Preston Bailey: “for a party you want people to remember… Enough is not enough”

That might be the motto of Preston Bailey, who designs décor for the stars. Donna Yawching was dazzled by his Panamanian pzazz

Green dendrobium orchids and orange Chinese lanterns. Photograph courtesy Preston Bailey Entertainment and Set Designs/John LabbeIn this arrangement: wheat grass, cymbidium orchids and French tulips. Photograph courtesy Preston Bailey EntertainmentThe man behind the magic, Preston Bailey. Photograph courtesy Preston Bailey EntertainmentThese sunflower pineapples with palm fronds starred in a Virginia wedding in a stable that was converted into a church. Photograph courtesy Preston Bailey Entertainment and Set Designs/John Labbe

Preston Bailey’s story reads almost like a fairytale – it is a genuine rags-to-riches saga. “I came from a very poor background,” this Panamanian native declares frankly; and if he sounds a little proud of that fact, he has every reason to be.

Today, Bailey, 58, is New York’s pre-eminent creator of celebratory décor – he has done everything from Donald Trump’s latest wedding to Oprah’s 50th-birthday bash. Movie stars and Middle Eastern princesses alike place their faith in his extravagant visions, guaranteed to make their nuptials or anniversary parties the talk of the town.

With so much high-end hobnobbing, one might expect Bailey to be … shall we say, a little aloof? So it is a relief and a delight to meet a tall, smiling man with the friendly, easy-going manner of a born Caribbean liming-pardner: no affectations whatsoever, and the ability to laugh heartily at himself.

Bailey’s genius lies in his ability to transform a mundane space – a tent, a stable, an aircraft hangar – into something magical and memorable, using mainly flowers and fabric. Mind you, a lot of flowers, and huge swathes of fabric.

“Discreet” is not a word in this man’s vocabulary; neither is “restraint”.

“I love abundance,” he confesses. “I think one can be very generous with flowers. Less is not more for us.”

Picture Nature on steroids, and you’ve got a starting point.

Of course, it’s not as simple as merely sticking a lot of flowers into a lot of vases. Bailey’s installations are more along the lines of set design; his basic principle, he says, is “theatrical”. Elaborate frames, forms and fixtures are created by his production team to house thousands of carefully colour-co-ordinated blooms; pendant crystals flirt with the light; blown-glass sculptures dramatise silk-covered tables.

“A party is successful when guests walk in and they don’t want to leave,” he explains. “You want to create this one day that they don’t forget… I love that I run into people in the street 20 years later who say, “I still remember your (client’s) wedding.’”

Bailey, whose grandparents hailed from Jamaica and Trinidad, grew up in Panama in typical Caribbean circumstances. He was just an average kid with no artistic pretensions whatsoever; he claims he “barely graduated” from high school. At 19, his parents sent him to join his sisters in New York. Handsome and svelte, he soon became a fashion model, a career he pursued for ten years.

But modelling, of course, has a limited shelf life; so Bailey moved sideways into retail, opening a men’s clothing store. His business venture was ill-fated – “Poor management,” he jokes – and he found himself casting around for something to do. A friend who was organising a society event suggested that he do the flowers.

“I needed to eat,” he says wryly. “The flower thing came because I needed a job. I’d never touched a flower before.”

The rest was history. New York City at the time was party central and the concept of creating dramatic event spaces was just beginning to take hold. He visited art galleries, did intense research, read a lot of books. For Bailey, it was a steep learning curve, but “Once I started doing it, I completely got into it. It’s really a matter of paying attention. It’s amazing what you can learn by actually doing something. You screw up a lot; but you learn.”

He gained experience by doing parties for his friends for free; today, his clients are A-list celebrities and a Preston Bailey installation can run literally to millions of dollars.

Still, Bailey insists that you don’t have to be a gazillionaire to create a memorable and beautiful event. All that is needed for a striking effect is imagination and a willingness to see the potential in your surroundings.

“Go to your house one day and take away all your accessories,” he suggests. “Buy 200 50-cent candles and put them all over the room. The guests will think it’s beautiful.”

And here are some more of his tips on how to create a night to remember without spending a million dollars.

Perhaps because of his Caribbean background, the starting-point in any of Bailey’s extravaganzas is colour: deep, rich, fully saturated. It is the unifying point around which everything revolves. Colour can be used to create mood – lighter for a daytime event, darker and sultry for the evening.

