The Chelski power show: Forget the flowers, the most exotic display is the oligarchs, trophy wives and bankers buzzing round them like bumblebees
00:59 GMT, 24 May 2012
Even the news that her former toyboy had been assassinated in Moscow couldn’t keep the determined Princess Michael of Kent from appearing at the Chelsea Flower Show’s Gala Preview on Monday.
And quite right, too: people will do pretty much anything — bar shooting each other — to procure themselves an invitation, so why squander hers
She was a star guest at the post-Gala Cartier dinner held in a marquee at Battersea Power Station at an estimated cost to the jeweller of more than 1 million.
Cartier party: Masha Markova, wife of British financier Robert Hanson, is stereotypical of the largesse on display at the Chelsea Flower Show
Dinner for 400, flower arrangements the height of houses and avenues of pretty boys in Cartier scarlet footman livery does add up.
The Michaels of Kent feel quite at home at Chelsea. There’s money, there’s royalty, there are always a host of Russians.
Covering 11 acres of the gardens of the Royal Hospital with exhibits and show gardens does not come cheap.
On gala night, among the artfully placed wild-flower displays and plucky Chelsea pensioners, there was a loud smattering of Chelski — the Russian oligarchs, their big-spending wives, girlfriends, and henchmen — hobnobbing alongside ageing rockers, bankers and chief executives.
Time was when the Chelsea Flower Show, now in its 99th year on the site, was a glorious display of garden ingenuity populated by horticulturally-minded ladies up from the shires in floral frocks and sensible shoes, and polite pinstriped gents in the autumn of their lives whose most vexing problem was the state of the lawn.
Some of them are still there, of course, oblivious to the deal-making, bonus chasing and business cards being exchanged behind the topiary. But don’t be fooled: Chelsea is now as much Power Show as Flower Show.
There is nowhere else on Earth where flower show tickets sell for six times the original amount on the black market and organisers feel they should warn visitors about the touts outside as if it was a Cup Final.
Of course there are flowers — TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin’s pyramid ‘Babylon’, new strains of climbing roses from David Austin, inventive reinterpretations of arts-and-crafts style, that sort of thing.
There are many talented sons and daughters of the soil who know all about harmonious planting and cunning use of water resources.
They provide a delightfully artisan, Bohemian element to the night, rather like the comic peasants in Shakespeare.
But you get the feeling they are the mere backdrop to the games of power play being staged here.
Sweet smell of success: The Chelsea Flower Show attracts wealthy businessmen from around the globe
The very exclusive and extremely expensive Gala Preview (250-750 a ticket, but most people are invited by somebody else whose company pays, and each company is probably looking at a minimum spend of about 200,000) is all about networking. Albeit done in an English and therefore subtle way.
The gardens serve as conversational prompts and little else, although some impetuous bankers have been known to attempt to buy whole show gardens on the spot in order to impress.
Aside from costing well into six figures, even though they are small, this rather defeats the object, as the gardens are meant to ‘inspire’ rather than be bought off the peg and then lightly tended.
But no matter. It is well known in the City that when it comes to trimming corporate budgets at Ascot, Wimbledon, Goodwood, or charity dinners, the absolutely last thing to get the chop is Chelsea, as you can tell by this year’s heavy Royal Bank of Scotland presence.
Its chief executive Stephen Hester is a garden lover, to be fair; he recently opened his Oxfordshire estate to the public. (Yes, some plutocrats do have green fingers, or people who have green fingers for them. But that is not the overriding reason to be here).
Even JP Morgan, the financial services giant recovering from the losses incurred by a rogue trader nicknamed the ‘London Whale’, still found the time and money to host a party attended by the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, Rio Tinto’s chief executive Tom Albanese and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls (probably looking for green shoots).
Though given that JP Morgan’s losses are rumoured to be in the multi billions, they won’t be worrying about a few hundred thousand spent on canapes etc at Chelsea.
Idyllic setting: Visitors revel in the sunshine and scenery at the flower show
These bigwigs like to whisper that the reason Chelsea stays top of the list is that their wives love it, but really it is a lot more selfish than that. One entrepreneur told me: ‘You could now do enough business and make enough contacts at Chelsea to keep you going all year. There’s nowhere else like it.’
About 30 banks, law firms and financial services companies host drinks (for example, Freshfields, Goldman Sachs) in the hospitality tents.
The whole point is to show clients and each other that they are fertile and flourishing. Others put ‘private’ signs in front of their sponsored gardens before chugging back the Laurent Perrier.
The show gardens cost at least 250,000 to create. Without the likes of the Royal Bank of Canada and the investment firm Brewin Dolphin, no one would have the resources to experiment with energy-wave sculptures, antique pear trees and stepping stones used in a wildly original way.
Champagne and nibbles supplied by grand names such as Fortnum & Mason are on tap.
But as a friend who tried to dissuade me from going on Tuesday (‘better not to go than not go on Monday!’) says: ‘Only a total loser would actually stay in a tent, although there is much competition between the companies to see who can get the biggest scalp in their tent.’
The most prized scalps are those people with access to an enormous amount of wealth, usually someone else’s — the oligarch’s money men, the CEOs of Footsie 100s.
This year everyone was all over Tijane Thiam, the youthful and rather glamorous CEO of the Prudential, whose fund management arm, M&G, is Chelsea’s main sponsor.
A snifter and a few blinis in the tent are followed by a grand two-hour ‘paseo’ or promenade in which guests do circuit after circuit of the grounds at a leisurely pace, finding as many colleagues, bosses, clients, potential clients, would-be new bosses and other people of importance to schmooze with as possible.
Fit for royalty: The Queen admires the blooms in west London earlier this week
Some bigwigs apparently have personal minders who are sent ahead to arrange for their employer to accidentally on purpose bump into important people for them to talk to. Others, meanwhile, have aides to keep non-VIP timewasters out of their line of vision.
All this entails a lot of zig-zagging past those who’ve already had five minutes of their time.
While this carefully choreographed business dance is performed, surely garden-loving wives can feel free to look at the plants
My friend looks horrified at my naivety. ‘You’d have to be pretty uninterested in your husband’s career to start looking at the flowers.
‘If you wanted to do that you’d have to come back another time!’ So on Monday you might have seen Sir Philip Green, Carphone founders Charles Dunstone and David Ross, ITV chairman Archie Norman and numerous other chief execs of companies such as MasterCard, Waitrose and Enterprise Inns.
You might see the Tory grandees John Major and Michael Heseltine, Joan Collins and oddly, Burberry model Cara Delevingne. But the smattering of celebrities are just to keep up the pretence all this isn’t about networking.
There are Chinese and Russians — wives of whom were seen spending enormous amounts on some of the strange art works on offer from companies canny enough to know that many of those will be in the mood to exercise their credit cards.
If they can’t buy the whole of Greece’s freehold yet, why not snap up a John Deere robot mower (from 2,000) or a Chinese dragon sculpture (6,500) or giant bronze snail (for 12,500) Or a 20,000 giant pot made of rings of clay that wouldn’t look out of place in a palace of the Borgias
The Chelsea Flower Show continues until Saturday and you needn’t think the rest of the week is free of the taint of commerce either.
Yesterday, I saw a leading CEO with his arm round a probable client, saying: ‘That would all be very well if there wasn’t the problem of this thing we all care about, which is MONEY,’ while pretending to sniff an orchid.