When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, it was the most lavish wedding the world had ever seen. It’s often discussed in terms of numbers: the 2,500 guests at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the 750 million people watching at home on TV, the 10,000 pearls and 25-foot train on Diana’s dress, the 27 weddings cakes served at the reception. The event was estimated to have cost £30 million, equivalent to around $140 million today.
The entire affair was planned by Lord Maclean; having held the title of Lord Chamberlain at the time, he was the royal household’s senior officer in charge of court ceremony, which includes weddings and funerals. When Charles and Diana’s son Prince William married Kate Middleton 30 years later in a wedding believed to have cost $34 million, the Lord Chamberlain’s office planned the daytime ceremony at Westminster Abbey (as is customary, the invitations read, The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by The Queen to invite...), but the evening party at Buckingham Palace was organized by the event planning firm Fait Accompli. Last month, Fait Accompli planned Kate’s sister Pippa’s wedding.
This doesn’t illustrate a break from tradition so much as a shift in how weddings work now. Three decades ago, wedding planners were rare. The wealthy relied on social secretaries or other members of their staffs to plan family events, and even those events were relatively small-scale; everyone else planned their own, perhaps with the help of a savvy friend or neighbor. Then Charles and Diana’s wedding happened, igniting the imaginations of brides across the world. You too could have a fairy tale wedding of your own, provided you had the funds. And as weddings became more elaborate, the need for specialized wedding planners grew too.
There are all manner of wedding planners now, all around the world. But a select few — a group that numbers about 20 — plan the highest-end events, the weddings of the very, very rich.
One such planner is Sarah Haywood. Sarah hates the title wedding planner; she thinks it conjures up the image of “some silly girl” like Jennifer Lopez’s character in The Wedding Planner. The events she plans are huge productions; the title belittles her and her team. But she’s also practical. “If you put down wedding producer as a search term on a website, you wouldn't get any work, so for SEO purposes I'm a wedding planner,” she says wryly.
She works almost exclusively with high net-worth individuals, most of whom are business moguls, with the occasional royal or celebrity mixed in. Celebrities never want to pay for things, she notes. Only the A-listers do — everyone else, “reality TV stars and the like, they're after just something for nothing.” They also don’t typically have the kind of money that a standard client of Sarah’s does. “The very wealthy,” she explains, “I mean the uber-wealthy, they lead very different lives than the wealthy.”
There are believed to be at least 2,257 billionaires in the world. Their collective wealth totals $8 trillion, more than 10 percent of the global economy. There are 55 percent more billionaires now than there were just five years ago, and given the secretive nature of the ultrarich, there may in fact be a couple thousand more hidden billionaires scattered around the globe.
Then there’s that term, ultrarich, which refers not only to billionaires, but anyone with a net worth exceeding $100 million. They are the 0.01 percent, to the billionaires’ 0.0001 percent. There are thousands of them. The richest of the rich can get whatever they want, whenever they want it. There are no obstacles to their material desires.
“The uber-wealthy have staff around them. It's very difficult to get to them. I often don't have direct contact with them,” Sarah continues. She doesn’t, for instance, know the name of one of her very favorite clients, who also didn’t divulge to her what he did for a living. She only found out his occupation after a security company hired for the event figured out his mother’s name and followed information from there; the client’s own name still remains a mystery.
Sarah’s company is based in London because of the city’s status as an international hub. She has British clients and American clients, Eastern European clients and Middle Eastern clients, but half of her clients are from Asia.
“That's a problem for us at the moment because, certainly in mainland China, the wealthy are having issues displaying their wealth,” she says. Weddings in China are a civic event — you go to a local government office, sign a piece of paper, maybe go out for a meal. Her clients are looking for the romance they’ve seen in Hollywood movies, living out their wildest wedding fantasies in France or Italy or England. “It's frowned upon, so they don't want to be ostentatious in their own country, which is great because they'll come and be ostentatious around Europe, which we love, but at the moment they're finding it tough. My legacy clients, if that's what you call them, they tell us things are very different to how they were a few years ago.”
