Thursday 22 August 2019

Fiona Leahy - Making a life planning the soul of the party

As party planner to the stars, Irishwoman Fiona Leahy creates opulent, exquisite events for the most aesthetically demanding guests

Long way from Tipperary: Fiona Leahy now works in west London.
Long way from Tipperary: Fiona Leahy now works in west London.

Julia Molony

As the rest of the nine-to-fivers are winding down on an autumn evening in London, things are still all go at Fiona Leahy HQ.

Her team is shipping out in advance of a Louis Vuitton event the following evening. Designed and executed by Fiona, it has been carefully planned over months to delight a selection of fashion and media guests. There will be lavish decor, touches of wit (like the Louis Vuitton-branded toasted cheese sandwiches) and impossibly beautiful waiting staff.

To describe Leahy as an events designer doesn't quite do her justice. She elevates table-settings, invitations and room decor to the level of high art, building elaborate and intricate fantasy worlds that endure for one fleeting and spectacular evening. Curator and creator, she is the go-to woman to organise parties for the most aesthetically demanding clients across the globe.

Certainly, she's come a long way from Tipperary. Today, I find her behind her desk in her unusually ornamental office in west London. Fiona wears her heels very high, her hair very blonde and her lipstick very red.

She started as an event designer less than a decade ago, but had a meteoric rise to the very top of her field, almost overnight, after her best mate Dita Von Teese asked her to design her 2005 wedding to Marilyn Manson at Gurteen Castle in Tipperary.

A-List celebrities seem to feature in Leahy's life story as motifs - appearing like fairy godmothers. It was an encounter with Jade Jagger, and a job at Jagger's jewellery company thereafter, which led to Leahy becoming Assistant Creative Director at Garrard, the fine jewellery brand. And it was through Garrard that she first came across Dita Von Teese - Fiona had spotted the burlesque performer's now iconic Martini glass act and persuaded Garrard to book her for an event.

From the first she felt she'd met a kindred spirit. "It was Dita's first ever European performance, one that she credits with really breaking her in Europe and her career," Fiona explains of how the pair became friends. "I took her to a Rolling Stones concert the night of the rehearsal, which she loved."

At the time, Dita Von Teese was planning her opulent wedding to Marilyn Manson, and they'd picked Gurteen Castle as the venue.

"Dita asked me to come away on holidays when she was planning the wedding," Fiona remembers. The two ended up spending a lot of time dreaming up plans. "It was all serendipitous. It's where I'm from, pretty much," she says of Gurteen Castle. And eventually Dita said: "You know what, I've met all these event planners, none of them really get me, and I would really love it if you would consider doing it, it would be so great."

At first it seemed like a career jump too far for Fiona. "But I did it, and it was amazing . . . and then it was written about in American Vogue, and it had a piece in Sunday Times Style, and the queen of Doha saw that, and the next thing I was on a flight to the Middle East and doing big royal weddings," she says.

It certainly sounds like it's been pretty much a whirlwind ever since. Leahy has never had an official career plan. She grew up in Tipperary the eldest of four children and part of a self-starting, enterprising family. Her mother opened her own hairdressing salon when she was just 18, and while Leahy was a kid, her parents ran a B&B. "Every summer I would have the job of making all the starters or making all the desserts," she remembers. "I'd save up and then I'd go on holidays to Greece or something. If we didn't work there was no, 'here you go, go off on holidays.' There was a very direct correlation between what you could do and how hard you worked."

Always a grafter, she's followed curiosity and inspiration rather than a career strategy. Or as she puts it, her work life has been shaped less by a desire to succeed than "serendipity and chance and following your passions."

As the creator of very special weddings (Fiona Leahy Design organise three or four a year and she's organised a couple of elopements as well) she's lately become something of an authority on the subject of creative and beautiful matrimony. A couple of years ago she was invited by boutique publisher Gestalten to author a book of hip and stylish wedding ideas. Which begs the question, does she have any plans for a wedding herself?

"I would like to get married, yeah, for sure, that's one thing I would plan on. That's one thing I have on my to-do list, or to be list," she says with a laugh. Though she doesn't have a particular suitor in mind "right this second," she is aware that now, having worked flat out to build her business, she'd like to focus more time on her personal life. "You know when you are like, okay, I've been working so much, and you can see how that takes your marriage seat. It does. It's hard to do everything," she says.

In any case, she's always been clear about the importance of developing her professional identity, in order to be ready for a big emotional commitment. "I've been engaged," she says, "and actually I didn't get married at that time because I felt that in order to get married and to meet somebody else in that way, I really needed to have gone down that path of having a career and a vocation. I just felt that I would be fraudulent walking down an aisle and making that commitment to somebody, when I hadn't yet made that commitment to myself." She was 31 at the time. "I think you really need to know yourself, and I really didn't at that point."

For now, her close friendships are the things that have lasted the journey. Of Dita, she says, "she really makes me laugh, and I really make her laugh. . . But beyond that, we also love to go raving together. She's a real raver. We've gone to Coachella together and she loves electronic and dance music, so it's that paradoxical kind of thing. We're both creative OCDs in a way. But we both really know how to let loose and dance to KLF."

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