A few years back when I was handling the Moët and Hennessey accounts for my first ad agency, I found myself milling about at an event at Versailles. Wandering among a group that included a few minor French royals through this monument to sophistication and exuberance, I may have appeared a bit incongruous—obviously a native New Yorker despite my flute of bubbly. I was more intrigued, though, with thinking about how the gargantuan palace reflected the societal arc. Versailles is the largest royal residence in the world—more than 720,000 square feet and 350 bedrooms. Its expansion was overseen first by Louis XIV, the Sun King, who stood only 5-feet-4-inches tall, yet wore heels (and owned more than 1,000 wigs) to help him appear 7 feet tall. He lived large there, his descendants even more so—no surprise, then, that his grandson Louix XVI and wife Marie Antoinette, and their few hundred partying couturiers suffered the wrath of the Revolution there. I pondered: Is there a tipping point at which history repeats itself?
Qu’est-ce que tu penses, mes amis?
I was enjoying a short espresso and a green cherry cookie at the classic and intimate Caffé Roma at the intersection of Broome and Mulberry when my friend, the uniquely talented menswear designer Jay Kos, parked his MotoGuzzi and joined me at a round marble-topped table, his gold-rimmed aviators refracting the gray February light.
“Everything has become supersized in N.Y.C., except for a few special places,” I noted.
“Well, Mulberry Street isn’t exactly 57th Street,” he mused.
“It’s not just the new residential towers. It’s the people!” I exclaimed. “The other day I saw this Upper East Sider coming at me with his blinding white, huge laminates and his bread-plate-sized watch and…those teeeeeeth! I thought I was being attacked by The Walking Dead,” I said, shuddering.
“These women schlepp these bags as big as suitcases and they wear 20-carat studs that stretch their earlobes,” Jay said, sighing.
I nodded in agreement. “Everyone wants porn-star breasts, too. Personally, I think it ages a woman to order up D cups, but that’s up to them. I have come to realize perhaps my own taste is quixotic.” I paused. “Why do you think everyone is obsessed with the biggest?”
“I think it’s all about size,” Jay said. “Truly confident men don’t need the biggest mansion or boat.”
‘Today everyone wants a big closet suite with a chaise lounge and shelving. they want to McMansion their closets to display all their Chanels and Birkins. “Look at how much I have.” Like a museum exhibition.’
“Then why are the women suddenly going bigger, too? Big everything seems to be the order of the day.”
“Again,” he looked at me directly, “if you don’t have it…flaunt it.”
“Are you saying the husbands are only endowed in the check-writing department?” He nodded. “Every time you see someone who has the biggest this or the biggest that, they’re usually 4-foot-11 or have a minuscule appendage.”
I thought a moment. “Well, they’re 6 feet tall when they’re standing on their checkbook.”
Reality television has changed the playing field.” A plastic surgeon to the stars shrugged and took a perfect swing at the Rolls-Royce of golf clubs on Long Island.
“How’s that…?” I asked and took a sip of my roadie—Grey Goose with a splash of cranberry and lime wedge over those new Vegas-sized ice cubes.
“Big hair, big teeth, big apple cheeks, big lips, breasts and big booties. They are all competing.”
“And why is that?”
“They all want to stand out.”
“Do you think it looks good?” I removed a seven-iron from the golf bag.
“The trend is very glamorous and very over-the-top. It’s much more out there. These women work very hard, look great and they want to show it off. They want to be noticed.”
“Would you say it’s refined?”
“Richard, refinement went out with the Trinitron,” he deadpanned.
“So what do people ask for?”
“They feel bigger is better and they want to look like Jessica Rabbit.”
“I, for one, never got the lip thing.” I shook my head. “I mean, Angelina Jolie has the most fabulous natural lips, but when these women plump up theirs, they look like blowfish.”
“Again, it’s all very sexualized. Big, pouting, juicy lips and breasts suggest an overt sexuality and it seems like men want to exert their masculinity by having an upscale sex doll.” He found himself surveying the sand trap.