Until this year, Sarah’s lead time for event planning was 12 to 16 weeks, but now people are planning a bit further ahead, which she attributes to anxiety about the state of the world. Things feel less stable. Even the very wealthy are nervous about what Brexit and Donald Trump mean for them and the economic climate.
Sarah prefers a shorter planning window; it makes clients easier to manage. “They change their minds a lot because they live a life where what they want right here, right now is what's important, and they're not used to planning. They don't need to plan for a year because they can hire someone like me who can make it happen now.” She once planned a wedding in 18 days.
Sarah likens her job to that of an orchestra conductor or an army general. She’s coordinating at the highest level, making sure her multiday events go off without a hitch. Timing is everything. The smallest details matter. Service is key.
“Whoever you are,” she says, “your wedding day has got to be a day that's more special than every other day. So if you already lead a life that to you and me would be incredibly special — staying in the world's finest hotels, traveling there in your own private jet, homes all over the world, finest cars, finest food, couture clothing — and then you say to me, ‘I need you to give me a day that's more special than my everyday life,’ that's the difficulty, that's the challenge, and that's what I have to deliver.”
Sarah says clients never come to her with a budget, but that doesn’t mean they don’t negotiate. “There's a very common misconception that the wealthy don't care about money or aren't good with money. They are very savvy with money, and they will argue with me and budget with me down to the dollar.”
Luxury wedding planners like Sarah often work with event designers, who are in charge of aesthetics: lighting, flowers, the cake, anything that’s visual, down to the speakers that the band will be using. The goal is a cohesive visual narrative.
Preston Bailey is one of the biggest names in luxury wedding design. He started off as a florist known for his over-the-top arrangements. He finds the ultrarich client the most interesting and difficult to please.
“Luxury is lush, luxury is unique,” he says. “Luxury is creating an event that as people walk in, tells a story, an entertaining story. This is a clientele that you just can't bring them in for three hours and put them in a room and that's it. You have to create levels of entertainment.”
Luxury, for them, is something that’s never been seen before.
Preston has manifested this in Melissa Rivers’s winter wonderland wedding, which has since gotten copied the world over, and Sean Parker’s enchanted forest nuptials, where each guest was outfitted by Lord of the Rings costume designer Ngila Dickson.
There was also George Soros’s third wedding, which he compares to a theater production, massive and intricate. And Donald Trump’s third wedding, as well as weddings for two of Trump’s children.
“As a groom, he was great,” Preston says of Trump, though he won’t comment on his former client’s political career. “When we did Ivanka's wedding, he was a typical father of the bride that wanted to have everything perfect.”
Preston often designs original structures, both temporary and permanent, for weddings he works on, particularly royal weddings in the Middle East. Preston can’t name his royal clients, but he can name countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar. He’s also designed weddings in Hong Kong, in Colombia, in the south of France, in India.
“We have done events where we have built cities and buildings, so you can figure out that clearly that comes with a price,” he says. “Hiring architects and engineers and everything else to put an entire space together is costly.”
“The way people spend a lot of money is big design,” echoes Sarah, “so not just flowers on tables, but big, huge installations. Transforming spaces that could take days, if not weeks, to build. Hiring headline acts, that eats a lot of money up.”
Celebrity performers were novel just a decade ago, but now they’re something of a norm. John Mayer, Katy Perry, and Chris Martin have all been hired to perform at private weddings. Earlier this year, both Mariah Carey and Elton John performed at the wedding of a Russian billionaire’s granddaughter, while Mark Ronson DJed. Sarah actually blames her Russian clients for the trend “because they are the people who started hiring them for everything: 18th birthday parties, 21st birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, not just weddings. They diluted the uniqueness of that. Now we have weddings where one headliner isn't enough; they need three or four. Then you hit problems as to what order do you put them on in.” Tell a big name that she’s not the headliner, and she’ll drop out.
Performance fees are complicated. Is the artist on tour and in performance mode? Where in the world will she be at the time, and where is the wedding? How inconvenient is the ask? One artist may be down the road that weekend and happy to earn half a million dollars to perform; a few months later, she may charge four times that since she’ll have to leave a family vacation to make it happen.
