Fine Living

New party politics

Times have changed; so has the collective party mood, with conspicuous displays of largesse now off limits. But savvy hosts are rediscovering how to fête creatively, says Lucia van der Post.

November 28 2009
Lucia van der Post

“It’s all about being imaginative,” says Sophie Lillingston, planner of parties, weddings and anniversary “dos” to any number of lucky patrons. Whereas once she was used to orchestrating fun and games for phalanxes of friends and family in vast Venetian palazzos, shade-filled Moroccan riads and sumptuous ski chalets, these days she’s busy dreaming up how to add magic to the party without it seeming… er… tasteless and out of the key with the times. Which is to say, without spending sums of money that these days are deemed obscene. Or, perhaps more interestingly, without seeming to spend vast sums of money. For while the hugely rich will be always with us, even in their gilded circles many are going through rough times. Some of their friends will have lost their jobs. Others’ businesses will be suffering and many will have had to lay off valued employees. Though the communal mood is lifting and they still want to party, sensitivity still is all.

So Lillingston is busy tracking down barns where just as much fun can be had for a fraction of the price. She’s tricking them out with bunting and branches of country greenery. She’s dreaming up imaginative themes – recently she bussed people to an austerity-themed party in an old town hall in west London where she handed out ration cards and served cottage pie, and guests were asked to dress in 1940s styles, with hairstyles and red lipstick to match. “Everybody had a fantastic time. The food was comforting, the music was great – think Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.”

She finds unlined cotton canvas tents and hires colourful rugs with huge cushions for people to loll on. She lines plain wooden trestle tables with pots of lavender, sage and rosemary, and instead of fancy three-course menus she sorts out great spits for roasting whole lambs and pigs. She often suggests having cappuccino vans to dispense lattes and ice-cream vans if there are children around. Ingenuity these days is key. “The clever thing,” she adds, “is to do simple and chic – it’s all about using antique specimen jars to hold a single flower. It’s about finding local bands and cabaret acts that are new instead of paying monstrous sums for a hip-hop star.”

It’s not as if most of her clients are hard up. Some of them are having to cut back because their hedge funds are down, or they’re still feeling nervous about the economy, but for most of them a simpler way of doing things just seems the way to go. Because it isn’t just about money. Even for those who are as well off as ever they were, over the top isn’t cool. Simon Cowell’s £1m shenanigans a few weeks back seem like something from the Jurassic Age.

And Lillingston’s customers aren’t alone. Few are in a mood to be showy. British-themed events (locally sourced, more ecologically sound) are all the rage. Ethics are back. Even the erstwhile swanky party set is discovering the joys of simplicity. I read recently of somebody generally acknowledged to be “rich and famous”, who for his most recent party ditched the fully catered big do he’d originally planned and declared he was going to have a picnic – everybody was to bring something, he’d be manning the barbie and one of his friends was going to bring along his iPod and provide the music.

Meanwhile, Mustard Catering, another of the country’s classiest party organisers and private caterers, is doing more small dinner parties. This, says managing director James Hurworth, is because corporate entertaining has been cut back so much that many of his customers are missing the conviviality they used to provide. At these dinner parties, the flowers will be less lavish, the extra frills and entertainment will be cut, but the food will be as good as ever. “What our customers want is decent food and decent service. Once you’ve got your friends coming through the door you don’t really gain much by swapping fillet of beef for breast of chicken. We are going to a lot more trouble over soft drinks, mixing fruit purées with lime juice. Instead of champagne we’re often asked to serve prosecco in a Bellini, or magic up a range of cocktails. And there’s a lot more demand for seasonal food, locally sourced – nobody wants mangetouts flown in from Kenya any more – but that has nothing to do with money; it’s all to do with ethics.”

Johnny Roxburgh, director and co-founder of The Admirable Crichton, has also found that imaginative ideas are what his customers want these days. As one banker’s wife put it, “You want a private party to be more enjoyable and personal, not as if you’re at a big jeweller’s annual bash.” A Grunge and Graffiti party that The Admirable Crichton did, for instance, was perfectly in tune with the times. The staff found a whole series of wrecked convertible car seats, cleaned them up and got graffiti artists to turn them into cool places to sit out and reach for a chilled beer or a cocktail. “Courage and confidence,” Roxburgh believes, “can make almost anything smart.”