“Well yes…the sex doll suggests the proportion and the aesthetic. That’s why you have all these not-very-attractive, wealthy men who can afford to live out their fantasies.”
“Do the men come in and tell you what to do?” I followed him as he helped the caddy rake the sand.
“ ‘GO BIGGER’ should be stamped on their foreheads,” he responded. We then started on the short game with the promise of the extensive buffet lunch in the clubhouse.
I was in Gracious Home surveying its assortment of stylish goods when I ran into Old Money Interior Designer, looking chic in winter white cashmere, her hair pulled back into an effortless chignon.
“It used to be that when I did a closet, the fancy ones had shelves and rotating shoe racks and that was that,” she replied when I queried her whether size matters. “Today, everyone wants a big closet suite. With a chaise lounge and shelving for their hundreds of shoes and bags. They want to McMansion their closets to display all their Chanels and Birkins. ‘Look at how much I have.’ Like in a museum exhibition.”
“You mean it’s the Playboy centerfold of bags?”
“It’s ‘look at my elevator’ when they give you the grand tour. And yawn—they show you the 500 Birkins shoulder to shoulder, like canned goods their mothers used to stock up on.” She waved her hand in despair, revealing a vintage Verdura Maltese cross cuff-and-gold signet ring.
“They should come with announcements, like in department stores: ‘Ding. Walk-in closet on five.’ ” We shared a conspiratorial laugh.
Later that night Dana and I had dinner at the elegant Roaring Twenties palatial prewar owned by L’Actrice and the Silver Fox, who had just returned from their new L.A. abode. Dinner was buffet-style and I found myself seated next to another noted interior designer.
“Now it’s all about the duplex, the triplex, the combination. I’ll buy one or two or three apartments or townhouses and put them all together. Everyone wants bigger space. And half of my foreign clients will only be there a few days a year.”
“So when you plan a triplex, how does it work?” I queried.
“I actually have to think of things to put in the extra floors. A screening room, gyms, massage rooms, et cetera.”
‘I went to an event last year and this woman with a publicist in tow showed up in a big tiara! I understand that if you’re a royal or an ingénue in a Disney movie but really…a tiara for a charity event…on a Tuesday no less!’
“Oh come now, Richard, everyone knows you combined two apartments yourself,” he chided.
“I cannot tell a lie…but we needed the room for the multiple offspring,” I deflected.
He raised an eyebrow. “Yes, but you’re still part of the story.”
I had to admit he had a point. “I never said I wasn’t…although a screening room with a popcorn machine dispensing hot butter would be lovely.” I drifted into a dreamlike state at the very thought.
Ten years ago a big party was 200 people. Today it’s 600.” One of New York’s ultimate party planners was filling me in over a gorgeous lunch at Le Cirque cafe. “Now it’s ‘go big or go home.’ ”
“And why is that?”
“I think it’s about letting people know you’ve arrived.” She took her iPad out of her Goyard shopping bag to show me the panoply of events and began scrolling through her calendar.
“The expectation has gotten bigger as well. These people get bored very easily. Now it’s all about…” She gave a dramatic pause. “…The Big Reveal!”
“The Big Reveal?”
“Yes, there’s a moment at one of these big events where the host or hostess gets up and introduces you to a superstar in the music industry. As in a private concert.”
“Do they come to you wanting to do that?” I asked.
“There is this moment in time where a client might say, ‘We’re going to do this, so why not go all the way.’ ” She tucked into the needle-thin and aerated, crispy potatoes—the most fabulous fries this side of Neuilly.
“What motivates them?” I marveled.
“There are two types of hosts. One type might have an over-the-top party but they are not doing it for ego purposes. They are really lovely people who want to create a memorable evening for their guests.”
“And the second?”
“Competitive and insecure. They put on a great act at first—pretending that they are in group No. 1—but then nasty things start to creep into the conversation. They do things because other people are doing them and compete with their friends to show they have as much or more than they do. I won’t mention names,” she finished before I could even ask.
“Isn’t that expensive?” I let the waiter pour me more Sauvignon.