Then there are the technical specifications to contend with. “If you hire John Legend,” says Sarah, “he will only perform using a particular Yamaha piano, and that's because he's going to sit down, he's going to play, and it's got to be exactly as it would've been if he was performing at the Grammys.”
Sarah uses an agency to book acts now, and encourages clients to give a number they’re willing to spend. From there, the agency can tell them who is available in that part of the world for that amount of money. If you don’t want to spend millions, or even hundreds of thousands, you can try for a reality TV contestant; Sarah says an X Factor or Idol finalist might command a mere $80,000 fee. Bands who have gone off the radar and are looking to make a comeback can come at more reasonable prices (relatively speaking), too.
The bride’s wedding gown is another large line item. It’s not just about buying designer — it’s about getting a 100 percent one-of-a-kind dress (or in many cases, several dresses). Couture services for a designer like Monique Lhuillier, who sells $20,000 collection gowns, start at $55,000. The lace, the beading — everything is custom. Among the most elaborate dresses she has made is one with a skirt of rolled organza roses and a 50-foot train. Couture brides make an average of five trips to Monique’s atelier in Los Angeles for the fittings, from as far away as London, the Philippines, and Australia.
Costs also add up when you’re serving the nicest wines, the best food; it’s a challenge to scale quality when it comes to fine dining. Last year, one of Sarah’s weddings served 20 kilos of caviar. She had to install a kitchen safe for the eggs, and hire someone to guard it. (For context, high-end Osetra caviar can run nearly $4,000 a kilo.)
And of course, these celebrations last for many days. “Why have the guests travel and put up just one event?” asks Preston. “You should at least have three of them. For the luxury client, they can afford to give as many parties as they want to.”
Nell Diamond was 25 when she got engaged in March 2014, the first of her friends to do so. Her husband, Teddy, is 10 years her senior and they had met through mutual friends. She was in business school at Yale at the time of the engagement, and decided to get married over her fall break in October so she wouldn’t have to miss class. She’s an overthinker, she says, so a short engagement was helpful.
The couple settled on an engagement party at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City followed by a wedding at Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in the south of France, where Nell had spent time as a kid. It’s also where she and Teddy took one of their first trips together as a couple. She knew there would be guests coming from all over the world; no matter where her wedding was, people would have to travel.
Her family’s American, and she now lives in New York where she runs her own bedding company, Hill House Home, but she grew up in London, where her father Bob Diamond worked at Barclays, eventually rising to the position of chief executive at the British bank. She had spent some time living in Tokyo, too. Teddy’s family is from Baltimore. France was easy enough for her British guests to get to, and there’s a direct flight to Nice from New York for the American contingent.
Nell and Teddy wanted to celebrate their marriage, but also their friends who had come all the way to France for the weekend. The goal was a mini–summer camp of sorts, full of activities for their 200 guests. “They signed up for three days, and we said, ‘Let's take care of everything. We'll just give you this incredible, fun experience.’ I'm sure we could have figured it out somewhere else, but it was just the perfect place to do it. There's so much to do on that property and it's big enough to fit everyone as well.”
The Hôtel du Cap is one of the world’s most glamorous hotels, set at the tip of Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera, surrounded by pine trees and palm trees alike. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, which you can access by jumping off the hotel’s famed diving board, and features a basalt rock infinity pool immortalized by photographer Slim Aarons. The resort’s guests include more than a 100 years’ worth of heads of state, celebrities, and artists.
Nell uses words like “lucky” and “grateful” when discussing her wedding. She knows weddings like hers are not the norm. “We said to all of our guests, ‘We get it. We're totally ridiculous freaks. We're having a wedding in the south of France in the middle of October. You all have lives. It’s okay if you don't come,’” she explains. “That was really important — not making people feel like they are forced to come. The entitlements surrounding weddings can be really scary.”
Fait Accompli, the same London-based events company that planned Will and Kate’s wedding party, planned Nell’s wedding too; her father had met Fait Accompli managing director Alex Fitzgibbons through business associates. Having a European planner made sense for a European wedding. She also liked the firm’s professionalism and discretion. “My wedding was certainly not under the radar, but there were intentions of it being. I liked the way they operated.”
