Friday, July 10, 2009

Robert Isabell

I've read the sad news that event planner and floral designer Robert Isabell has passed away. I saw it first yesterday on where Billy Norwich reported it. Today it's in Women's Wear Daily, and not yet in The New York Times. WWD said Isabell was found on Tuesday in his home but it is not known how or when he died. My friend decorator Mario Buatta told me a while ago that Robert Isabell had befriended and was spending a lot of time with Bunny Mellon, the widow of billionaire Paul Mellon and legendary taste-maker who famously taught Jackie Kennedy about antiques and gardening.

For a time, Robert Isabell was the hottest floral designer in New York; he did the work for both Caroline Kennedy's and John Jr.'s weddings. Once, I can't remember why, I was in his floral studio in the Meatpacking District, a garage packed top to bottom with fabulous flowers – what a great job he had, arranging beautiful blossoms. Back in the day, when I was a freelance magazine writer, I also worked as a waiter for Glorious Food, the glamorous catering company. That was the worst job I ever had. Those guys I worked for were mean. Ok, once, in Utica, I worked for a furniture store and had to move heavy furniture all day. That was the worst job. Then comes Glorious Food. Anyway, one Glorious Food event I worked at was the huge party which launched fashion designer Christian Lacroix in New York City. Robert Isabell did the flowers.

I'm talking 1987 here. Christian Lacroix was the hot new import from France and his partner was a publicist so we in New York City were whipped into a media frenzy over the arrival of the couturier. Julie Baumgold who is married to Ed Kosner, the former editor of New York magazine, wrote a wonderful column about society for New York at the time called "Mr. Peepers." Before Lacroix arrived she wrote a cover story about him entitled "Dancing on the Lip of the Volcano" which I remember vividly. And I wonder: what happened to Julie Baumgold? She is a talented writer I would like to be reading regularly.

Lacroix made his big debut at a party at the World Financial Winter Garden, which was later terribly damaged during the 9/11 attack. But there I was setting up dinner tables. Robert Isabell was setting up too, lining little votive candles along the arc of steps that descend into the Winter Garden. For Lacroix he arranged tight packs of tulips, peonies and roses in bright, vivid colors like pink, orange, and red, which corresponded to Lacroix's highly decorative designs inspired by the south of France which were presented at a fashion show that night. The evening captured a fizzy moment in New York history. As it happened, the October party was right after the Black Monday stock market crash so that event was the last of the high-flying Reagan years.

Later I worked as the style editor at the Hearst magazines web site. Robert Isabell was launching a collection of fragrances so I set up an interview to write a piece about him. I went to his house on Minetta Lane where I met him and a publicist. Unfortunately that interview did not go well; perhaps Robert was having a bad day.

I have written about Christian Lacroix here before. He is a gloriously talented designer but recently his company declared bankruptcy. Floral maestro Robert Isabell has died. So many ravishing flowers and exuberant fashions have come to rest. Appreciate the present my friends for beauty passes.


wild thyme flowers said...

Gosh, how sad to read this ! You are so right, his work was gorgeous, and what a glamorous life he led ! While I never knew him personally, I wanted to thank you for showing such an appreciation for his flower work. It's not an easy vocation and at the level at which he worked, it is very stressful indeed. How lovely and kind of you to remember him through your post.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Oh Bart, what a post! I just found out today that he died. I never knew him but loved reading about him and his impossibly glamorous life in all the magazines. Such a talent, such a loss. Your memory of him is a wonderful way to honor him and his work.

I also relished hearing a little more about your backstory, including the job at Glorious Foods. I moved to NYC in 1988 so that company was all the rage then, too, and I remember going to some parties where the food was catered by them. Perhaps I took a canape off your plate?! More likely a glass of champagne...!

Bart Boehlert said...

Hi Lisa, that is entirely possible! Though my career with Glorious Food was short lived, and ended before I permanently damaged my back loading dinner tables on to trucks.