Last weekend, while 200 of the world’s leaders gathered in Paris for a conference on climate change, 200 of the world’s most glamorous people gathered in Switzerland to enjoy an unseasonably warm weekend of skiing and partying. For the sixth year in a row, A Small World — an international members-only club owned by the heir to the Nestlé chocolate fortune — took over two five-star hotels in Gstaad, a vacation town favored by European heiresses and Russian oligarchs. Sticker prices ran as high as $18,000 for the playboy who required a penthouse suite.
A Small World was founded, initially, as a social network (“the MySpace of millionaires”), so the membership skews young. Its annual winter blowout serves as a meet-and-greet for a rising generation of the global elite — or a high-altitude stage-setting for the Rich Kids of Instagram. “I don’t want to ski, but I’ll roll around in the snow and take pictures,” one guest joked over a flute of Champagne. “That’s the point, right? We do it for the pictures.” For some guests, “we do it for the pictures” is literally true: An inner circle of bold-faced names are here for free, sponsored by the weekend’s luxury-brand backers, whose wares they tag on Instagram and flaunt in party photos.
So what happens when 200 majorly wealthy and minorly famous jet-setters go all-out in scenic Gstaad? To find out, I joined A Small World’s crew for a highly active weekend with the idle rich — and the coterie of photographers, publicists, and designer-product concierges who trail them around the world, plying them with goods and services and reminding them to put their clothes back on after drunkenly stripping naked.
Gstaad Palace isn’t really a palace, in that no monarch ever owned it. The century-old hotel was merely designed to look like a castle, lined with turrets at the top of a mountain. Most of the weekend’s events will occur here. (“They say if you haven’t been to the Palace lobby, you haven’t really been to Gstaad,” T Magazine once wrote.) Elizabeth Taylor was a regular here, although according to the old-money denizens who apparently run this joint, she was the Hollywood trash who ruined it. Gstaad Palace’s spa has “eight treatment rooms, a private spa suite, saunas and steam bath, relaxation areas with incredible views, indoor pool and outdoor pool with jacuzzi, a state-of-the-art gym, a Pilates studio and a unique hammam experience with seven rooms.” Guests wander the hotel in plush terry-cloth robes, which creates a bizarre juxtaposition when sharing the elevator with women in ballgowns.
After filling all of Gstaad Palace’s 104 suites, A Small World booked 50 more at the Grand Hotel Park, a resort down the street. Several guests gripe about being assigned to the less elite hotel, but an army of chauffeurs has been enlisted to ferry them back and forth whenever they please. The most frequently spoken phrase of the weekend is “Take me to the Palace.” Arriving in their suites, guests are greeted with gifts from the weekend’s corporate sponsors (including Grey Goose vodka and Jimmy Choo shoes) and a dense two-page schedule outlining the weekend’s social activities, each with suggested attire. First up: a semiformal cocktail party at the Palace, followed by a dinner with live music.
I’ve been to parties in New York where the divide between the rich bores who throw parties and the poor-but-interesting people invited to entertain them is painfully apparent. (The gulf is particularly obvious in the art world.) But in Gstaad, my wealth compass fails. The people here are so rich, they don’t even carry money. You can shop for diamonds at the boutiques in Gstaad Palace just by saying your name — if the concierge believes your credit is strong enough, he’ll add precious gems to your bill as though they’re items from the minibar. “Anything is possible,” a Palace spokesperson explained. Here, your mere presence is a sign of wealth, which allows the handful of poor-but-interesting guests to masquerade simply as interesting. Conversely, I keep mistaking interesting rich people for poors. When I meet a painter named J.T., I assume he’s a moderately successful artist who somehow won the affection of our hosts. Several days later, a Small World press release identifies him as John-Taki Theodoracopulos, Greek shipping heir. (His father is the one who thinks Liz Taylor made Gstaad tacky.) And, when I receive compliments on a skirt from, um, Urban Outfitters, I realize that everyone sees what they want to see. If you want and expect to see fabulous clothing, even cheap skirts start to look good. Gstaad is a dream location, and its reality adheres to dream logic. When nobody is a local, but everyone is entitled, you’re free to project any number of fantasies on any number of people, places, and events. This weekend, everyone wants and expects to meet glamorous rich people — which makes everyone else seem more glamorous and even richer than they ever have before.
