Magic Makers: How to Transport Guests to Fully Realized Worlds

May 9, 2012, 12:58 PM EDT

At Lady Gaga's Workshop at Barneys, it was like entering a whole new world; in this case, hers.

Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Barneys

Many—so many—moons ago, I was group marketing director of Elle and Elle Decor, and one of my responsibilities was to dream up ideas for advertorials, those things in magazines that try to fool you by looking like actual editorial pages.

And no matter the client—Chanel, Revlon, Escada, you name it—one of the ideas we always presented was “Enter the world of …” It was the art directors’ favorite because it was both easy and creative. We’d just take whatever badges, faces, logos, labels, and buckles the brand was known for and smear them across the pages. We often suggested that eight pages would do the trick.

Last holiday season my client, GiGi by Graphic Image, was commissioned by Barneys New York to make all the leather handbags and accessories for Lady Gaga’s Workshop. There was a big opening-night party with Herself in attendance, and then they kicked everyone out and opened the shop to customers at midnight. Very Gaga.

When I first walked into the shop, I was really excited: It was like entering a whole new world; in this case, hers. They painted all the walls black (such a great trick, it made the room feel like outer space) and had a giant resin sculpture of Lady G by Eli Sudbrack of Assume Vivid Astro Focus. After you got used to the drama of it all, you could see that this was very much a functioning retail space, with all the clothing racks, shelves, and checkout areas like any other store in America.

It was a reminder that you can make an environment as crazy and interesting as you like, and still sell your lightbulbs.

Here are some thoughts about keeping the fantasy alive while getting the job done:

The Entry Is Everything. Let’s face it: We’re all drama queens at heart, so everybody likes walking down a long carpet. (Please, anything but red.) Anna Wintour’s parties often have an army of greeters, like servants to the queen. I just love it and always wonder who the hell they are. At one of Harvey Weinstein’s super-exclusive Oscar parties, I remember that Jeffrey Best designed not one, not two, but three sets of heavy velvet parting curtains that you had to clear to get into the party room at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. You would say your name, the guy would radio it to the security people, then they’d draw the curtains and you’d step forward and repeat the whole rigmarole, kind of like the “Get Smart” opening sequence. Brilliant. I immediately started copying it.

Banish the Mundane. Ugh, I just hate when I’m falling in love with a party and all of a sudden there’s an ugly, gray garbage pail. Another fantasy pit are greeting tables where the staff starts spreading all their worker-bee drag: handbags on the floor, Post-It notes, and, of course, their stupid smartphones.

Take Me on a Journey. For an event I did for The New Yorker’s “Hollywood Issue” forever ago, we rented the entire Oviatt Building & Penthouse, where we did an Academy Award-themed shindig. One floor was all winter white, and we projected scenes of Dr. Zhivago on giant orbs. Another was crimson silk and gold chinoiserie for that boring The Last Emperor movie with Brad Pitt (you get the idea). We gave guests beepers telling them when to move. The planning was murder, and the guests were a little confused, to tell the truth. But that’s O.K. once in a while.

Nothing Beats Gargantua. Of course, everybody enjoys a Rabelaisian feast: tables groaning, laden with delicacies while servants wipe your brow between courses. But annoyingly not every budget allows it. Still, one gigantic item can sometimes do the trick. I’ll always remember an Elle Decor cocktailer Robert Isabell did when Marian McEvoy was the editor. He just had one giant tree beautifully lit in the center of Grand Central Terminal on top of a bubble-gum-pink carpet. No one noticed or cared that the catering was modest and there was not a single chair to sit on. It was magical.

Hold That Whimsy. Nothing equals buzzkill quite like an ugly elevator, stopping and opening its doors on even uglier fluorescently lit hallways. Get resourceful, people. Gel the lights. Put colorful mats on the floors. How hard is it to get a little nice music for three elevators? Once for Dior, I piped and draped the elevator area on each floor in case the car opened on a work floor. People noticed.

Full House = Success. Watching Mitt Romney address an audience of a few hundred people in an otherwise empty stadium (hee hee!) reminded me of this formula. But that doesn’t stop some people. Years ago I covered Car Week (O.K., the Auto Show) and was astounded by all the overly grand spaces for relatively minor crowds and amusements. The absolute worst (i.e., the most fun) was a G.M. presentation at Madison Square Garden that featured first a five minute W.N.B.A. basketball demo—I guess the target was women, still not sure of that messaging—followed by an elaborate unveiling of a handful of cars with very swirly lights. But all I could think of was how weird it was to be sitting in this little, packed group in this giant, open arena. Then the host stood there, beaming with pride, saying, “Some show, huh?” as guests tiptoed through the stadium hallways made spooky by their emptiness.

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