When is a party not a party? When it’s a “fearless pooling of knowledge!” pronounced Hans-Ulrich Obrist, indefatigable curator and master of spin, as he surveyed the glamorous gathering at London’s Serpentine Gallery on Wednesday evening. Director Julia Peyton-Jones had pulled her usual star-studded crowd on the occasion of the esteemed not-for-profit’s annual summer party. Imperiously branded, The Summer Party dwarfs every other art-world event on London’s social calendar. At £250 ($500) a pop, tickets are by invitation only and highly sought after—and everyone who scores one attends.
As seasoned paparazzi were herded into “the pit” and ladies in ambitious frocks began to strut past the heavily guarded gates, the sun broke through the clouds in time to illuminate thousands of Swarovski crystals glittering in every conceivable place—on the lawn, swinging from the ceiling, and even glinting in the eyelashes of the Grey Goose cocktail girls. Peyton-Jones herself was resplendent with an enormous crystal serpent coiled around her neck. “It must weigh a ton,” I sympathized. “Not at all,” came the reply, and in an act of solidarity, she took it off so I could try it on. Shoulder to shoulder with Peyton-Jones was the rhinestone heiress and party sponsor Nadja Swarovski, who, sporting a de rigueur strapless minidress that exposed the legs of a gazelle, was tirelessly meeting and greeting VIPs as they filed in.
A tremor running through the crowd announced the arrival of cochair Dennis Hopper, Hollywood’s art-world liaison. Clean, sober, and better looking than in his youth, the septuagenarian bad boy strolled in, flanked by son Henry and an exquisitely turned-out redhead. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? “Probably his PR agent,” sniped a waiter as he topped off my champagne glass. It was Mrs. Hopper—but my server could have been forgiven the assumption—glam undercover press minders seem to be everyone’s choice of date these days.
Hopper slid past the flashing cameras and into the Tatler photo booth, where he would be photographer in residence for the bulk of the evening. A dedicated collector, he has used the time he’s regained not drinking, doping, and womanizing to return to his first love: art. Though arguably better known for his film roles and wild reputation, the venerable Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is currently hosting an exhibition of his photographs and paintings, while his dealer, Tony Shafrazi, has big plans for more shows.
As the evening progressed, so did the “fearless pooling of knowledge.” Little Britain actor David Walliams was ensconced in conversation with Rod Stewart, while Marc Quinn chatted up Jade Jagger. Meanwhile, the queues for the portable loos proved to be great spots for chummy chat. “Oh, look!” cried proud aunt Louise Wilson, as sister Jane passed photos of her new baby up and down the line. Spice Girl Geri Halliwell admitted that it was her first time properly visiting the Serpentine, though she has often “nipped in to use the toilet” on her morning jog through the park.
Scuttlebutt abounded with conflicting reports of sales made and lost, most notably Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. According to the artist’s business maestro, Frank Dunphy, Hirst declined an offer of the asking price—to be “paid in full by the weekend”—because the prospective buyer would “only lock it up in a safe.” Dunphy pulled out his mobile phone. “Why, here’s the lil’ feller!” he said as he revealed not a smiling grandchild, but the rictus grin of the famous skull.
Tracking down the skull’s creator for comment, I caught Hirst in the middle of a tirade about beverages. Like Hopper’s, his liver had finally quivered, and these days it’s Diet Coke or nothing. “Unfortunately, sir,” explained a cowering waiter, “Coca-Cola isn’t one of this evening’s sponsors.” Hirst resolved the issue by sending his driver to buy some.
In recent years, The Summer Party has pivoted on the unveiling of a specially commissioned pavilion. This year’s creation, by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, won’t open until August, so architect and party cochair Zaha Hadid rose to the occasion by creating a trio of umbrellalike structures towering above an elevated platform. Though I heard grumbling that it was a bit “wrinkly” and “poorly built,” another vociferous pundit defended its “terrific ergonomics and social warmth.” Judging from the way the pavilion morphed into a thrumming dance floor, the latter wag was right; nothing like a sympathetic space, designer cocktails, and great outfits to get a crowd undulating.