Margherita Marzotto is an Italian painter who lives in Paris and only wears Dolce & Gabbana. I meet her at Friday night’s cocktail party over elderflower cocktails in the Gstaad Palace’s chandelier-lined lobby. She and her boyfriend, the French jewelry designer Barthelemy d’Ollone, bypass small talk, skipping straight to advice on which of their fellow guests I should be hitting on. Barthelemy chimes in with useful information about French-society penis sizes. (Several hours later, I will attempt to lock down the man he calls “the best lay in Paris,” and fail. “I’ll be right back,” the best lay will tell me, before he disappears.) In the smoking room, a group of artists, photographers, and designers have assembled. I think they are all rich, famous, or rich and famous, but spending a weekend with 200 people you’re meeting for the first time is a brutal test of the memory. I’m introduced to a dizzying array of people whose names I struggle to remember. Luckily, the best people at keeping tabs on everyone’s social statuses are socialites themselves, and many of the people I meet are happy to point out the extra-glamorous among them. One seatmate points to a woman in a velvet dress with jet-black hair. Her face is like a Modigliani painting. “That’s Anna Cleveland, she’s a model and everyone is crazy about her right now,” my seatmate whispers. “Her mother was a huge supermodel.” That is, Pat Cleveland.
Dinner takes place in an adjoining ballroom. We choose our own seats; the Italians critique the olive oil. I sit at a table where Parisians and Berliners converse simultaneously in French, German, and English. Budding fashion icon Catherine Baba sits catty-corner from me. I think Diana Vreeland’s great-granddaughter Caroline is beside her, but it’s early in the weekend and I’m not confident that I can tell the blonde heiresses apart, yet. When the music starts, Flour Shop owner Amirah Kassem — who is famous for making Wu-Tang-shaped cakes — dances in a feathered gown. Later, musicians identified as a “Hungarian gypsy band” play in the lobby and everyone makes up dances they think might fit the tradition, holding hands and prancing in circles.
Louis-Marie de Castelbajac, the son of a French marquis, offers me a sip of amber-hued Armagnac produced by a company he owns in southern France. (His ancestors lived in an actual palace; I wonder if Gstaad Palace reads as nouveau riche to him?) The rich, I think, are not different from the rest of us, so much as they are operating on a different scale. If I discovered a little-known liquor in my ancestral homeland, I might buy an extra bottle and rave about it to friends. When Louis-Marie de Castelbajac discovers one, he buys a distillery and sells a custom blend at the Chateau Marmont. Tonight’s Armagnac is from 1962, which means it’s older than every person who drank it.
As the official party winds down, A Small World’s former CEO and weekend host Sabine Heller whispers a room number in my ear, and I join a small migration to an after-party in one of the Palace’s suites. A photographer asks Waris Ahluwalia to strike a pose. (All of the photographers love Waris. “He has such an interesting face.”) I meet model-slash-heiresses, DJ-slash-models, heiress-slash-designers. People are dancing in circles again, although now the music is electronic. Some lounge on settees and chat; others pout and pose for photos. The last thing I remember is a man ripping off all of his clothes, then standing before the room completely naked. His flaccid penis wags back and forth as his friends try to coax him into putting his pants back on.