Most guests arrived on Thursday afternoon, and with the exception of those who owned houses nearby, stayed at Hôtel du Cap, where the couple had subsidized the rooms, the smallest of which run for around $600 a night on October weekends. Making use of the pool and diving board was the first order of business for most, followed by a family-style welcome dinner where a local band serenaded the guests. Activity cards were filled out for Friday and Saturday — you could go on a tour of Old Nice, explore the Picasso Museum, take a boat trip to a monk-run vineyard, enjoy a guided bike race through the mountains. Pétanque courts were set up, replete with local pétanque champions, to teach guests the French game that’s similar to bocce. On Friday night, a rehearsal party DJed by Diamond’s friends Chelsea Leyland and Mia Moretti was hosted at a little beach bar.
And then on Saturday night, the main event, the wedding ceremony, held at sunset.
Nell also counts Olivier Theyskens and Prabal Gurung among her inner circle, and so they made her dresses for the evening. “I love the look of a corset and I love a waist and I love drama,” she says. “Olivier just went with that. He would send me swatches for the fabric, and then the embroidery, and then I had three fittings. It was the most incredible thing I could have ever even imagined wearing, and it's made even more special by the fact that someone that I love made it for me.”
She loved the visual, the theater of her 10-foot train disappearing down the aisle that stretched from the hotel’s grand entrance to the sea and took five minutes to walk. “I know this is very obnoxious,” she concedes, “but they had to take out the revolving door of the hotel to fit me through it because the train was so big.” Prabal made her reception look, a flowy, Grecian-style dress that contrasted with Olivier’s structured gown and required no such door removal.
If you happened to spend any time online that weekend, or the week or so that followed, you likely know much of this. Thanks to Instagram, #nellandteddy almost immediately went viral. “I’m such a social media person, so there was no question that I was going to be posting a lot,” says Nell. But she had no sense that her wedding would get the kind of attention that it did.
The event provided plenty of photogenic moments, to be sure, but in the fall of 2014, Instagram was different than it is now. A noncelebrity wedding going viral was unusual. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it was a perfect storm. Instagram had no Stories function at the time, and so people posted in-the-moment photos on their accounts more freely; wedding hashtags were also just starting to pick up steam. It helped that Nell and her friends were active Instagrammers with their own followings, and given the late-in-the-wedding-season timing, it was a bit easier for pictures to break through.
Nell noticed something was happening while she was getting her hair and makeup done for the ceremony. She was getting new followers, and the hashtag was being used by people who weren’t even at the wedding but were hoping to get traction for their own photos via the trending #nellandteddy. Harper’s Bazaar picked up on the activity and aggregated some of the best Instagrams in a post, as did the Daily Mail, Business Insider, and the New York Daily News, among others. The next month, a feature on Vogue’s website written by a friend who attended the wedding and works at the magazine went live; an Into the Gloss story followed the next.
“When I got back to business school, and I went into a class, someone asked me how my wedding was,” says Nell. “And someone else was like, ‘You know how her wedding was. We all know how her wedding was! We all have Instagram!’” A friend of a friend joked that it was her version of the Olympics, scrolling through the hashtag and watching it get updated. Nell took it as a compliment; she too loves to scroll through people’s feeds and see what their lives are like.
“I hope that people aren't hate-stalking these things. I want to see what people choose when they are given the tools to choose. It gives me ideas. It makes me happy to see people on the best day of their lives,” she says. “The feminist in me gets a little riled up about the idea that in my online life, the things that I am most celebrated for are getting married and having a baby, when I'm so much more than that. But I try to not take that dark approach and think about it as, no, we all just want to see these joyful life moments.”
Wedding data is hard to come by, but according to a survey of 13,000 American brides and grooms by the Knot, the average cost of a wedding in 2016 was $33,329. Manhattan saw the highest average cost, at $78,464. Twenty percent of weddings were considered destination weddings.
Marcy Blum wrote Weddings for Dummies. She jokes that she and her friends — among them, Sarah and Preston — “created these lunatics,” these everyday brides who want luxury-grade weddings. “We tell them, ‘You can't have a napkin that doesn't have a monogram on it. You have to have the save the date. You have to have a 16-day wedding.’ It's our fault.”
