PARIS To create a Russian winter in the middle of summer in Paris is no easy task, but on July 6, Natalia Vodianova did just that with her event, the White Fairy Tale Love Ball. In the process, the model and philanthropist—with the help of her friends (and co-hosts) Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti—raised $3.27 million for her Naked Heart Foundation, which provides safe outdoor play parks for underprivileged children in Russian cities. The trio threw open the doors to Garavani and Giammetti’s magnificent 17th-century Château de Wideville estate on the outskirts of Paris for a seated black-tie dinner that drew a cross-section of celebrities, fashion luminaries, jet-setting socialites, and deep-pocketed supporters at the close of the fall/winter Paris haute couture shows.
Designed and produced by Alex de Betak of Bureau Betak, the soiree for 450 guests in the French countryside took a year to plan and was inspired largely by the wintry scenery described in the iconic novel Doctor Zhivago and illustrated in the 1965 film adaptation. Initially, organizers looked to stage the event in Russia, but multiple factors, transportation issues chiefly among them, forced them to look elsewhere. “The idea was to turn Mr. Valentino’s castle into a wintry, snowy manor,” said de Betak, “to bring together a collection of fairy tales with a dusting of snow and frost.”
To achieve this, de Betak and his crew embarked on a massive undertaking that not only required importing every piece of furniture, decor, and prop, but a week’s worth of careful assembly while tiptoeing around the chateau’s immaculately groomed 120 acres of manicured gardens. “It was important to build in a respectful, quiet, and clean way,” de Betak said. “The large setup was challenging, but the biggest challenge was to do all of this on a budget five times smaller than it would have taken had this not been for a charity.”
As guests arrived—many of them via helicopter—they meandered through the elaborate gardens and the Valentino Archives museum (currently hosting an installation of Valentino dresses from a 1990 collection), before making their way through a covered porch that was made to snow and into a 20,000-square-foot clear tent erected on a giant courtyard for dinner. Most of the guests followed the white and silver dress code, including master of ceremonies Anne Hathaway, who wore a vintage Valentino gown.
Each of the 45 candlelit tables was designed after a specific fairy tale—including “Cinderella,” “The Nutcracker,” “Thumbelina,” and “Sleeping Beauty"—which de Betak’s team painstakingly re-created for the night. Additional lighting came from a gigantic light structure de Betak had hoisted off to the side of the tent’s roof on a crane. Little in the way of the foundation's branding was evident during the six-hour affair as, according to de Betak, the hosts wanted the evening to feel less like a typical “charity event” and more like they had simply been summoned to Mr. Valentino’s home for dinner. “We wanted this feeling of cinematic grandeur,” de Betak emphasized. “It was quite fun and grand at the same time.”
But how many cozy dinners at home include the live presentation of 45 custom-designed gowns by brands like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein Collection, and Burberry Prorsum? Following a dinner of wild Norwegian smoked salmon with chives, light garlic, and caviar-vodka cream sauce and caviar with Russian-style baked potato, catered by Paris restaurant Caviar Kaspia, 45 models paraded out onto a 246-foot-long runway for the fashion show. And because the event took place at a private home and not a typical event space, hair and makeup were done in the estate’s garages, where a kitchen was also built, while a cocktail kitchen as well as the lighting and video teams were set up in the stables and the gym housed the production offices.
A live auction conducted by Christie’s followed, topped off by a performance by Bryan Ferry and Johnny Marr and DJ Groove Armada and Andy Cato. As guests departed for the evening—and before the four-day teardown commenced—they received specially created catalogs featuring images of Vodianova in the 45 custom-made gowns, photographed by Paolo Roversi.