Fiona Leahy made the leap from fashion to event planning 13 years ago, after designing the wedding of entertainer Dita Von Teese. Now head of her eponymous creative event design and production company, Leahy’s decadent tablescapes have made her the go-to party planner for luxury brands, art-world stars and Middle Eastern royals. Ahead of our 28 November Interiors sale in London, we spoke to Leahy about what goes into pulling off a great party.
You started off studying fashion — how did you make the jump to event planning? Do you see a link between fashion and party planning?
Fiona Leahy: ‘What links the two is a visual interest — a certain kind of eye. It’s an interest in trends and relevance and what’s coming up. I think that translates across a lot of creative fields, really. Major trends also filter directly from fashion to events, especially as people take how they entertain and their lifestyle so much more seriously now.’
What is the biggest trend in event planning today?
FL: ‘Right now, events and dinners and tablescapes are so maximal — more than they ever have been. Maximalism is difficult to pull off because you can really get it wrong — you can’t just throw a load of stuff at a party or a table. Everything has a cycle and maximalism will maybe peter out a little bit eventually. But for now the spirit is definitely there.
‘Blending “high” and “low” is also quite a trend. It’s all about the contrast. One dinner we did recently was held in a palace, but we played really contemporary music. Mixing it up is key — no one wants to feel like they’re in a museum.’
What was your first event, and how did it come together?
FL: ‘I started working with Jade Jagger when she had her clothing line. We then both went to Garrard, the jewellers, where I was Assistant Creative Director. I hired Dita Von Teese to do our first anniversary party in the store, and discovered that I loved organising parties. One year later I left Garrard, and ended up planning Dita’s wedding, which was my first proper event. That was 13 years ago.
‘After Dita’s wedding, I had a piece in the Sunday Times — and then out of the blue I received a phone call from the Queen of Qatar. Next thing I knew I was doing events in the Middle East. So it was all quite accelerated.’
Tell us about some of your favourite themes or concepts you’ve concocted over the years.
FL: ‘Something I’ve come up with recently is “matchimalism” — maximalism that matches. I did a dinner last year where we did printed tablecloths, printed napkins — all using the same print, so it’s nearly camouflaged. It's about really embracing a print and using it wherever you can.
‘I just did an event in Vienna that was all gold. I loved that, because there's such a warmth in gold, and I love the visual decadence. But each time I do an event I always think it’s my favourite.’
What makes a great party planner, and how do you prepare for an event?
FL: ‘A great event planner knows how to bring something unexpected. If something becomes standard it will probably become boring.
‘The preparation is where I think my fashion background really comes in handy. I always do mock-ups of everything, as if I were putting a look together, so that I can edit. Sometimes I'll start with too much and then pare it back, and then there's a lot of tweaking. I think also it helps to be OCD, which I definitely am. You need an editor’s eye, and an instinct for what works.
‘Beyond the visual component, you need good financial sense. You can have the best ideas in the world, but if they’re not going to fit into the budget they’re just not going to happen. Or they do happen and you get into trouble. So you need a really good sense of perspective.
‘Equally key is good people skills. I have about 10 people on my team, though the exact number of people working on one event can vary. I work with freelancers, too, but I have a core team doing designs, sketches, sourcing, producing.’
How do you know it’s a good party?
FL: ‘It's the energy. At a party we did recently, the mirrored dance floor we brought in got completely trashed, and people were waving marabou feathers around, having the time of their lives.
‘The absolute last thing you want is a party that looks good but has no vibration or energy. I think the sign of a good party is people really forgetting themselves and not looking at their phones!’
How long does it typically take to put an event together? What’s the longest amount of time you’ve ever spent planning — and the shortest?
FL: ‘I work on both very large events and more intimate ones, like small dinners, because I like to keep it varied. So the prep time can vary quite dramatically. Sometimes it can take a year — though I don’t like having too much time. Eight months is a pretty good amount of time to plan a wedding. Once I did an event for Valentino and was given 24 hours to get everything ready.’
What’s the secret to prepping for a party at the last minute?
FL: ‘I think you need to pick an area that you really want to shine. For example, you could decide you want an incredible table, and have dozens of candles and then maybe order in food. Or you can be really particular about the food and maybe don’t do much table decoration. I think it’s knowing your strengths, really — and what you can outsource. I love pulling in favours with friends. It's not about impressing anybody.
‘Pretending that you’ve been cooking all day, and also had time to put together the perfect tablescape and the perfect playlist — why do it? It’s not real. I’ve said this in the past, but I am definitely not above having beautiful tablecloths and great napkins and candles and lovely wine, and getting a truffle pizza and having a dessert from my local bakery. It’s not a competition. Entertaining is all about creating a lovely, warm environment and being able to enjoy it with friends.’