Newsweek hit the nail on the head with its April 11 cover headline on the upcoming royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton: “In a World Gone to Hell — Thank God, a Wedding.” Nothing cheers people up like a wedding — after all isn’t it just a chance to have a good cry and then party ’til the cows come home? And the world could certainly use a good one right now.
I am a sucker for a good wedding and arose at dawn for both Diana and Fergie’s weddings. Of late I have taken to lapping up the royal bloggers and can spew royal wedding details ’til you slam the door in my face. Like, um, this: Before leaving for Kenya last September, William first picked up his mum’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring from his grandmother’s vault, which he thrust in his pocket and carried around in a rucksack for several days before proposing to Kate beside the remote Lake Rotundu. Or this: Kate is said to want Snog organic frozen yogurt served with the cake at the wedding breakfast.
But the bottom line is: it’s a wedding and the couple is beautiful and deeply in love. And really, doesn’t every girl deep down want to be a princess, even for a day? That’s what weddings are about.
So, in the spirit of the royal wedding we asked three Princeton-area wedding planners what they would do — if budget were no issue — to put their own special stamp on William and Kate’s nuptials and to share their expertise on what 21st century brides are cooking up for their own weddings stateside.
#b#Mary Harris Events#/b#
"After a full day of royal obligations, I think it would be very nice for Wills and Kate to have some true party down time. The bride and groom met in college and have been together for nine years so they are close with their mutual university friends, and they are close to their siblings,” says Mary Harris of Mary Harris Events, based in Princeton.
“While tradition is a great thing, I wouldn’t have a single traditional element at this party. I would have it in the Great Court at the British Museum and wash the room with red lighting and lounge furniture accented with Union Jack pillows. I’d launch fireworks above the glass ceiling as guests approach, and when they walk in they would be greeted with a signature Kate and Will cocktail by servers dressed in true British punk fashion.
“DJ Sam Young, who has played for the couple before, would spin from atop an actual double-decker bus, parked in the Great Court, which doubles as the bar on the lower level. Bartenders would be familiar faces; we would bring in the staff from Castle Pub near St. Andrews, a much frequented spot where the couple hung out in college. Guests would party and dance and as they depart would get a fabulous goodie bag filled with items and party favors provided by Kate’s mom’s party supply company Party Pieces (partypieces.co.uk).”
And for princesses stateside Harris has the perfect venue. “I had a bride who was an architect and wanted a venue like a castle. I happened to get a call from Beaver College (now Arcadia University), informing me that they were opening up Grey Towers Castle for weddings and event. We walked in and it was like Versailles, with gilded doors and windows, a gigantic staircase any bride would love to walk down, French doors, a gorgeous stone castle. It was one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever done.”
Grey Towers, a National Historic Landmark, dates to the turn of the last century, the original home of William Welsh Harrison, a co-owner with his brothers of the Franklin Sugar Refinery. The grandiose 40-room castle is modeled after Alnwick Castle, the medieval seat of the Duke of Northumberland in England. The Great Hall and many of the main rooms show influences from French Renaissance chateaux.
Harris grew up in Sewickley, PA, near Pittsburgh, and Princeton. Her father was a ground crew member for United Airlines; her mother was an educational psychologist. After graduating from Princeton High School in 1988 she thought she wanted to become an architect and started working in administration at Michael Graves. She ended up doing all the cooking and catering for events Graves would have at his offices and his home. “A woman in the office was getting married and asked me for tips. I got rid of her caterer and did everything. I was 19. I cooked all the food for 110 guests. I hired people I knew to be the waiters. It was blast and came out really nicely.”
Harris no doubt got her cooking chops from her grandmother. Harris and her two siblings were packed off to their grandmother’s house every summer, where a “simple” family supper involved 45 to 50 guests and her grandmother would cook and barbeque all day. “Aunts and uncles would bring food. My sister and brother and I would have to pick up all the trays. Everything had to be washed, there was no plastic.” Harris remembers her mom cooking croquembouche (a cone-shaped confection made of individual profiteroles covered in caramelized spun sugar) at Christmas. “I remember the production of it,” Harris says.
