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Raúl Àvila has masterminded the Met Gala for 13 years and counting. The coveted event planner divulges his favourite New York restaurants, timeless red-carpet looks and what it takes to make a space party-ready.
Event planner Raúl Àvila moved from Colombia to the US in 1984. After a kismet of sorts, he trained for 14 years under the legendary Robert Isabell – whose floral work made him a favourite of the Kennedys and Clintons.
While his name may not be front and centre in your mind, Raúl Àvila’s lush, evocative creations are sure to jog your memory. He’s the man responsible for 2015’s bamboo-forest staircase at the Met Gala – ah ha, there we go! In fact, he’s held the post of event designer for the Met Gala for 13 years and counting. Other notable and ritzy jobs include the Tony Awards, Rihanna’s debut Savage x Fenty runway presentation and the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Regardless of brief, client or budget, his goal is always the same: to make whatever space he occupies party-ready.
Where are you from and how has your background shaped or inspired you?
I was born in Colombia to a family who didn’t question or criticise my love for fashion, beauty and interior decoration. To have a family that was supportive of my dreams definitely shaped me into who I am today.
You came to New York in early adulthood. What was the first neighbourhood you lived in NYC?
The West Village. I lived in a small apartment on 10th Street between Bleecker and Houston for five years. It was (and still is) such a hip place and helped me dive headfirst into the NYC culture.
Where do you live now?
Right now I live in Chelsea, which has been my home for many years; it’s such a beautiful and welcoming community.
Tell us about some of your favourite local restaurants…
Best flower shops in the city…
My store Raúl of course. We have the most beautiful curation of florals from all over the world. It is located on 216 8th Avenue, on the corner of 21st Street. It’s my pride and joy. Not only do we have a fresh flower selection, we also provide event services and house installations. As a matter of fact, I just opened up Café Flor next door where you can enjoy authentic Colombian coffee while doing your floral shopping.
Robert Isabell gave you your start in the city; what did you learn from him?
Everything. Everything I know, I do, the way I work, the way I interact with people – I learned it all from him.
You and your team have worked independently on the Met Gala for 13 years. What have been some of your highlights?
My favourite highlight is still my first one, Poiret: King of Fashion. I had complete creative control and it was a success.
… and if you had to pick a favourite Met Gala?
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty; China: Through the Looking Glass; Rei Kawakubo/ Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between… honestly, there’s too many to pick and each one is beautiful in its own unique way.
Thinking back to your maiden Met Gala voyage, what were the highlights and low points?
The highlight was, and remains, getting to work in one of the best museums in the world with the most amazing teams of people. The low point: having no rest. During the weeks and days building up to it, it was the only thing that I could think about. There was no time to stop and rest. It was just go, go, go.
Your favourite Met Gala red-carpet look of all time?
Rihanna in China: Through the Looking Glass. Iconic. Beautiful. Timeless.
What’s your favourite part of your job…
Freedom of expression. I love being able to bring my ideas to life in some of the world’s most amazing venues. There’s no limit to my imagination and there is no limit to my events. Anything is possible.
And the most challenging…
Time will always be the most challenging element in all of my events. We love to achieve the impossible and the only thing that limits us is time and I wish I could just pause it.
You’re the event designer for Evening Standard Theatre Awards this year – what can we expect?
The only thing I can reveal is that it’s in a different theatre this year. I love the element of surprise.
When did you first become involved with ESTA?
This is my second year.
Talk us through the design process for an event like the ESTAs… How long does it take to decide on a theme? How many hours of work are involved?
I come on as more of a consultant (the theme is decided before I join) and we start work about six months before the event.
In theatre, it’s considered bad luck to have fresh flowers on stage or to give a performer flowers before a performance. Do you concede to any superstitions with regard to the types of flowers you use, or with event planning in general?
The only time I concede to superstitions is when I am working in other countries. Some countries see certain flowers as bad luck, and you have to respect that.
What’s your take on flower symbolism?
I feel that it’s extremely important to make sure you are giving the right flowers for the right reasons. You never want to send mixed messages or choose a floral that doesn’t match the aesthetic you are aiming for.
The most unusual place you’ve ever held an event…
The Statue of Liberty years ago, for the launch of a new vodka. We had a planter on the water, and that’s where they played music too. It was amazing.
What’s your favourite flower?
Peonies. I love the beauty, simplicity and elegance.
What’s the secret to hosting a good party?
The guest list and playlist. Those two factors can really make or break a party.
The best bloom to send as a gift is…
Peonies. A beautiful arrangement of peonies can take someone’s breath away.
True or false: nature’s beauty can’t be improved upon?
True. Nature is nature. The beauty of nature is unmatchable.
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