Venues are changing: grandeur is less important than originality. A run-down house in London’s Portland Place is fast becoming more fashionable than a swanky hotel – the party version of the Rough Luxe aesthetic. The brickwork is chipped, the wooden floors rickety, and atmosphere is provided with masses of church candles and fake spider’s webs. Big industrial buildings in Shoreditch, Hoxton and Bloomsbury are increasingly popular, offering lots of space and a suitably grungy atmosphere. And often, even the big spenders are choosing to entertain at home rather than in the formality of a grand ballroom.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey of cabaret act Kit and the Widow, one of the most popular acts in smart party-going circles, for instance, recently performed at a private party given for a banker, but whereas in the past it would have been held in one of the Dorchester’s big ballrooms, this time it was held in the smaller Oliver Messel suite. “Parties these days are smaller but somehow much chicer and smarter,” he says, “but they’re still being held. After all, people still turn 40, 50 and 60. But they’re partying behind closed doors – nobody wants to be like the Bright Young Things of the 1930s who held their infamous Red and White party while outside the Jarrow march was going on. And whereas in the 1980s or 1990s a party in the country was thought rather dull, these days more and more people with a country house like to have them at home.”

Others are opting for two-tier celebrations. A hedge-fund manager with a big wedding anniversary to celebrate opted for two dinner parties for 30 each in the private room of a local restaurant rather than one large, more formal dinner. One of Lillingston’s customers, who had originally planned a big party for a significant birthday, opted instead for a small dinner party at home every month for a year. “That way she got to talk to all her friends and really enjoyed them.” Others find that weekend lunch parties are just as good a way to celebrate – they seem to require less formality and less in the way of grand props.

Many have swapped the fully catered formal do for something halfway between, using caterers for the food and the service (“it’s almost impossible to serve lots of people hot, agreeable food on time without staff”) but adding the decoration and the entertainment themselves. Roping in friends and family makes it more personal, so guests feel it is more of a privilege to be there. One City trader who had been planning a big Christmas bash has already down-sized his plans. Rather than hiring a medieval barn and serving a banquet to some 200 people, he’s decided to have fewer guests and do it all at home. There will be picnic blankets against hay bales in a marquee in the garden, a buffet (ordered in) served by local help, and friends and family doing the decorations. Another banker had been going to take some 50 friends to a mega-bash in St Petersburg but in the end he’s decided to make it more intimate and have a quieter drinks and buffet supper at home. Not because of the cost, more because he’s now decided it’s what he really wants.

Those who still prefer to party abroad (and as Roxburgh put it to me, “Its great advantage is that it doesn’t get reported back home, and there’s less need to worry about who might be offended”) are often doing it in a smaller, more personal way, taking fewer people to smaller châteaux or palazzos – and only those who really matter.

For entertainment, they’re turning to lesser-known, less expensive ways of adding some brio. Instead of paying the millions (yes, really) that a named popstar can cost, cabaret acts like Kit and the Widow are making a big comeback. Hesketh-Harvey says that “there’s a constant dialogue between the edgy comedy acts at the Edinburgh Festival with slightly risqué vaudeville or cabaret being much more sought-after”. Fun is often provided by hiring booths where partygoers record messages or have their photographs taken. At parties and wedding receptions, The Dream Screen, which encourages guests to record personal messages to the party-giver, is increasingly popular. Like Booth Nation, which sets up a glitter photobooth for guests to prance around inside and be photographed in daft if memorable style, it makes the guests join in and do more than just sit about eating and quaffing. And afterwards the party-giver has something to remember – the personal messages from The Dream Screen, or the album of photographs that Booth Nation will make up. Star acts such as Kit and the Widow are making their material more personal, incorporating lyrics and witticisms about every single guest. Other hostesses have taken to writing little haikus or stories about each guest. It’s these touches that everybody remembers.

It’s all about thinking what makes it more memorable. One party-giver, for instance, who was celebrating at his country house, organised cars for every single guest to take them both to and from the event, so that nobody had to stay in a B&B or worry about how much they drank. Another host had a cashmere wrap for all the female guests, to make sure that they were warm enough and that they had something special to take home.

