ROYAL ASCOT: THE TIME OF MY LIFE
Written by Hanna-May White // June 21, 2011 // Fashion
From the moment you walk through the gates of Royal Ascot, the environment screams STYLE , GLAMOUR, MONEY and FASHION. Since the major rebuilding of the Grandstand in 2006/07, Ascot has become one of the finest racecourses in the world. It has been carefully designed to host not only Royal Ascot, but some of the leading racing fixtures of the year, or so I am told, as although I have been invited a million times it has taken Longines to personally invite me to dust off the morning suit and head outside of my beloved London.
The rain threatened to spoil our Day at Royal Ascot but dedicated followers of fashion and of course, the races themselves, refused to let the weather spoil their fun. Extravagant hats were briefly covered by umbrellas, and bold dresses with waterproofs, until the sun eventually came out.
Royal Ascot is steeped in tradition and is without doubt one of the finest places to entertain. I was very fortunate as Longines had their own private area in a central location within the newly developed Grandstand. The box is finished to the highest standard and has 2 plasma screens framed in gold and a selection of watches on pedestals to tempt even the most puritanical monk, who has shed all possessions to take a second look.
I am greeted by Lucinda Barrett, from UK Swatch Group, who could not be lovelier to look at and to be looked after by. She guides us into the new building that is like a majestic marquee only with 4 walls and better conveniences and, most importantly, a private balcony offering fantastic views of both the race and the Royal Procession.
With round tables, the box is large with ample space for a sit down silver service dining experience .We are greeted by the staff and taken to our seats, where a full goody bag is awaiting us, filled with information about Longines and The Royal Ascot, as well as all the fashion anyone could ever wish to see. The dress code enabled guests to wear jackets and ties, and very smart wear. However, guests were encouraged to consider wearing Royal Enclosure Dress Code.
The benefit is that this gives access to areas of the racecourse which, although not Royal Enclosure, require a full formal dress code. I was dressed in my best and felt rather confident to walk beside the crowd and models alike. The Longines box provided plenty of waiting staff to serve our food and drinks and all of them went the extra mile with a smile. A wander around Royal Ascot can be breathtaking, as to see both men and women dressed in their finery on a lovely English summer’s day just adds to the day’s enjoyment, although we were warned not to go too far and stop when we see the burger barns as the “Silver ring” is infamous for not having the best audience.
We wandered about and saw the Ascot Racecourse, including the Parade Ring, where we were able to identify the horses with the shiniest coats and most muscle prior to making our final selection. But when it came down to it, I just chose based on their name and believe it or not, all 5 of my choices came up winners. Sadly I had left my wallet at home or this column would have been written from a hammock in Tahiti.
I was also fortunate enough to have two rather memorable conversations: Starting with Gary England. An immaculately tailored grey morning suit, Top hat buffed to a sheen, the Royal Enclosure badge displayed, this whippet thin figure approaches me, there is no confusion. This is Gary England and he is the director of the show and I am but his humble guest.
Articulate and theatrical when he speaks, this well-heeled gent seems to be way too calm for a man responsible for hosting over 300,000 guests. Gary, who just a few years back, was a committed urbanite, working at the Barbican as head of commercial sales. A rampant devotee of the theatre, once boasting that he took in performances six days a week, including both a matinee and an evening show on Saturdays. But it was in 2005, that the sales and marketing director’s role came up at Ascot. And he confessed to us that he was more than a little hesitant. "If you had asked me then, I would have said that I’d never work out of London and never at a sports venue", he says. But as we all know this isn’t any old sports venue. "I thought, I’ll go, open the building and do two Royal Ascots. It’ll look great on my CV and then I’ll come back to London", he remembers.
England describes his first nine months like “Being in a pressure cooker… When you open a new venue, you form such strong bonds with the team. You’re working 18 or 19-hour days to get the building open. You never know whether you’re going to get that chemistry and we were very fortunate. Missing the deadline was never an option”.
The grandstand opened (on time and on budget) at Royal Ascot 2006 and the following year, England made his own mark on Royal Ascot with the introduction of the fashion show in The Bessborough Restaurant. To his mind, this was a no-brainer, just cementing the age-old relationship between Royal Ascot and
fashion, but he didn’t want any old fashion show. “It had to have credibility, be of the same standard as London Fashion Week. Ascot was always about high fashion”.
The continuing relationships with top British designers – beyond the catwalks and into long-lasting partnerships – is the other achievement that England is most proud of. He started in 2008, with milliner Philip Treacy who offered his interpretation of Royal Ascot for the launch brochure – a striking series of monochrome shots of Martha Sitwell followed; in 2009, he enlisted the creative vision of Vivienne Westwood.