She eventually began doing events at Princeton University, first using a commercial kitchen at Nassau Presbyterian Church and part-time chefs. Today she finds that many of her clients are coming back to Princeton to get married, having either gone to school here or the bride or the groom have family connections here. A typical bride is in grad school; or just out of law school, working 90 hours a week; or in medical school.
“They have web access but they don’t have any downtime to sit and research. I’m the shortcut to doing that. They want to be a part of the wedding planning but they just don’t have the time, yet they don’t want to lose that connection to the planning of their own wedding. At first I sit back and listen to what they’re saying they want, and I look at what kind of pictures they show me, then I take their theme and ramp it up a notch.”
For example, for a bride from Seattle, Harris is creating a nod to that city at the reception by capitalizing on the very popular “to-go” coffee and cookies as guests leave the reception. She is shipping in actual Seattle’s Best to-go paper coffee cups, and will serve a special bridal blend of Seattle’s Best coffee. She had also planned to ship in donuts from Seattle’s Best. The bride loved the idea and ultimately decided to have an actual donut-maker come to the reception.
“Weddings have become more experience-oriented,” says Harris. The donut-maker is a good example. She has brought in a cigar maker to roll cigars to order for the now-common cognac, port, and cigar bar at receptions. Instead of the more common candy station with big glass jars filled with personalized M&Ms and bubble gum balls in the bridal colors, which guests help themselves to with scoops, Harris has brought in a candy maker who spins hot sugar candy like glass on a stick in shapes like a dolphin. Instead of an ice cream bar she’ll bring in a Mister Softee truck, complete with the music “It’s a little bit retro. People love that,” says Harris. She’s also done a retro candy bar with PopRocks, Smarties, and bulk candy.
She is a big proponent of at-home weddings, if the property can accommodate the number of guests. “Ninety percent of my weddings are tented weddings,” says Harris. “It’s more complex, because you have to bring everything in — generators, additional bathrooms, enough water and power — but I love that you can make it 100 percent yours. It’s the hardest but in the end it’s the most personal. With a blank white tent and nature as your background, you can bring in any rental. You can rent the funkiest lounge furniture, gilded chairs.”
In a tent without walls, Harris says, you have complete design freedom. You can create a second vignette by putting a boxwood hedge around the dance floor and seating around the edge, like a party within a party. “Your inspiration can be anything.” Instead of the typical paper lanterns, Harris is bringing in bamboo chandeliers from Asia. “People don’t realize lighting can change the space. Lighting projected onto the tent to cast a beautiful glow does a lot to create drama.”
She says navy or khaki suits with punchy ties are outpacing tuxedos, and brides in short dresses, very Jackie O vintage, is coming back strong, with short veils or feathers in the hair — like fascinators, the feathered frippery Kate Middleton often wears instead of a hat. As exemplified by singer Katy Perry’s wedding in India, colors are now globally influenced, with more jewel tones and bold tones, not the dainty pastels of yesteryear. “Brides are more comfortable with yellow, bright green, or bright orange.”
Harris reads dozens of food, design, and decorating blogs. “Brides used to just look at wedding magazines. Now they’re watching food shows and reading food blogs.” Macaroons are replacing cupcake towers, she says. Individual cups of sorbet are being passed in old-fashioned paper cups with the wedding date on the tasting spoons. Pie is the new cupcake: a party favor might be mini boxed pies with the bride and groom’s names and date stamped on the box.
“With favors, I always push the food thing,” says Harris. “People are traveling back home or going to an after party. I love to give them something to eat. I had a cookie cutter made in the shape of the state of New Jersey.
The wedding after-party is big, now that the bride and groom aren’t leaving the reception. “Let’s make that an opportunity to do something really cool,” says Harris. “People don’t want to just show up at the hotel bar.” Following a very traditional “silver service formal” wedding, Harris created an after party lounge styled like an underground club. “Everything was red — the opposite of the wedding and reception. Most reception halls have you leave after four or five hours. You can have an after party at another venue or a private space within a bar or restaurant.”