But Marcy defines a true luxury wedding as one starting at, all costs factored in, $1,500 a head. Preston finds that figure conservative, citing the $3,000 to $5,000 range as what couples spend for “five-star weddings.” Many, if not most, of Marcy and Preston’s weddings are destination; most of Sarah’s are too.
“At a wedding, that's when you can really see that all of a sudden, ‘Oh my God, they really have money,’” says Marcy. Among the ultrarich, though, there’s a divide between how wealth is shown. “Old money, like Rockefeller money — I work for a lot of the fifth generation — they want it to be lovely, but you're never going to talk them into serving Dom Pérignon, not in 20 million years.” She notes that old-money clients “will put the au pairs and the nannies and whoever raised them at the head table,” which she considers diametrically opposed to new-money clients and their flashy indicators of affluence.
Her Russian clients are responsible for the showiest affairs she’s put on. She points to a photo of a 500-person weddings she threw at the Waldorf Astoria for a Russian client that sits in her office. “They were very generous and lovely,” she says, “but it is as if you had to take everything out of your closet and put it on the table and show it, because otherwise you look poor or stingy. I don't know which is worse, to be poor or stingy, but neither one of them are considered very good. I've never had one of my Russian clients ever say to me, ‘Are you serious?’”
When she planned LeBron James’s wedding, it was a different experience. The NBA star was much more circumspect in his spending; Marcy and LeBron’s then-fiancée, Savannah, would go on Target runs together. “He always said, ‘I know where I came from, I'm not going back there. This is what I think is reasonable.’” She gets it, of course, but it’s not as fun. “I'd much prefer a Russian client,” she says with a wink.
LeBron’s wedding had a strict no-phone, no-camera policy. Scour the internet, and you’ll find very few details about and absolutely no images of the event. (Pre-wedding outfit pics from friends like Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union are the closest you’ll get.) A guest, however, did leak the save the date card to TMZ, which contributed to the fact that the actual invitation, sent months later, didn’t provide any real information. Guests had to call a private hotline to find out where and when the ceremony and reception were taking place.
The Jameses’ approach to privacy isn’t unusual, nor is it limited to celebrities. You’ll never see or hear about the vast majority of high-end weddings that take place.
“Ninety-nine percent do not want it discussed, talked about, featured in wedding magazines,” Sarah Haywood says of her clients. “I don't really want them either because the average wedding magazine, what they think a luxury wedding is, they'd pee their pants if they came to one of ours. It's a different level, so I don't want them condensed into, ‘Oh, the bride wore this, and this cost this.’ They always want to know what it cost, but it’s vulgar to discuss what it cost at that level. It is just not nice to talk about what it cost.”
Nondisclosure agreements are commonplace in the wedding industry. Oftentimes, planners can talk about events they’ve thrown, but they can’t attach them to specific clients. Photos can be posted on planners’ and vendors’ websites and social media accounts, but without people and only after the event has concluded.
Some couples, however, go the opposite route and actually hire public relations firms to get them press placement. “I tell people that and they're blown away,” says Alexandra Macon, who covers weddings for Vogue.com and also for her own site, Over the Moon. It’s not just couples that get the resulting exposure, though. “There are so many people creating this beautiful event, that it's almost nice to have a PR person on the back end making sure it gets featured somewhere and making sure the person featuring it references everyone so they get credit for the hard work they did.”
One such company is Maid of Social, which provides social media and PR strategy for weddings. Most of the weddings it does are luxury weddings, because of the extra cost investment such a service entails. The company’s “5-carat” package will get you a 360-degree social media strategy that includes an editorial partnership on Instagram and/or Snapchat, as well as press placement confirmed in advance. It also promises “connections to non-traditional wedding brands to secure product placements.” The price for the top-of-the-line service is typically around $5,000, but can run as much as five times that.
“If they're going to spend over a certain amount,” says Maid of Social co-founder Heather Hall, “we've found that people really want to show it off. Not in a ‘look at me’ way, but in a way where they want to be able to share this really special moment with all of their friends and family.” And potentially millions of strangers too, of course.
