“Step onto the lustrous black and pearlescent white marble of Mandarin Oriental’s lobby, and instead of a flurry of guests waiting to check-in, a painting will seize your attention. Its hues of fuscia and lapis are set in staccato brushstrokes against a background of obsidian black ash culled from Mount Etna. Peer closely at the paiting and out of the riotous colour emerges a solitary face; Persephone, the mythical goddess of the harvest. Sicilian artist, Fabio Modica, created Persophone Kore, this mixed-media rendering that commands the lobby.”
This is a how I opened my piece in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s Living Intown magazine, about the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Atlanta and the unexpected yet refreshing collection of contemporary art that brings its walls to life. Before I discovered this gem of a property in the city a little over a year ago, and decided to commemorate my thirtieth birthday by hosting a party there, I had other plans for celebrating…
The destination celebration: we all aspire to it. Well, I do at least. All I wanted to do for my 30th birthday was wake up in Saint Lucia in hotel room missing a fourth wall and directly overlooking the islands famed pitons. I wanted to climb a volcano, go sailing and then party with a close coterie of friends on the beach sands. Many were invited, few accepted. I was facing the reality of celebrating almost solo on the gorgeous Caribbean island. “Perhaps I’ll have a party in Atlanta instead”, I thought. Then, a little over a month before my birthday, I got that dreadful call. You know, that call telling me not to come into work the next day. That call where I was informed that my contract had been summarily terminated. The coup de grace had been dealt: not only would there be no bonfire in Saint Lucia, there would be no birthday celebration at all, I concluded.
Yet, as I frequently visited Mandarin Oriental to write about the contemporary art of Modica and Flavio Galvan and Atlanta’s own late Elain DeLoach that lined the walls of the Greco-Roman space, I thought often of how art(s) had shaped those soon-to-be thirty years of my life, and carried me through the tunnels of those years. Here I was in such a tunnel, and it felt sacrilegious to not honour the spirit of living and the friends who have made this thing of existence a bit bearable. A party, a black-tie party celebrating art and beauty in this space would be phenomenal, I decided. But how would I pull it off? Enter friends stage right! My friend’s banded together, in overly generous gesture, to not only make my dream of a party a reality, but to assure me that celebrating life in the face of adversity was the food the soul needed. Remembering the black tie party my mum threw for her 40th birthday when I was but 4, and awe that overtook me when I saw her friends walk into our garden in their finery, AND given my storied penachant grand production, planning every last detail of a magical night that would bring together many of the lives that have walked through mine in Atlanta became my dream from in areality.
=Atlanta as seen from the balcony of a Mandarin Oriental suite
Mandarin Oriental is a hotel group I fell in love with when I first sipped tea in their Author’s tea room in the Bangkok incarnation in 2012. The group epitomizes brand-wide elegance with inventive touches of individuality in each destination. The Buckhead, Atlanta iteration was itself a muse in establishing the details of not just what this party should look like–on a rigid budget– but what it should feel like. I wanted us all to allow ourselves one night to be elevated by our surroundings and whisked into another world.
To set the tone, I ensured the invitations designed with custom illustration by Nelly Aba captured that essence. My only directive to her genius hands was that she imbue her drawing with an element of Rene Grau, one of my most beloved fashion illustrators. Behind each Maya-Angelou stamped envelope were handwritten words stolen unabashedly from some television network or the other’s Wimbledon ad spot:
“Your finest clothes, wear them.
Your boldest accessories, put them one.
…Open your invitation, handwritten it reads:
Please join me for a night
Formal wear, forgotten worries and open hearts required”
Ah the dress! What’s a black-tie dinner without a gown? It’s a long story, how this red velvet confection came into being, and I tell that story long-windedly in the video at the end of this post. In an effort to marry austerity with drama, a column gown with a ridiculous back bow that my friend found on Pinterest and which embodied everything I had been sketching became the inspiration for the look. Many trips to the fabric store and a six-am-day-of fitting (accompanied by darling friend Christopher) later, the dress existed.