“They pay up front, but there was this one family where they wanted the biggest and wanted to outdo everyone and they lost all their money around the time of the event.” She twisted her invisibly set diamond band.
“And what happened?”
“The husband just sold a few of his watches and said, ‘Let’s go out with a big bang.’ ”
“In my day women would wear perhaps one big statement piece.” Our Lady of the East River was reminiscing about more elegant times over the speakerphone. She had been nursing a bad cold and wasn’t receiving.
“Darling, you have to understand that there is something chic about a big cocktail ring or a large, vintage Navajo necklace over a simple white man-tailored shirt. My dear friend, Deceased Iconic Blonde, had a remarkable sense of style, as does Nina Von Coinage, the aristocratic Capri hostess who always wears one large or unusual accent piece. Today though, these girls don’t understand it’s about contrast. They load on all these huge baubles, so you don’t know where to look first. It just screams wearing one’s net worth on one’s back.” I could hear her shaking her lacquered coif over the landline.
“So what you are saying is that they think bigger and more is better.”
“That’s why I hardly want to go out to events anymore. There’s very little in the way of taste. And it’s shocking when you see a woman showing so much skin. The dress is plunging down to here and up to there and all these huge diamonds and sapphires. They look like Las Vegas showgirls. I think they should just put on one of those headdresses and some tassels and go out on stage and shake it,” she tittered.
“Well, the world and the aesthetic has changed.”
“I think it’s quite scary actually. I went to an event last year and this woman with a publicist in tow showed up in a big tiara! I understand that if you’re a royal or an ingénue in a Disney movie but really…a tiara for a charity event…on a Tuesday no less!”
She was just getting warmed up. “I am not sure how these women walk in those big, clomping monster shoes and carrying bags the size of a house. It weights you down, too. Why, they will all have to see chiropractors when they’re my age, I can assure you. I remember when I was quite young seeing Ava Gardner at the El Morocco. Now she was a star. Gorgeous cheekbones, gray satin gloves and a nice pair of lovely, discreet little diamond earrings. Those days are long gone.” She sighed wistfully.
“Any stars you like today?”
“There is that tall blonde girl…the singer. Her name starts with a ‘T.’ ”
“You mean Taylor Swift?”
“Yes, that’s the girl. Now she is gorgeous. And dresses beautifully, not a lot of big hair and jewelry. You can actually see her face clearly, which is quite refreshing. Now she looks like Old Hollywood. Yes, Taylor Swift.” She paused. “Now she gives one hope.”
was hosting my business partner in Blackwell Rum, music icon Chris Blackwell, at my Hamptons house, which is petite by local standards (but hopefully chic). The 1830s Quaker meetinghouse overlooks some of the largest homes in America. When I venture out on my bedroom terrace, and the fog rolls in, one could mistake the gargantuan estates for museums, palazzos—or Ritz Carltons.
“What is that? A hotel?” Chris asked as he took in a resort-sized.
“No, it’s a private residence.”
“Really?” His Harrovian accent suggested a raised eyebrow.
“The upside is it could have been 30 McMansions.” I shrugged.
“Everyone suggested I create bigger villas at Goldeneye (his fabled resort in Jamaica, which once belonged to Ian Fleming) but I decided to go smaller with beach huts. That’s all one needs, in my opinion, you know, a beach hut with a hammock,” Chris replied. His own home on the island is a series of glorious, intimate open-air rooms connected by sunny terraces, and he spends his days swimming off his coral terrace in the turquoise lagoon and jet skiing.
“It’s funny that you mentioned that. I was thinking of expanding this house,” I mentioned.
“I wouldn’t touch it. It’s divine the way it is. You know you get to a certain point, where smaller is better. You lead a more edited life. It’s more freeing and certainly less troublesome.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I agreed.
“Richard, let everyone else have their own Versailles. I think it says more about you to have a manageable, original house. It’s perfect the way it is.”
Chris, who has dated some of the most famous and beautiful women in the world, added, “And in the end, Richard, having a huge house isn’t the one alluring thing that really counts, you know.”
And with that he winked at me.