Being a wedding planner is not for the faint of heart. Just ask Princeton native Michelle Rago, a major player after only three years in the profession. Rago, 43, has seen her share of “bridezilla” meltdowns. But she still loves her job.
Rago, whose new book, “Signature Weddings,” was just published by Gotham Books (228 pages, $50), will lead a wedding seminar on Thursday, June 28, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Princeton MarketFair. She has designed weddings for the daughters of film director Barry Levinson and novelist Erica Jong. She has written for or been quoted in Modern Bride magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Elegant Bride, New York Magazine, and several websites including theknot.com.
“I’m passionate about weddings,” Rago says. “To me, they are like an anthropological study of humanity. If you’re not fascinated by them, you probably shouldn’t be in the profession. Because people experience every emotion. There can be a lot of crying, a lot of tough conversations.”
Despite the occasional encounters with temperamental brides, Rago is a hopeless romantic who takes great joy in staging nuptials. Her book emphasizes her conviction that all weddings — even those on a small budget — can be unique and memorable. The secret is personalization; the key is creativity.
“A luncheon in your back yard can be a good wedding,” she says. “I wrote this book to say it’s not about how you spend it but who you are. Do we do big budget weddings? Absolutely. And there is nothing more fun for me than to be handed a big budget. But creatively, I have to say that some of my favorite ideas come out of being pushed to have to really think about it, not necessarily with a lot of money to spend.”
The lavishly illustrated volume focuses on 10 weddings Rago has designed in locations as varied as a church in St. Louis to the New York Botanical Gardens to an island in the Caribbean. One of Rago’s key tools in designing a wedding is an “inspiration board,” tailored for each couple, which helps determine the core design elements of their celebrations and points her in the direction of choosing a color scheme of three or four very specific, compatible colors, such as the turquoise, robin’s egg, coral, and shell pink scheme Rago used for a destination wedding on Harbour Island in the Bahamas.
Ideas for the inspiration board might come from hobbies — sailing, antiquing, or gardening; passions — fine art, couture fashion, or the Maine coast; family heirlooms — lace, clocks, or jewelry; as well as other miscellaneous “loves” — the color periwinkle, anything Art Deco, or snow. She says the idea for the inspiration board “was born out of necessity, a place to house all of the creative ideas — and be able to edit them.”
“I am awed by how the tiniest object or idea can become the heart of the wedding,” Rago writes in the book. “For example, a sea horse became a recurring motif for a gorgeous wedding in Canouan Island. Sea horses are inherently endearing for some reason, and as creatures of the sea they were totally right for our island theme. Sea horses also mate for life, so what could have been more romantic?”
As far back as she can remember, Rago, who started her career as a floral designer, has been captivated by flowers. As a child growing up in Princeton, she spent a lot of time digging and planting. “My father was a major gardener and we had gardens as kids,” she says. “Every weekend we went to every nursery within 20 miles. We had our own zinnia gardens, herb gardens, all kind of things. It was his passion. When I got my allowance, I’d go to the flower shop on Nassau Street, along with the Nassau Hobby Shop and the (toy and dollhouse) store Stuff and Nonsense. That was my trifecta.”
Rago’s father, Albert, a teacher who also worked for the New Jersey Department of Education, died in March. Her mother, Sharon Naole, is a retired lobbyist. Her parents divorced when Rago was young. Her sister Pamela, is senior development officer at the Institute for Advanced Study, and is married to Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes (they were wed before Rago got into the wedding planning business). Her cousin, David Rago, is well-known from his appearances on PBS’ “The Antiques Roadshow” and his company, Rago Arts and Auction Center, is located in Lambertville.
The family moved to Princeton from Trenton when Rago was a small child, after her mother enrolled at Princeton University. “She was going to community college and applied to Princeton the first year they accepted women, and she was accepted,” Rago says proudly. She and her sister and mother moved into the Butler graduate housing projects, and later to a house on Hamilton Avenue across from Westminster Choir College.