When it comes to music, once full-blown bands and DJs were de rigueur but these days iPods often come to the rescue, with friends making a special compilation in advance. Classy alternatives are to hire a string quartet from one of the good music schools but magicians, cabaret artists and lesser-known singers are still in demand. The Three Waiters are also popular – professional opera singers who double as waiters and break into song midway through the meal.

Just as many party-givers are looking for simpler ways with entertainment, marquees and music, so it is with food. It’s not just that fancy three- or four-course meals with reduced jus and coulis and towers of this and that cost a fortune, it’s that nobody seems to feel like that sort of food any more. All the well-known caterers and party organisers report that their customers are asking for brilliant renditions of comfort food. Even Simon Cowell, who clearly wasn’t stinting, served fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and roast beef and Yorkshire pud to his guests. Roxburgh has served fish and chips on beautiful solid gold chargers in a Venetian palazzo, while another of his clients, who was organising a very grand dance, insisted on a beautifully made, old-fashioned chicken pie. Simplicity, after all, has a certain elegance. Lack of pretension is all; though other party-givers might go a different route and provide lots of exquisite little canapés, “the sort of thing,” as Hesketh-Harvey puts it, “that takes half an hour apiece to make.”

At a recent party, one couple celebrated their joint 40th birthdays with some wonderful champagne (though not a grande marque) to get everybody in the right mood and then followed it up with an amazing fish soup, with accompanying rouille and croutons, lovely breads and cheeses and big bowls of shiny apples. Nothing could have seemed more chic. At yet another occasion, the food was overseen by the hosts’ teenage children. There were two spit-roasts, one of lamb and one of a suckling pig. On long, inexpensively hired trestle tables they put the salads, baked potatoes and couscous. Puddings were bowls of berries and an array of amazing cakes. Entertainment was provided by a barbershop quartet, and later the young started playing music and dancing. It was, all in all, a winner.

When it comes to flowers, all the florists, even the grandest, report that they’ve toned down what they do. The days of the grand statement are over. Now, they put single blooms to float in neat rows of glistening fishbowls or make up concise posies of seasonal flowers in beakers. “Let the flowers speak” is their mantra. A florist such as Rob Van Helden is using props he already owns, such as candlesticks and mirrored plinths, to add magic and so cut down the bill for expensive flowers. Herbs – lavender, rosemary and thyme – are romantic and smell lovely, while huge branches of leaves in great big glass jars look wonderful. Elaborate, tortured arrangements no longer seem right at all. Other florists are concentrating on using plants that can be transplanted later. For instance, at a recent party, white square tubs filled with bay trees, into which white roses had been inserted, were dotted around the marquee. Others had been underplanted with white hydrangeas. As well as looking marvellous, the hydrangeas, bay trees, and the tubs were all going to be transplanted into the hosts’ garden when the shenanigans were over.

But whatever the budget, one thing everybody seems agreed on is that most of us could do with some cheering up. Never has it been more important, as 2009 draws to a close, to spend time with those you care about and to celebrate birthdays, weddings, perhaps even just being alive. Parties are not just frivolous ways of passing the time. We all have a need for ritual, for acknowledging important events and life’s big milestones. If we ignored these fundamental human needs, if we took no trouble and never bothered to put together these life-enhancing gatherings, our lives would be the poorer – fewer friendships would be honoured, fewer love affairs would take off, fewer important thank-yous would be said. This week we are celebrating the 15th birthday of How To Spend It, and as its founding editor it is thrilling to see how splendidly it has grown up under the care of its current editor. It, too, is something well worth celebrating – and so it will be in proper style.

And if there’s an upside to the tricky times in which we find ourselves, it’s that we’re discovering that elaborate “dos” may have certain charms but they are the cherry on the top, not the essence of the matter. What really counts is sharing the day, the music, the food, the picnic, the performance with people about whom one really cares. Everybody agrees that, in the end, it’s not the money or the lavishness they remember about a party. It’s the warmth, the fun, the attention to detail that showed their hosts really cared. These are the things that matter when partying now.