The evening started out with signature cocktails served in Mandarin’s Taipan Lounge to the twenty-nine guests in attendance. For the cocktail, my right-hand planner and bosom buddy Nnenna and I had settled on the name The Pierian Spring. The connotation of libation made this name of the mythical spring that was said to be the source of wisdom of the muses, the Greek goddesses of artistic inspiration and endowment, an easy choice.
We the sat down to a three-course dinner at a feast table whose topography was borne of the need to be economical and yet unique. “What can I bring to the table, to speak,” I asked myself, “to do this inexpensively?” “Why, I’ll bring myself to the table!” was my response to myself. Taking advantage of the wealth of books that made my apartment in Atlanta home, my friends and I lugged pounds and pounds of books to the hotel to set up a feast table whose focal point was a series of undulating mounds of books and books and books, interspersed with candles and crowned by the simplest floral styling. Fashion books, art books, poetry books, books of quotations, photography books: yes, all the books!
The long dinner table makes for a feeling of unity. Our table was washed with light from the hotel’s lush English garden. Then as sunlight faded, candle light intensified and suddenly our chatter was warmed by the specks of flickering light.
What sets the imprint of an event onto a guest’s memory indelibly, and in so-doing transforms it from event to experience, are the minute touches, I have found. Since the ambiance of the hotel called for no more flourish, I only brought in gigantic peacock of a mirror that Nnenna and I had found at a discount store to add to the decor. In the days leading up to the party, I had scribbled of the names of artists (using the word loosely and for sundry capacities of creatives and thinkers) that meant something to me over the years on the surface of the mirror: from Saint-Laurent to Szymborka to Satre, from Anne-Sophie Pic to Avedon, they were all there. And of course, there was Coco, the madame with whom I share a birth date. In those moments when I wrote those names, the act became one of more than mere decoration; it transformed into a sort of ritualistic practice, thanking these light-bringers for the beauty they brought into the world.
Carrying on the conceit of art as theme, the dinner menus were written in the form of a drama playbill, listing each course as in act, in my tried and true melodramatic fashion, complete with prologue and epilogue and, of course, the quote from the bard about cakes and ale.
“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
-WIlliam Shakespeare, Twelfth Night: Act II, Scene III
Perhaps my favourite touch of them all was turning the place cards on the table into individualized thank you notes.I wanted each guest to know how much their presence meant to me and so in each place card, quill and ink had converged to conveyed a message of gratitude.
How fortunate I am to be surrounded and supported in every era of my life by such angels. My friend’s Maame and Tim both proposed toasts that will not ever escape my being. Words opened the passage of tears which, I must say, go best with champagne. And so they did.
The Song and The Dance
As dinner wound down, jazz gave way to DJ TJ’s turntables and a few more guests arrived for dessert and dancing. A tower of macarons and another of croquembouche delighted guests.
Then came the moment. Tye Tavaras, a friend of mine from my college days, took the mic. As she parted her lips to sing the words of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien” the room grew silent. She touched us all with the power of her sultry voice and the words she belted out rang truer then than ever. Thank you, Tye for that moment of “always within never”. The entire night, for me, was that always within never that Muriel Barbery writes about in the novel The Elegance of The Hedgehog: a thing of abject beauty that, even now, a year later, lives on infinitely.
The Morning After
This is how I woke up. Well, not literally: we obviously littered the bed with my gifts for the photo op. It wasn’t Saint Lucia and there were no pitons to be seen but it could not have been a more perfect benediction to my 20s, the experience than Mandarin Oriental and my dear friends afforded me.
Listen, a party is a frivolous thing. Party’s don’t save lives our put food on the table, per se. But when my friend Ron pulled my aside and told me, “thank you for doing this; for making us dress up. I’ve never done this before and it feels great,” I felt I had done the right thing in manufacturing a moment in which we could all be a little bit more than our daily selves, and fall into the magic of truly living, if even only for an night. Sometimes beauty is the thing that saves your life, that reminds you that breathing is worth it. Or, as Barbery would have it, “A camellia can change fate.”
Today I turn 31. The quest for camellias continues:
What I Wore: Custom made dress, Alexis Bittar earrings, Stuart Weitzman “Nudist sandal”