Growing up, Rago loved cooking and dreamed of opening her own restaurant. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1981, she opted for the New York Restaurant School instead of college. After earning her certification as a chef in 1984, she moved to Hoboken and began working in a New York hotel.
“I stayed in the food and beverage industry from age 17 to 27,” she says. “That was the way I thought it was going to go. But then one day we were doing an event at the Hotel Macklowe (now the Millenium), and we hired a company to do this amazing floral transformation. And it just hit me like a stone. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments.”
Rago decided to leave the food and beverage field to try the floral industry. She freelanced for about six months, then took the plunge. With a partner, she opened a company called Calabria (her father’s side of the family is from that region of Italy) on 18th Street in Manhattan. While the emphasis was on flowers, the business soon blossomed into something more.
“I did that for three years and then went out on my own,” she says. “I started to build up a clientele. We did event design, daily flowers, gift baskets, and big parties, including weddings. Once I sorted out that I could do destination weddings, that was it, because I have the travel bug bad.”
After 9/11, the corporate event end of the business dropped off. Weddings became Rago’s main focus and the company quickly developed a reputation. In addition to some celebrity weddings she did actress Mariska Hargitay’s baby shower. She employs four people full-time; others are brought in on a per-project basis. Her new business, Michelle Rago, LTD, is located at 115 West 28th Street.
Rago decided to write a book not just for the exposure but because she believes she has something unique to share. She hired a literary agency that pitched several publishers, four of whom expressed interest. “I knew it had to be uniquely positioned to other books out there,” she says. “It’s not an easy category in publishing. Wedding books have been hit hard from magazines so we really had to have something to sell. What I wanted to do was simplify the process for brides, kind of like a cookbook. I’ve always been obsessed with cookbooks, though I don’t cook much anymore.” Gotham, an imprint of Penguin Putnam, paid Rago a $100,000 advance. The first print run of the book is 15,000 copies.
Rago knows that brides are nervous about the process of planning a wedding. “Brides can be overwhelmed as soon as they come in the door. Knowing how to put what they like all together, and filtering all the bits and pieces, that’s what I’m doing. I love teaching. I grew up in a family of people who love to learn. I wanted to create a model in the book that worked whether or not you could afford to hire a planner. (The model) transcends budget. It allows you to engage in a conversation with yourself, your spouse, your family. It helps you to navigate.”
With “Signature Weddings” on the shelves, Rago began a series of workshops at the New York luxury store Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue. The “Bendel Bride Workshops” invited brides into the store to meet Rago and speak with various vendors who had been invited to participate. “It was uniquely different from a bridal show, because it was really about thinking through your creative decisions,” Rago says. “At Barnes and Noble (on June 28) it will be a little different. This is wrapped a little tighter around the book. It will be more interactive for brides. We’ll do a Q&A.”
Along with tips and advice, Rago may share some of her “adventures” in the wedding planning business. She is loyal to her clients and doesn’t go into detail about bad behavior or near-disasters, the word “near” being key. “Weather is a big thing. People get really upset if it doesn’t go their way,” she says. “We did a wedding in St. Louis that was supposed to be very flower-heavy, with lots of outside flowers. But it turned out to be the coldest day in 20 years, and we had to scramble because none of those outside flowers could be used. We ended up uplighting the whole front of the club. You have to make decisions like that on a dime. Destination weddings can be especially tricky, but you grin through the torment if something goes wrong and you figure out how to make it right.”
What about her own wedding? Rago has been divorced, “for a very long time,” she says. “I wasn’t in this business when I designed and planned my wedding, and I drove every single human being close to me crazy. It was at the American Boychoir School with a Gatsby theme, croquet on the lawn. When I look back, it makes sense to me now that I’m doing this.”
If she marries again, Rago will take a different route. “Destination wedding, definitely,” she says. “I’ve done the big grand one. This one would be different. You’d have to book a plane and come to Italy.”
Wedding Seminar, Thursday, June 28, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Michelle Rago, a Princeton native and New York-based wedding planner and author of “Signature Weddings,” presents a seminar focusing on the elements of different styles of weddings. Register. Free. 609-716-1570.