Personalizing the wedding is also important. Inspired by the surprise song in one of the wedding ceremony scenes in the movie “Love, Actually,” Harris once arranged for the string quartet that had been hired to play at the ceremony to break out into “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the bride’s favorite song from her childhood. For another wedding, Harris brought in a gospel choir from Westminster Choir College — also as a surprise for the bride — to perform Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.”
Another bride wanted something very different for the “getaway” car. At one of the pre-wedding meetings, the groom arrived before the bride and told Harris the bride coveted the 1979 Trans Am. Harris started going to vintage car shows and met a woman with this exact car, which she rented. “The drive wasn’t a quarter of a mile from the church to the reception but it’s like when you get a gift from someone, and you can’t wait to give it to them.”
Mary Harris Events, 609-947-3169, www.maryharrisevents.com. E-mail: email@example.com. Owner: Mary Harris.
#b#Details of I Do#/b#
"William and Kate seem to be a rather down-to-earth couple who don’t seem fussy or stuffy. And now I am hearing they are rehearsing their first kiss (on the balcony, as Prince Charles and Diana did) — you couldn’t get further from romantic! Their wedding will be so formal, with the world watching, so I think the most romantic gesture would be for William to have a secret ceremony for only them, in a private room prepared within the building where Kate is getting ready, a truly amazing surprise and show of love for her,” says Kristin Rockhill, owner of Details of I Do, based in Princeton.
“It will look like Kate is stepping into a garden. A tree coming up from the middle of the floor covered in white flowers emulating the look of a weeping willow and hundreds of hanging candles, the floor covered in white rose petals. I envision Kate being ushered from her room with some sort of distraction. She enters the room and is awestruck to see William and a clergy awaiting her so they can say their vows in private. It would be the most romantic gesture I could ever imagine. A private moment for a couple who will have few in the years to come, a moment of truth and love between two people amongst all the pomp and circumstance.”
Rockhill, who grew up in Hamilton — her father was a high school math teacher, her mom a high school guidance counselor — worked for caterers, including Main Street and Savoir Fare (on the Princeton campus) all through high school and college. While at Drexel University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design and merchandising in 2003, she took a class in writing business plans. Perhaps inspired by her engagement in college to Douglas Rockhill, now the creative director for Rosetta Marketing in Hamilton, Kristin decided to write a business plan for a wedding planning company. While she spent her first two years out of school working as an assistant buyer at Burlington Coat Factory, she continued to research her business idea.
She did seven weddings her first year, in 2006, many of which were Princeton graduates. Her first client gave her a huge budget and let her do whatever she wanted. She booked prominent wedding photographer Marie Labbancz, and the wedding landed in New Jersey Bride magazine. Meeting Labbancz, she says, “got me into a whole new circle of people.” The bride had “tons” of bridesmaids, many of whom hired her when they got married.
She was off and running. “For a while in 2007 I was in almost every issue of New Jersey Bride.” That same year three of her weddings were profiled on the Style Network’s “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway,” in which each episode involves three straight days of shooting, following the bride and wedding planner. Rockhill got on the show through one of her clients, who went to college with one of the show’s casting directors. In 2009 she did almost 50 weddings.
Times have changed a bit — Rockhill had two sons 11 months apart in 2008 and 2009, now aged two and three, and is more selective about the number of weddings she does.
She says she can help brides stay within a budget by prioritizing. “If there’s one thing a wedding planner is, it’s realistic; we don’t have a magic wand. If you hound your vendors, at the end of the day they’re going to take something out, and you’re not going to be happy.”
She agrees that personalizing the wedding is something planners can really help with. “When you walk into a wedding, the couple want you to know this is their wedding.”
She has had brides who based their color palette on important moments in their relationships — the blue of the blue Saratoga water bottle that was on the restaurant table when the groom proposed — or named each table number for an important moment in their relationship — first date, first movie, and so on.