Vogue’s website is a coveted coverage destination. In the two-and-half years since the site featured Nell’s wedding, it’s gone all in on wedding coverage. What was once a smattering of one-off stories is now a full-fledged subvertical of the site. Vogue.com is a veritable repository for weddings of the ultrarich, particularly those with social media juice behind them. It’s there that you’ll find a first-person account of the #noormandie wedding (“It all kicked off with an Arabian Nights–themed pre-party where an entire souk of the finest kind was dreamed up for guests”), and a detailed write-up of “a safari wedding in the heart of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.”
Town & Country is another favored outlet; chronicling high-society weddings is part of the magazine’s DNA. “We've covered pretty much every Vanderbilt wedding there ever was, and the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Melons, Astors,” says assistant editor Leena Kim, who heads up the magazine’s monthly wedding column. T&C also puts out a twice-yearly wedding supplement. ”We're always trying to find and highlight interesting, important, and influential members of this 1 percent crowd that we cover.”
“A lot of it is the social importance and the status symbol aspect of it,” Leena continues. “There’s some sort of glorification to having your wedding in the magazine. If you think about weddings historically, especially high-society weddings, they were the most important event of that year.”
People ask Marcy how she can live with herself, throwing wildly extravagant events for wildly wealthy people, when so many in the world have so little. She explains to them that the cost is irrelevant for her clients. None have to take out second mortgages, or go into any amount of debt, or do anything that she herself would have to do to have one of these weddings.
“It's not going to affect their lifestyle,” she says. “For generations upon generations, it's not going to affect anything. I talk about this constantly. I'm a very left-leaning Democrat and very anti-Trump, but at the end of the day, I'm a capitalist. That doesn't mean you lie, steal, kill people to make money, but it means that you believe that you're allowed to make money.”
She saw her clients and their peers demonized during the recession. She thought it was unfair, myopic. “Most of my clients, yes, are very rich. They are also the people that, you walk into a hospital, you see their names on all the wings. It's not like they were like, ‘I'm going to have this wedding, so everyone can die. I don't care.’ They're doing both.”
There is a point at which these events can tip into parody, though. A recent T&C column of Leena’s showcases a party for the wedding of automotive executive Carlos Ghosn and his wife Carole at Versailles, inspired by Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, complete with actors in 18th-century French costumes. This is but one example of the not terribly self-aware “let them eat cake” weddings of recent years.
The 2015 wedding weekend of Getty heir Joseph Getty and jewelry designer Sabine Ghanem included a Liaisons Dangereuses party in which guests themselves dressed like French aristocracy. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian chose Versailles as the site of their 2014 rehearsal dinner and arrived in an opulent horse-drawn carriage, with at least some staff in period dress. Ten years earlier, the alleged $55 million wedding of Amit Bhatia and Vanisha Mittal, the daughter of an Indian steel magnate, made headlines for, among other extravagances, an engagement ceremony at Versailles.
Sometimes these numbers seem not only obscene ($55 million!), but borderline impossible. The 2015 wedding of Chinese actress-slash-model-slash-singer Angelababy received attention for its supposed $31 million price tag. Last year, Said Gutseriev, the son of a Russian oligarch, got married to Khadija Uzhakhova in what was called the world’s first billion-dollar wedding. There are no figures or sources to back this claim up, but there were performances by Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, and Sting, and photos show the bride in a crystal-encrusted Elie Saab gown, a nine-tier cake, and an unbelievable amount of flowers.
The New Zealand Herald reached out to Sarah about the wedding, and she told the paper she was “outraged” people thought she might have planned it. She described the event as an “absolute monstrosity.”
There’s money in the luxury planning business, but not as much as you would think, says Marcy. “It's definitely a struggle to get what we're worth. All of us. We all say the same thing. Every single one of our clients after the fact says, ‘Oh my God, I would have paid you double or triple.’ It's very hard to explain what it is that you do.” It’s easy to understand what a florist does, a caterer, the musicians. “But planning is so ephemeral that it's very hard to get paid for it. Now I just bring out one of my clients’ books, and I go, ‘Here, look at this. These are the first 47 venues we looked at’ so people can visualize what they're paying for.”