Now there is another story, England tells us he had set his sights on Westwood well in advance. “I had a list of designers that I wanted to work with. Number one was Vivienne,” he says. “It was a case of calling her office every day for a number of months and generally making a nuisance of myself. Eventually, I was given 20 minutes to pitch to her”. Fortunately, Westwood liked the idea. On the face of it, this designer famous for Punk, BDSM, and of course her political activism, might not have been the obvious match. But England stayed true to his vision and had method to his madness, “She’s quite unique, very avant garde but her designs are also incredibly British. She has a great respect and admiration for the monarchy and tradition!”
This constant development of the brand is something that England is passionate about. “Royal Ascot has to be relevant if it’s going to retain its place in the calendar. Equally, you have to be respectful of the 300 years of tradition – it’s a very fine line”.
When I asked him about what it is like to run Ascot, he explains that it means 14 hospitality restaurants, 262 boxes, four public restaurants and more than 100 retail outlets. Keeping 300,000 people happy over the five days is not easy and he tells me “Every day of Royal Ascot is like opening night at the theatre”. But what about the rest of the night? He will be working on Royal in some capacity for 51 weeks a year, “We race every month and it’s a busy racecourse. Outside of the racing, we also have a very busy conference and events centre and not many people are aware that Ascot is used a lot as a film location”. Little wonder then, that England puts in between 10 and 14 hours a day!
When it comes to Hospitality, “Service is just as important as the food; particularly in the current economic climate. Corporate and individuals are entertaining less which means when they do go out there is a real sense of occasion and a high expectancy that must be met. Furthermore, low cost airlines and an increase in European and international travel in the last two decades means that audiences are more discerning than ever before”. And how was the service? In a word, amazing from start to finish.
Along with the racing, Royal Ascot is all about the hats. Meet Italian Designer Ilda Di Vico, whom has been operating her own label since 2005, gaining both national and international acclaim. A unique style, coupled with high quality has produced hats that have become a huge commercial success.Ilda's design philosophy encourages pieces that stand out, look individual and continually inspire the imagination of those who both see and wear them.
Due to the recognizable, unique design, numerous press releases and celebrity clients, the brand has achieved a somewhat cult status worldwide, making a name for itself in the highly selective and competitive market.
Ilda Di Vico designs hats for people who are not afraid of expressing themselves, but who is she and where do the designs come from?
BSF: 1st question, why ?
Ilda Di Vico: I attended the races every year and used to go shopping for hats to find matching outfits. I never found anything I was happy with perfectly and I ended up doing a little myself. I studied as a hairdresser and was naturally creative.
I used to play around with bits to match my outfits and used to get picked up by the press. A lot of people used to ask where I got my hats from. So that's when I went to London, did the milliners course and opened the boutique.
BSF: Tell us how it works ?
Ilda Di Vico: A lot of my clients come in with their outfits and I create the hats around them.
BSF: Now, Tell us something we don’t know about you,
Ilda Di Vico: When I moved to Ascot in 1998, I really enjoyed the Royal Festival. The buzz was fantastic, and it was great to see everyone dressing with so much style. I always found it hard to buy hats to match my outfit. I had to create my own designs to achieve the look I wanted. Soon, people were asking me to create designs for them – and Ascot Hats was born! I then went on to qualify at the London College of Fashion.
BSF: So how busy are you?
Ilda Di Vico: For the whole of June I don't stop until midnight. I don't close early because I know people can't make decisions so quickly, so I know to expect that. I've been here working twenty-hour days for the last two weeks!
BSF: Does it start with the hat? Or maybe a thought, or a vision?
Ilda Di Vico: It starts with the idea and I don’t know where that comes from. Then I design the dress, someone else makes the dress and once I have the dress, I create the hat. The hat is the extension of the dress. It is the last part of the artwork, the final stroke of the paintbrush on a perfect silhouette.
Even with all that she has accomplished, after a long day looking fabulous at Ascot, she plans to rush home, take off the stunning Christian Louboutin heels, and jump into her juicy couture tracksuit with the woven Ugg boots and get straight back to making hats. But it won't be all work and no play for Ilda as she later tells me.
Ilda Di Vico: My favourite part is the buzz of the fashion, looking at everybody, all the ladies, and how they've made the effort. It's lovely to see people make the effort and wearing something they would not wear on a daily basis – we're trying to get hats back out there and it's lovely to go to these events where we can wear them.
BSF: Any suggestions for our readers?
Ilda Di Vico: The best piece of advice I can give is the plainer the outfit, the crazier the hat (laughs). Wear a substantial size that is most flattering to you. That would be shoulder width, if you want to look streamline. If you get anything smaller, it's very unflattering. When wearing hats- if you don't look beautiful or feel beautiful when you look at yourself, I don't see the point in wearing one.
BSF: Do you have different design suggestions according to your head?
Ilda Di Vico: The hats are designed to be placed on the right hand side of your head. If you have a left side parting in your hair, then obviously when I dress the hat, it would look a lot better if it was on the right hand side.
As for the fashion show, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are my 10,000.
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