Rockhill is seeing more daring non-traditional color palettes of gray and yellow, table centerpieces with interesting lamps to create a dining room feel instead of big floral arrangements, a signature drink table at the entrance to the reception. In the food realm, she says dinner is much lighter and the emphasis is on lots of passed hors d’oeuvres and stations at the cocktail hour. Main Street, she says, does a beautiful farmhouse table with cheeses and breads, for example. Also, say goodbye to the “ginormous” Viennese dessert table in favor of milkshake shooters and little cupcake bites. “Everything’s miniature — it’s like cocktail hour but at the end of the night. You are not stopping the party.”
One client, a couple in their 30s who met in college, wanted to party and relive their college days. “We hired the Nerds, a Jersey shore band. At midnight, we set up a table of Cluck U chicken wings, French fries, and White Castle burgers. Guests were going crazy, people couldn’t get enough of those White Castle burgers. Very fun and unexpected. You would think it was a ridiculous idea but people really loved it.”
The unexpected definitely works, says Rockhill, who once hired another bar band from the shore for the wedding of a couple who grew up spending summers at the shore. “Bar bands don’t do all the wedding stuff, but the floor was packed all night. It was one of the best weddings I ever did. If things get too stiff, it gets too boring. I bring in silly things. Like, I love cheese fries. I’ll do filet mignon and cheese fries instead of mashed potatoes. Don’t say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t.’”
Details of I Do, 609-577-1375, www.detailsofido.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Owner: Kristin Rockhill.
#b#A Votre Service Events#/b#
"I love history. I have a huge library of British history books. From what I know of the history of the British monarchy, I would have an after-party on a barge for Will and Kate. When Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were first together, he was so smitten he wanted to make sure the whole world understood what she meant to him. So that she could be seen by the public after the marriage, he took them on a barge as part of the celebration. Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived at their wedding on a barge,” says Marie Danielle Vil-Young, owner of A Votre Service Events, based in Franklin Park.
“After Will and Kate’s ceremony and formal reception, it’s not about being stuffy; you’ve done all the things that are expected. But then be modern, make it your personality, and have some fun. I could totally see it happening. Money’s no object. Having them exclusively on a barge — it would be insane. I would have signature martinis and one of the superstar bands. If it were up to me I’d choose the Black-Eyed Peas, though I know Kate loves ABBA (as did Diana) and Will favors ’80s bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club and hiphop artist Dizzee Rascal.”
If a bride mentions the word castle, Vil-Young recommends Pleasantdale Chateau in West Orange and the Castle at Skyland Manor in Ringwood.
“My brides look at just two or three properties and make a decision,” says Vil-Young, who does extensive research and sends them links. Research could, in fact, be her middle name, and she says it’s the single greatest asset she brings to the table, in addition to relationships with vendors.
Where did she hone her research chops? In the lab, naturally. Born in Haiti, Vil-Young came here as a young girl with her mother, who had her own import-export business. Her father died when she was very young. She earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry from SUNY-Stony Brook in 1998 and a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences from St. John’s University in Manhattan in 2004.
While working in research as a molecular biologist at ImClone, Vil-Young had an intern whose mother planned parties for political candidates. Vil-Young ended up helping at several parties and says the woman became a kind of mentor for her. One day she just came home and said to her husband, Jabari Young, who works in finance with Verizon, “I want to do this.” She registered her business, deciding on the name A Votre Service, which in French means “at your service,” a reflection of her Haitian background.
“I also had done research, and I knew the letter A would put me at the top of alphabetical searches. I’ve always approached my business from a research standpoint, with a discipline similar to a corporation, for example, what is legal, what am I liable for, what are my marketing strategies?
“I’m very technical, by nature; this is fundamental. When a bride wants anything, I’ve already done the research.” About a month ago she got a client, an Indian bride whose wedding has to be July 8 of this year. “I met her on a Sunday, and within three days we had a contract in front of her. A lot of the things she was trying to do, culturally, for the ceremony, she didn’t think would ever be possible. Where do you find a white horse? Where do you find a dohl player? She wanted fireworks for her groom; where do you find a place that will allow that? For the ceremony they had to walk around a fire, indoors.”