Saturday is booked with outdoor activities on Wasserngrat Mountain: skiing, hot-air balloon rides, taking fur-clad selfies in the snow. Jimmy Choo has manufactured golden sleds, which everyone rides down the mountain. (They are fully functional, carry the brand’s logo, and are sized generously enough to seat one skinny model butt at a time.) There’s a hot-air balloon with another sponsor’s logo on it, and a boozy fondue luncheon in a chalet. The weather is so strangely warm, and the sun so bright that many eat their fondue outdoors, and the pots waft steam into the clear alpine sky. If you check the #ASWwinterweekend tag on Instagram, you’ll see Margherita in an extravagant fur hat, Leigh Lezark in a Fendi parka, and Anna Cleveland posing with a sled. Several women wear the sunglasses that Jimmy Choo gave them in their welcome gift bags, dutifully tagging the brand in their subsequent selfies.
The night’s party is black tie. Thirty minutes before “go” time, I follow Sabine Heller into the Gstaad Palace suite known, for the weekend, as the Jimmy Choo Suite. Here, Jimmy Choo creative director Sandra Choi has stored a stunning array of Jimmy Choo shoes in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Thirty of the party’s female guests are having their feet dressed by Jimmy Choo all weekend, ensuring that the party pictures are on-brand. This hotel room has been converted, literally, into a palatial shoe closet. Choi’s team has a computer set up, and operates with precision as the girls of Gstaad come to gather accessories for their events. Sabine needs tall shoes tonight, because her ruffled red Marchesa gown has a gigantic train. She’s tired from working and wants to wear flats, but Sandra convinces her to wear a pair of sexy black stilettos, at least until the photos are done.
As the party gets under way, one question preoccupies all guests: Have you heard that Adrien Brody is coming? And, relatedly: Are you excited that Adrien Brody is coming? Do you think he’s handsome? Who can introduce us to him? The thrill of celebrity is apparently undiminished by wealth. At dinner I am seated next to Amanda Kyme, whose website identifies her as “the red carpet fairy godmother.” She struggles mightily to communicate her vegetarianism to the waitstaff, but enjoys the opera cake as much as I do. Amanda is here on behalf of Jimmy Choo, and explains the fate of the golden sleighs everyone rode on the mountain: When this weekend’s partygoers are done with them, the sleds will decorate store windows around the world. Between dinner courses, I go to the bathroom and run into a woman wearing a transparent skirt over granny panties, who’s asking if anyone has a tampon. Brave is the woman who wears a see-through skirt while menstruating. I tell her I admire her chutzpah, but she misunderstands and thinks I’m referring to the temerity of admitting that one even has a vagina. Nobody has a tampon, so she goes to find the concierge.
The after-hour parties are tamer than last night. (Or maybe I’m not invited to the good ones.) Though I’ve been told that alpine skiing is a superb cure for hangovers, nobody seems completely over the ones they got last night — or the exhaustion associated with drinking continuously starting at noon. Still, they soldier on valiantly. Since the after-parties are in hotel rooms, photo shoots on beds happen continuously. One model-slash-heiress strikes a pose, then slaps the photographer across the face, then gives him her phone number. When I leave the Palace at dawn, two guests are playing an elaborate improvised duet on a grand piano in the lobby. How are their brains still functioning? They must be musical prodigies.
My final day in Gstaad. I roll out of bed at 2 p.m. when a hotel clerk knocks on the door and delicately informs me that checkout was at noon. I pack and pillage the minibar simultaneously, but am careful to consume only those things that I know to be free. Earlier in the weekend, I ordered a chicken-nugget meal from room service. The bill was 85 francs, or roughly $86. Sometimes things are expensive just for the sake of expensiveness, I guess. Luxury qua luxury. For the record, the nuggets were totally disgusting.
As I say my good-byes, Sabine drops by to fret about what I’m going to write. She’s afraid I’ll write about the guy who showed everyone his penis. Penises don’t usually happen at her parties, she says. But the penis was the best part of the party, I argue! What’s the point of a party, if not phallic faux pas? When I ask the owner of the penis why he did it, he shrugs and recommends a book called Transgression. His name is Byron Pritchard, he tells me. He’s an artist and he’s not ashamed of his penis and I can write that in my article. Invite this man to your rich-but-boring parties, everyone. He’s a human conversation piece.