Parties designed by Preston Bailey are fabulously expensive fleeting moments of fantasia involving torrents of blossom, crystals, temporary architecture and an extravagant daring that belies the serene, easy-going man we interviewed. He’s so warm and not at all flamboyant but we did see glimpses of a subversive sense of humor— he has a wicked, even dirty, laugh. He grew up poor in Panama, came to New York as a young man, struggled, failed, struggled a bit more and then really, really made it, designing parties for ultra A-listers all over the world. His latest book, Preston Bailey: Celebrations (Rizzoli September 2009) showcases some of his extraordinary work but his own advice for throwing a party at home: “You really have to let go of it – and let them help cleaning up.”
You have often credited your friend, designer Vincent Wolf, with starting you off in this world by helping you find work as a florist for his clients after your clothing store went out of business … but boy did you run with it once he gave you that chance!
I had no choice! I had nothing else to do!
How did you even know from the beginning how to work with flowers?
I did not. I did not know whatsoever. Luckily, in the early 80s, if you remember, there was that minimalistic style … and there were a lot of tropical flowers and Panama sort of hooked into that … but you know for ten years, it was really a struggle. I was sort of making it up [I had to do] a lot of homework, a lot of trial and error and mistakes.
But then you got your break with Melissa Rivers’ wedding. [An incredible Russian winter-scape of birch trees and white blossoms representing snow that was held at the Waldorf]
That was in the 90s though.
Having to struggle, the way you did, even though you are obviously enormously successful at this point, do you still find yourself uncomfortable about splurging with money, are you wary, particularly in this economy?
Um … it’s interesting. I don’t own a house … as long as I travel well, eat well … to answer your question, I’m in a position, after working for 30 years, where that’s not a concern. Over the years, I’ve put away enough money and I have enough money for the rest of my life if I’m modest. But up to eight years ago, my business almost crashed and one of the problems that I had was that I didn’t know how to manage the money portion of it … but I learned and I hired the right people. I hired an amazing comptroller lady who takes care of the money.
We’re dazzled by what you do. But what do you do to avoid it becoming kitsch? It could all quickly tip over into something too Disney.
Well, each project is different, different people, different clients. So for me, it’s like everything is for the first time. It’s a blank canvas and for me it’s really important to tune into the client and find out what they want.
How articulate are they?
A lot of them are. Remember that most of the clients we have are very high-end—they have seen it all and they know what they want. It’s a very savvy clientele. Usually what I do is for these very high-end events or productions is to design three different concepts, even though it’s a little bit more work, and I always thought that it’s a very good sales tool that you give them the opportunity to choose.
That’s smart – then they own the decision and they’re on your side.
Correct. A lot of it is designing sets.
It’s theater. And all you have left is the memory.
Correct. It’s the one-day theater event of your life. You want to transport this group of people into this experience that gives them surprises and visuals.
Have you started to think about ideas for your upcoming wedding, or are you going to put it off to the last minute?
I think the entire gay marriage thing is so new and different that I really want to make up the rules and I’m going to make it up as I go along.
How long have you been together?
About three years.
Oh, not that long then.
That’s not long? In gay years that’s like fifteen … [laughs his wicked laugh]
You do a great deal of work in the Middle and Far East – we were wondering what it’s like doing parties where the sexes are separated. There’s one in your book that looks to be big enough to accommodate thousands.
It was a wedding for five thousand people – all women. The men have their own separate party. For me it’s really fascinating working in all these different countries because they all have their own rules and regulations and you sort of have to get in there and try to understand and identify. In the Arab countries, you have to understand that these women don’t have nightclubs and don’t go out, so the wedding is the event for which they shop for their clothing. They are allowed to take off their burqas – it’s like a coat check at the door. Sometimes I’m allowed to stay there because I’m like ‘the help’, so to speak. And usually they start like at ten at night and they party until eight in the morning. Dancing up and down, they really have a good time and they have celebrity singers, male or female.
You seem such a laidback, serene type of person – are you calm all the time?
I am. You don’t want to see me when I’m pissed off.
Are you quietly pissed off or noisily pissed off?
Noisy. Maybe once or twice a year. I’m from Panama for God sakes! A culture of screaming and yelling when they meet you.
A look at Preston’s extraordinary new book, Preston Bailey: Celebrations …
Let’s talk about Panama a little bit. We’re curious how you grew up.
Countryside. Poor. Youngest of five. Panama is beautiful. The people are delicious. Incredibly warm and very giving and big mixture.
All the Island people I know are strict, or seem to have been brought up by very strict parents, no one puts a foot out of line. Were you brought up like that?
Yeah, of course. You get smacked around … but it worked! You know, I think they were incredibly strict but once they got to me they had run out of steam! I got away with murder!
Did you like school?
No, not at all. I never graduated from high school … I was the worst in school. I liked English, I liked reading, which I still do.
What do you like to read?
Everything. I like to read fiction. I’m not into biographies for some reason – people are making it up anyway! Right now I’m reading Pat Conroy. I’ve been reading it all weekend. I’ve been traveling and it was so great to be in town and doing nothing with my partner. Aside from that, not that I know how to write, but I’m fascinated with writing and there are a couple of books that I’m reading about how to write. I also like self-help books.
Which ones have helped you?
Eckhart (Tolle), The Power of Now – [it’s about] being here with you and the importance of being in that moment and not constantly ahead or behind. It’s a very difficult practice.