Vil-Young had all the answers, starting with the venue, the Hyatt in Jersey City, which has a large terrace that extends towards the water. She got the permits for the fireworks, and found the white horse. “I could get you an elephant from the same people if you wanted it. It’s $9,000.”
Since 50 to 60 percent of her clients find her on the Internet, they are from all over the globe, literally, and may just want to have their wedding here for whatever reason. She saw a client from Hong Kong twice, then again two days before the wedding; the rest was done by E-mail. “This is where science kicks in,” says Vil-Young, whose work has been featured on TLC’s hit show “Say Yes to the Dress.” “A lot of people are intimidated by technology but I administer my website and my blog myself.”
“In every category we think outside the box.” For venues she has recommended the Morris Museum or Montclair Museum; Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton; Natirar, a private mansion on 491 acres in Somerset, previously owned by Hassan II, the former King of Morocco and now owned by Sir Richard Branson; and One Hanson, an old bank in Fort Green, NY, where there’s a vault for cocktail hour that can hold 600 guests. Vil-Young has also planned weddings at 101 River Views, a two-story New York penthouse with a terrace that faces the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. For one wedding at this venue she went out on a limb and suggested Mexican food from Mama Mexico, a Manhattan restaurant. She knew it was outrageous and not cookie-cutter, but the bride was thrilled; it turns out Mama Mexico was the restaurant she ate at when she had first arrived in Manhattan. “We had tableside guacamole done fresh,” says Vil-Young. “It was great.”
Research pays off in the wedding business. For a wedding in which the groom was in the military, and the groom’s father was also in the military and does restoration work on Civil War uniforms for a Rhode Island museum, Vil-Young thought it would be appropriate to fire a cannon at the wedding. The dad provided the cannon; Vil-Young got a permit — from a golf course near the airport in Rye, NY. The cannon was on display in front of the church for the ceremony, where the men in the bridal party wore Civil War uniforms, then brought to the golf course to be fired off at the reception. “Is this personalizing a wedding or what?” says Vil-Young.
But Vil-Young is also a big proponent of at-home weddings. “We never touch your house. Everything is brought in.” A favorite at-home took place in the bride’s parents’ backyard. “It wasn’t a big property but we tented the whole thing, right over the swimming pool. We turned the backyard into something platinum. The father of the bride worked for a media company that owns the rights to different documentaries and he’d worked with Audrey Hepburn. The theme was Old Hollywood. In lieu of table numbers we had black and white photos of old film stars. We hung posters of old movies, including “Father of the Bride,” by the placecards table.
“We used rich, red tones, gold, crystal, very old Hollywood. I even had guys put ladders in the pool in order to hang chandeliers over the pool. There was a cigar lounge in a separate tent with old leather chairs the family had had sitting in their garage. We purchased a projector and had black and white movies projected. Very masculine. But the couple was honeymooning in Bermuda, and we also had a very feminine Bermuda room.”
She says her relationships with rental companies are key. “You can rent anything: luxurious linens, velvet fabric seat cushions; crystal chandeliers, even in colors like red or black; glass tables with a damask pattern, which you can light from underneath; furniture for lounges; glasses with ornate gold designs.”
So, is a wedding planner just for brides with a big budget? Vil-Young says absolutely not. “When money is an object, we have learned how to produce these events within the client’s means. Today, an average wedding budget is $27,000, though I have clients that have spent that just on flowers. Everything you see on our website — what you think it costs, it costs a lot less. If a bride is spending $25,000 to $30,000 on a wedding, she has enough for a wedding planner. Every bride can benefit from the resources and relationships we have with vendors. As a business we have different buying power.”
A Votre Service Events, 800-757-0549, www.avotreserviceevents.com. E-mail: email@example.com. Owner: Marie Danielle Vil-Young.