"My first ever event was the wedding of Marilyn Manson to Dita Von Teese, which was featured in American Vogue and Sunday Times Style. The queen of Doha must read those publications because the next thing I knew I was in Qatar producing weddings that were attended by what seemed like a thousand Qatari princesses...!" It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that there are very few people who can convincingly hop between the worlds of subversive shock-rock provocateurs and Arabian royalty in the space of just a couple of sentences. Fiona Leahy however, who describes herself as “a creative director of events and installations” is one such person.
Over the course of an afternoon spent with Fiona in the offices of her eponymous design studio, those two seemingly disparate clients begin to feel increasingly less disparate. As soon as one steps out of the lift and into the thrum of her intensely working team it’s clear that Fiona runs a serious operation to exacting standards from her West London base, yet there are little telltale signs that she also recognises the importance of letting more creative impulses run wild amidst the order - you sense mischievous glee at work behind the precariously positioned array of unusual dinner table options and other interior design curios that flood most of the surface spaces in Fiona’s office. It makes perfect sense for the way Fiona seems to work, and she is precise in acknowledging the importance of the operational element that allows her to do what she does best. “I have a really strong team around me; I come up with the inspiration and the ideas and the music and food and brainstorm and find random things we have to do. Then it all get’s executed, but I don’t do all the execution. I can’t, I couldn’t. It takes a team.”
So a picture of what it is that Fiona herself does begins to emerge, but as ever it is the how that provides the real point of interest and hints at how she has become the go-to events planner for powerhouse brands such as Prada, Dior and LVMH. As is often the case, this is where it becomes a little tricky to pin down with words. Fiona’s background is in fashion, working as a stylist and occasional jewellery designer/consultant for brands such as the aforementioned Vuitton. “I’m very much visually led in everything I do,” Fiona says as explanation for how she transitioned to conceptualising and executing high profile events rather than minute tweaks to a piece of jewellery or outfit. This visual approach is informed by an uncanny ability to be just ahead of the curve when it comes to ‘the zeitgeist,’ and it reflects the instinctive way she has moved through life and across continents. Born in rural Tipperary, she moved to New York at 19 after meeting some girls at a party who all thought of the Big Apple as “the land of opportunity”. This almost quaint narrative culminated in Fiona eventually moving to London as a base for her then-burgeoning business: “it sounds silly, but I really wanted a dog and a garden.”
“Some people are just very naturally good at trend predicting,” Fiona says by way of explanation for the paths she has taken and the decisions she makes. On a bigger-picture level it could be seen that the thing she predicted most presciently is the shifting mindset of the luxury consumer/brand towards an emphasis on experiences rather than products directly. Fiona sums it up thusly: “I am really obsessed with food and drink and music for example, and so all of these things come together as one perfect expression… I think that celebrating and being and entertaining is more interesting and sustainable than just how you look. I am most interested in design for living and how design can really enhance how your life works, rather than how your life looks.”
Fiona is quick to acknowledge the temporal nature of the work she does - the huge amount of thought and effort that goes into what is, she says, “smoke and mirrors, here then gone.” Rather than see this as a potentially reductive element, her face lights up: “it’s magic though, it’s total alchemy! Nothing was there, something was there and then nothing again.” The only slight negative relating to this comes when talk turns to the advent of social media, something that has had an ever-increasing impact on Fiona’s world since starting her company ten years ago. “It’s at odds with genuine entertaining,” she says. “Experiences are so 3D - it tastes, it smells, it sounds - and now some clients say, I want three Instagram [moments]. You can do something that photographs really well but as an experience, it might not necessarily read very well.” That said, Fiona herself is an avid ‘Instagrammer’ and acknowledges that a lot of her work plays into that world. I can hone in and elevate small details like monogram napkins or chattering teeth as place marks, which are obviously so Instagram-friendly.” Throughout the conversation, Fiona frames almost all discussions of her work in terms of the ‘details’ involved, building entire events from the minutiae up. Its a fascinating insight into her way of working and one that belies the sheer scope and impressive scale of some of her grandest works. “In Doha, we did an event with Damien Hirst and Prada,” she says at one point, “It was crazy, there were sand storms, dunes…” Its the closest she gets to capturing the decadent, once-in-a-lifetime moments that her work thrives on, before trailing off and returning to her beloved details.
Immersed in the events-to-be of Fiona’s office, one is almost overwhelmed by those details. She still takes plenty of evening classes to expand her horizons, on topics that sound straight out of a Roald Dahl set-piece - “marbling, sugar craft, Victorian jelly-making…” - and agrees that budding creatives have to be able to bring a lot of different things to the table, not least the ability to manage a business: “you need to be able to budget, you need to be able to forecast, you need to be able to client face and so on.” Ultimately though, when discussing the next generation of creatives, Fiona returns to the particular quality that has served her so well over the years: her willingness to trust her instincts.
“You have to be brave and ballsy to do events and once you have that feeling that you can do things and you can make things happen, you can apply that to anything really.”
By James Darton for Semaine.