BORN IN THE coastal town of Chilibre, Panama, Preston Bailey grew up short on riches but long on imagination. A New Yorker for 30 years, he still has a Caribbean lilt in his voice. The chic sophistication of his work is complemented by his emotional Latin American origins. Bailey designs events from the soul; he aims to thrill, not merely delight.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Bailey stands head and shoulders above the crowd, gracefully navigating seven-figure soirees with relaxed efficiency. With, by his own admission, “very little education” and no official certification beyond the school of hard knocks, his is no overnight success story. He says, “Learning by doing cost me an immense amount of money.”
After a stint in fashion, Bailey took the advice of his mentors — interior designers Bob Patino and Vincente Wolfe — who urged him to create floral arrangements for their Fifth Avenue clients. He delivered bouquets until a client hired him to design her daughter's wedding at the Rainbow Room. “I did my first-ever event for Dr. Betsy Levy in the late '80s,” he recalls. “I wanted so to please her, I spent two weeks just looking for the right vases!” Now with more than 20 years at the helm of Preston Bailey Entertainment Design, he sets the bar for event designers worldwide.
Along with creating events for luminaries including Liza Minnelli, Donna Karan, John Galliano, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bailey has found the time to create his lavish new book, “Preston Bailey's Fantasy Weddings” (Bulfinch Press), due out this month. “Fantasy Weddings” features nine spectacular nuptials plus a chapter of signature details. “I wanted to show off a bit,” he jokes. (For more information, see page 14 in this issue.)
His attention to detail never flags; at the entrance to each event, Bailey discreetly eavesdrops on entering guests. “I want to hear what people really think,” he says, “their true reactions.”
Ever ready to create the big impression, Bailey has designed 10-foot lions from roses and elephants from lotus leaves. His secret to keeping his high rollers happy? He doesn't insist on having his way. He offers undecided clients a cornucopia of concepts: “I do a lot of presentations before I do a job.” Bailey handles one to two events per week with a core staff of 18. He loves doing events in tents: “It's a blank canvas,” he says.
His media star is on the rise. He recently joined Web site The Knot.com as an expert: “The exposure has been great,” he says. “It's really done properly.”
At press time, Bailey is knee-deep in the creation of a hush-hush royal wedding. “I can't tell you who it's for,” he says, “but getting to know the clients and finding out about protocol is a big part of making it work.”
Preston Bailey Entertainment Design 147 W. 25th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10001; 212/691-6777; www.prestonbailey.com
“I go for the emotional response; I want to invade the senses.”
PASSION FOR PARIS
“I'll jump on a plane to Paris to just walk the streets, buy books and look at magazines. I am so inspired by the beauty.”
“The most interesting compliment I ever got was from Oprah [Winfrey] — she called me the ‘floral genius.’ But I would never say that about myself.”
“I think it's just instinct. I know what colors work together. I'm not afraid of mixing them.”
Bailey's preferred venue for special events is New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; he explains: “You can't do a bad event there — what a location!”
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
“I'm finally beginning to get it down in the last three years. We have three departments. Once I design the job and the job is presented, my drafting people, prop people and building people get involved. Pricing is an important process.”