The best clients, though, were private ones, who did not have to justify their personal expenditures. One of Isabell’s favorites was Gayfryd Steinberg, who attracted much unflattering press attention for two high-priced Isabell parties in the late eighties: the wedding of her stepdaughter, Laura, to Jonathan Tisch at the Metropolitan Museum, for which the flower bill alone was said to be a million dollars, and her husband Saul’s 50th-birthday party in Quogue in 1989. The tent in which the birthday dinner was served had been rigged with thick wooden beams. And the tableaux vivants that were ridiculed in the press were ravishing: brilliantly staged renderings of iconic paintings such as Rembrandt’s Danae and Vermeer’s Milkmaid. “Those Flemish faces aren’t wandering all over New York,” says Karin Bacon, whose events company found them. They were lit and framed in ten arrangements around the room. “With someone like Robert, they have a vision, and they will compromise only so much,” Steinberg says. “He had a very nice way of managing that. He said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and pretty much ended up doing it his way. And his vision was probably the best vision.”
Isabell’s signature clients of the nineties were two of the three daughters of billionaire Robert Miller. He first met the youngest, Alexandra, who retained him for her 21st-birthday party in 1993 at the Rainbow Room, with a Roaring Twenties theme. “I wanted it big and over-the-top,” she recalls. Isabell delivered. Alexandra introduced Isabell to her mother, who thought of him belatedly in 1995, with the July wedding in England of her middle daughter, Marie-Chantal, to Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece a month away. She had already been through four designers when she called Isabell with a nagging anxiety. “The last designer had said that they needed this much fabric for a 40-meter-by-70-meter tent, and was that enough?” recounts Isabell’s technical director, Liz Garvin, who overheard one end of the conversation. “Robert sat in the office with his calculator and worked out the numbers and said, ‘No, it isn’t.’ She asked, could he come help her right away? He said, ‘I’ll take the Concorde and be there tomorrow. Get me a room at Claridge’s, and we’ll put this thing together.’ ”
The Mineshaft was his playground. He loved to watch.
A month later, his self-assurance was vindicated. For a Thursday-night welcome dinner at the Wrotham Park estate outside London, Isabell devised a steel structure in the form of a Greek temple, with a floor of hand-stamped cork, a false linen ceiling, and pillars and a cornice that seemed to be made of marble. When cocktails were finished, a white curtain behind the pillars was pulled back, and the 800 guests walked through the arch to dinner, where big urns on laurel-wrapped pedestals each contained thousands of yellow and orange Ecuadoran roses (Mrs. Miller is a native of Ecuador). The lights that illuminated the field behind the tent were so extensive that they could have been mistaken for a flight runway and had to be cleared with Heathrow. Much of the scenery was fabricated in this country and transported to England by an art shipper. The cost of the dinner and the Hampton Court luncheon that followed was reported to be $5 million.
Isabell tried over the years to find a business more durable than party planning. His first attempt seemed logical for a florist: perfume. He was obsessed with making a product that didn’t smell artificial. Instead of mixing fragrances from essential oils, he found a Swiss chemist who had devised a way to replicate natural scents, and he began flying to Switzerland every month. He packaged his perfumes in lab-style bottles of extruded optical glass that he designed. And when Perfumes Isabell launched in May 1996, he insisted on a series of unconventional marketing decisions: releasing five products at once, rather than building up his brand with a single initial offering; setting up a toll-free number for direct sales; and, two years later, launching isabell .com, which was in the vanguard of Internet shopping.
To be his co-CEO, Isabell brought in Matthew Bronfman, of the Seagrams family; as with most of his wealthy friends, he had first met Bronfman professionally (in this case, as a wedding designer). But the partnership soured, says Dallas Haden, an industry veteran who was enlisted by Isabell as a fragrance-marketing consultant. One of Haden’s initial tasks was to tone down Isabell’s business plan. “Part of my job was to bring some reality to Robert’s goals,” she says. As the business played out, however, it fell short even of scaled-down ambitions. Within a couple of years, Isabell was drawing back from the company, and eventually Haden acquired the brand herself. “He really thought it would be a fantastic success, and it was disappointing,” says the artist Jennifer Bartlett, a close friend of Isabell. “But he would never show his disappointment. Robert was not a complainer.” In a very nineties segue, he moved on to real estate.