in Miami. I was supposed to be writing research documents, overseeing operations, and managing clients. But instead, I kept gravitating toward the horticulturalists and botanists the firm collaborated with, and I was constantly sneaking out of the office to visit nurseries and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. As soon as I reconnected with plants, I reconnected with myself. Being outside, getting in the dirt, and designing in harmony with nature completely unleashed my creativity. I knew that I had found my path.
There's so much cross-pollination between industries today, and I love that my nontraditional background gives me a unique approach to landscape work.
MD: It sounds like a pretty seamless transition. Did it feel fluid or more abrupt?
LK: I use landscape and plant life as a vehicle to connect with other art forms, and I often draw on my background in fashion for my installations. In this case, I saw an opportunity to layer the Maison St-Germain scene—both in New York on the High Line and in L.A. at the Houdini Estate—with dance and performance. There's so much cross-pollination between industries today, and I love that my nontraditional background gives me a unique approach to landscape work.
Fill Your Home With Blooms:
MD: Aside from your experience at school and then in the field, did your upbringing or family background shape your career trajectory?
LK: My great-grandfather was a renowned herbalist, and when my grandfather first arrived in San Francisco from China, he worked on farms before becoming a banker. I've always had an intuitive connection with nature, which was only deepened by growing up in the Redwood groves of Marin County. I was raised to care about healthy, sustainable ecosystems and have always had a deep appreciation for the natural world—today it's my mission as a landscape designer to inspire that connection in others.
Working with plant life has taught me patience, compassion, mindfulness—all those juicy life lessons.
MD: And do you think that your personality has made your career with both design and nature easier? It seems like your personality and demeanor—not just your values—are very compatible with both.
LK: Reconnecting with plants and nature has cracked open my life. Getting my hands in the dirt, exploring organic beauty, and designing in harmony with nature has reconnected me with my creativity and my community. Working with plant life has taught me patience, compassion, mindfulness—all those juicy life lessons.
LK: It satisfies all the dimensions of my personality: I get to do research, draw, travel, get cerebral, get physical, be outside, be chained to a computer, work with big teams, collaborate with other artists… At the end of the day, what I enjoy most about this field is I know I'm working toward a greater mission of creating a more beautiful, sustainable future.
MD: Tell us a little bit about what projects you're most excited about working on right now.
LK: By the time you get to the first day of installation, you've usually spent months in front of the computer researching and rendering, days in front of the drafting table drawing, and countless hours in meetings with contractors or producers. When I arrived at the Houdini Estate in the middle of the night before the St-Germain event, the excitement was unparalleled—when the plants get dropped on-site, to me it really feels like Christmas morning. I love collaborating with other talented creatives and craftspeople, and most of all, I really, really like being connected with the earth.
Get More Creative Career Insight:
MD: We'd love to hear what makes a brand partnership fulfilling. Can you tell us more about why the St. Germain collaboration feels like a good fit for you?
LK: St-Germain approached me to come on board to the project as a creative director. The company knew it was doing an event on the High Line on the summer solstice, and it was looking for a creative to bring its brand story to life.
I am lucky to collaborate with brands that are sincerely dedicated to creativity and/or sustainability.
LK: Each bottle of the French liqueur is composed of 1000 handpicked elderflowers that are all harvested by hand in a short two-week window. My work as a landscape designer has a real human touch and is all about harmony with nature, and I felt very aligned with St-Germain's method.
I also was drawn to collaborating with a brand that was truly supportive of artists—for both projects, I was empowered to pull in creatives like artistic director Mafalda Millies; Solange Knowles's favorite contemporary dance group, No)one Art House; botanical artists like Jeff Leatham and Lani Trock; choreographer Nathan Mitchell; visual artist Moral Turgeman… The list goes on and on.
LK: It is so refreshing to work with a brand that truly supports creatives. Chloe Lloyd-Jones, St-Germain's global VP, trusted me to completely drive the design vision, layer the landscape with performance artists, and donate the florals to a humanitarian nonprofit after the opening. Rather than holding me to stringent brand guidelines, as collaborators, the brand lived up to its brand ethos, which is all about being daring and supporting creative expression.
I had the same experience working with Maiyet's design team on our botanical-inspired capsule collection. They incorporated my sketches into custom block prints, let me design and install a green wall in their SoHo store, and had me art-direct a campaign. I am lucky to collaborate with brands that are sincerely dedicated to creativity and/or sustainability.
My work as a landscape designer has a real human touch and is all about harmony with nature, and I felt very aligned with St-Germain's method.
MD: That's amazing! So where do you find creative inspiration? Do you have any mentors or icons?
LK: Land art truly connects with me. I've done some long stretches on the road in the past year to see specific works: Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels," the James Turrell Skyspace's "Twilight Epiphany" and "The Color Inside" in Texas, and a stretch in Marfa to see Donald Judd's work, among others. The palo verde trees in the courtyard of Robert Irwin's new permanent work at Chinati in Marfa still haunt me. These site-specific pieces have deeply informed my work over the past year. Walter de Maria's "Lightning Fields" and Michael Heizer's "Double Negative" are still high on the bucket list.
Put Your Flowers in a Frame:
MD: Okay, and switching gears now—how do you maintain a healthy lifestyle while balancing a busy work schedule? Has your relationship to health and wellness changed since you've gotten more immersed in nature?
LK: For my recent birthday, my best childhood girlfriends created a mandala for me out of wildflowers after a hike to the beach. A mandala is an abstract design, usually circular in form. It's symbolically powerful—in Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an offering of the entire universe! You can use your intuition to arrange flowers into a geometric shape, playing with textures and colors. It's a moving exercise with a beautiful result and could be a great centerpiece for a garden gathering. I believe in the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests humans possess an innate desire to connect with nature. Why do people love flowers? Because it's in our DNA.
If you were to change careers, how would you reconcile your background with something seemingly unrelated? Start brainstorming in the comments below.