When she was making a name for herself early in her career, Marcy used to take commission from vendors, then she moved to a flat fee. Now she charges the client a percentage of everything she touches — between 18 and 20 percent of the total budget — because events that clients imagined as small when they were starting out had a way of ballooning way past budget. A wedding that begins with a $500,000 budget and climbs to $1 million is much more work than the original estimate suggests.
Sarah charges 15 percent of the event budget with a minimum fee, and caps it when a client spends over a certain amount. Preston has two payment models, one for weddings in the US and one for international events. “The national model, all that's charged is the design fee,” he says. “And because flowers are my passion, I usually do the flowers and I clearly mark that up and make a profit.” Those design fees are between $100,000 and $500,000, and include blueprints, renderings, and execution plans.
Of course, things can go awry when this kind of money is involved. Another big-name planner in Marcy’s circle, Los Angeles–based Mindy Weiss, sued a couple for more than $340,000 in unpaid fees and expenses for their daughter’s wedding, adding another $1.4 million in damages. As reported by the Washington Post, the story is messy, with Joan and Bernard Carl claiming they gave Mindy a million-dollar budget, which Mindy exceeded by as much as $2 million. Mindy claims they never set a cap on her spending. For planners at this echelon, not having a hard upper-limit budget isn’t unusual.
Marcy and Mindy and the rest of their friends often go up against one another for the same jobs. The ultrarich are not lacking for choice when it comes to who can plan their big events, though this was not always the case.
“When I started, there were two or three other people,” says Marcy. “They were venomous. Now, when we see each other, we all hug and kiss.” Marcy says young planners, whom she calls “plannettes,” are naïve. Until you’re at a certain level — that highest level — it can be cutthroat. Once you’ve reached that echelon though, the competitiveness dissipates. The best planners all know one another, they help one another. They know how good you are, and you know how good they are too.
Marcy loves the challenge of marketing herself, of being known. Before she had money for a publicist, she would call up the New York Times herself and pitch stories. She’s become addicted to Instagram, and uses her 25,000 followers as a bargaining tool. "Listen,” she tells vendors, “if my client paid full price, I can either include you or not, at our discretion. But, if you gave us a break for it, then I'll make sure that you're hashtagged."
Which brings us to all the professionals that planners and designers hire. Caterers, calligraphers, carpet-layers: There’s an entire ecosystem of luxury wedding vendors, one that’s close-knit and seemingly impervious to larger market forces.
”I watched in the '08–'09 recession when even the wealthy were pulling back on budgets because they didn't want to seem ostentatious,” says John Dolan, a photographer who has shot the weddings of celebrities (Will Smith, Matt Lauer, and Jennifer Lopez among them) and noncelebrities alike for more than 20 years. “But I know all the vendors who have been able to afford to buy a house because of the wedding economy, from the waiters to the letterpress invitations. There's a microeconomy that has been really good to me, and to a lot of people — and we all know each other.”
We the people, the 0.01 percent ultrarich and the 99.9 percent not, are sold a fantasy of the dream wedding. It’s a heteronormative fantasy, a traditional one. It’s expensive, even for those of us with the least means. When money is no object, the most venerated of life cycle events can become warped, cloaked in extravagance, but the bones, they’re familiar.
There are always questions of intention when it comes to weddings. Who is this for, really? For the couple? For the parents? Is it for the community? Is it, in the year of our Lord 2017, for the likes? There can be an extra layer of skepticism when the bill climbs into the millions. There is one-upmanship on the grandest scale; there are hangers-on.
“I've observed that with the really, really wealthy,” says Sarah, “there are a lot of people around them who are on the make, sometimes on their own staff. The people around them aren't necessarily friends. It's not always the case. I mean there are some incredibly wealthy people who are surrounded by friends or great, fun people. One size doesn't fit all. But it does come with great responsibility. My observation is that it's a very lonely life.”
And perhaps it’s made less lonely when you have someone to share it with. A person you join in holy matrimony while wearing a couture gown at a castle in Tuscany, sipping Champagne poured from a Jeroboam of Cristal, swaying along to Elton John serenading you, yours, and a few hundred of your closest friends.
Julia Rubin is Racked’s executive editor.