“I remember the bright, vibrant colours of the Caribbean,” he says. “I think that has affected my sensibilities.”

Choose a colour scheme, he advises the home entertainer, and then starting thinking around that colour: tablecloths, tableware, flowers, accessories.

“The more you bring that colour into it, the more cohesive it becomes.”

He doesn’t like mixing colours: he thinks a unified palette makes a more dramatic statement. “Nature is that way,” he points out, citing the mass effect of cherry blossoms, or “those wonderful bougainvillea trees.” Accessories can be bowls, lamps, glass pieces, candles.

“Decoration is a lot about creating shapes,” he says. “A lot of us have these materials at home, we are just a little intimidated in going about it.”

For fabric transformations, he suggests draping see-through tulles, or framing panels of fabric and hanging them on the walls like artwork. Swathed from the ceiling, fabric can turn a mundane party tent into an Arabian Nights fantasy.
Bailey gets much of his inspiration from nature – he uses flowers in their millions, working with them sculpturally to create a myriad of forms; but he also understands the effectiveness of a single spring branch in a beautiful vase, or the inclusion of fruit in a floral arrangement. He loves foliage, particularly in the tropics.

“You just have to go in your backyard, and there is all that great foliage you can work with,” he says. “You can do great things with grasses: you can wrap presents with them; make place mats with oversized leaves. I work a lot with the shapes of different leaves. Take banana leaves and make table runners; take advantage of all the tropical colours and incorporate them.

“And the fruit,” he continues: “you could make a topiary base out of mangoes, lemons, limes; you could create a triangle shape; you could make a Christmas wreath out of lemons, put a bow on it and it would be a beautiful centrepiece.” Another favourite trick is to scoop out watermelons, and use them as vases.

Water features often in Bailey’s designs – he once covered a swimming pool in floating pink peonies. On a smaller scale, he might create a metal “lake” in the middle of a table and fill it with blooms, or simply float a few sunflowers in a shallow bowl. One of his signature table decorations entails pulling apart a dozen roses and then rearranging the petals in a glass bowl to form one giant floating rose.

“Put ten of those on your tables,” he says, “and you don’t need anything else. I use them at all my parties.” (Start your petals at the outside edge of the bowl, and work your way toward the centre.)

For dinner parties, Bailey advises lavishing your décor budget on the tables, since that’s where your guests will spend most of their time. Richly brocaded or beaded tablecloths, orchids beside the plates, innovative dinner menus, monogrammed table napkins – these create an elegant tone for a special event.

And of course, don’t forget the extravagant, over-the-top floral centrepieces: Bailey has been known to decorate his tables with garden fountains, painted hot pink and brimming over with cascades of pink roses; and with six-foot candelabras made of white roses (for Donald Trump).

What if your event doesn’t revolve around a sit-down meal? Bailey advises, “If you don’t want to do a great table, create dramatic statements” with the rest of the décor. An animal made of flowers (he once did an elephant for Joan Collins) is always a show-stopper; or a forest of lights on poles. Create a canopy of candles (and keep a fire extinguisher handy!); or an avenue of wind-chimes in the trees. Outline an arch or a doorway in thickly-massed flowers.

“You just have to think big,” he says; then adds wryly, “It really helps if you have money!”

Even if you don’t (or not very much), the key to a successful party, Bailey believes, is keeping your guests engaged.

“Just plan as many little surprises as possible, to make them excited,” he says.

Create original cocktails using fresh-squeezed juices; float fragrant flowers in bowls in the bathroom; suspend beads and crystals from light fixtures. Paint a dancefloor mural, or project stars on the ceiling. Scatter pretty bowls of candy around the room; leave little take-away goodies on your dinner table.

“I think it is really important to give each guest a gift at the end of the party,” Bailey says. “I like to do something small, but memorable. I also like to include a personalised note – with chocolates: I always say, ‘So sweet of you to come’.”

Bailey also puts in a good word for theme parties.

“I love theme parties!” he exclaims. “They get a bad name, but if they are done right, they can be really fun. I threw a Bollywood party and had my favourite Indian restaurant cater the event and draped all the tables with saris to create a loose, colourful effect. I asked my guests to remove their shoes and provided them with slippers. I had Bollywood movies playing all night (with the sound muted) and it created a really festive environment.”

“Personally,” he concludes, “I love to entertain. I love giving a great party.” Steal a few of his ideas, and you can too.”