NO MATTER how capricious the whims and fancies of the world’s wealthiest one per cent, Johnny Roxburgh is the man capable of turning them into glittering realities.
Over the course of three decades, he has waved his magic wand in the grand châteaux of old Europe and sun-kissed tropical idylls, fulfilling the desires of clients rich or titled by birthright and those newly bestowed their fortunes through fame or the financial markets. To a global elite unconcerned by borders or budgets, he is the Great Entertainer, the most sought-after party designer around. For a Glasgow boy once forced to breakfast on the tapioca pudding he had refused the night before, does it not seem, well, unreal? “We never believe that something can’t be done,” he tells me. “I just think it up and I say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”
Winding through aisles and shelves brimming with Samarkand silks, antique rosewater sprinklers and velvets from St Petersburg, Roxburgh takes me on a whirlwind tour through his “Aladdin’s cave”, a warehouse unit at the south London HQ of his company, the Admirable Crichton. It is an emporium of ritzy exotica Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen might designate as his final resting place, where a metre of flocked fabric costs a four-figure sum and Roxburgh’s decadent aesthetic is to the fore. “We served a party their dessert in these,” he enthuses, pointing to a decorative obscurity plucked from a North African souk. “It worked well because it’s what they least expected.”
Every other day, he peruses this box of tricks, hand-picking a selection of finery before spiriting it off to wherever the next soirée is being held: sometimes a 15th-century Venetian palazzo; a Moroccan palace overlooking the Atlas mountains; or even the Salle des Étoiles in Monte Carlo. Often, the commute is closer to home, to Kensington Palace or Hampton Court Palace, for a prestigious royal engagement. Whatever the location, occasion or audience, Roxburgh will be on hand to evince the reputation of his firm (known in high society simply as AC) and realise its motto: We take dreams and make the reality even better.
For an appropriate appraisal, he and his business partner, Kincraig-born Rolline Frewen, along with several Scottish staff members, will secure a wondrous venue, provide a handsome and adroit infantry of waiting staff and orchestrate an entire evening in harmony with your personal tastes. Forget mobile discos or karaoke machines, if it’s entertainment you seek, Roxburgh can rally together Berber horsemen, Cossack dancers, circus troupes or synchronised swimming teams. The firm may not be well-known to the wider world, but its shimmering accoutrements have helped keep international society circles whirling for generations, affording its proprietors a little black book enviously coveted by the editors of Tatler and Harper’s Bazaar.
It was, for instance, AC that coordinated the Queen’s 80th birthday party at Kew Palace, a black-tie dinner complete with Krug on ice. Close friends with Prince Charles, 63-year-old Roxburgh has been the proud owner of a royal warrant for nine years, and is caterer of choice for the heir apparent. That is not to say that his services are the preserve of the monarchy. The bon viveur Michael Winner is a loyal customer, as are Trudie Styler and Nigella Lawson, who offers a glowing testimony of Roxburgh’s mains and canapés. “If I can’t get the cooking done for a party myself, I have to know it’ll be done by someone I can trust,” she reasons. “So I ask the Admirable Crichton.”
ON A DANK AND dour mid-February Monday morning, I arrive at the firm’s warren of well-appointed offices, next to a Caribbean bakery off Denmark Road. The place is abuzz as a phalanx of petite, effectual staff field telephone enquiries, discuss menus or finalise itineraries; a flutter of blonde hair, public school accents and hastily scrawled Post-it notes. At the epicentre of it all, wearing a crisp salmon shirt and cream linen trousers, Roxburgh is the personification of calm. Today he is due to meet a new supplier from Scotland – a technology firm that has devised urinal-based computer games, the on-screen action controlled by the user’s carefully guided stream – and hold a tasting session with prospective clients. Soon, though, he will be bound for some far-flung locale. “I have rather too many jobs to quote for than I can cope with,” he confides.
A lithe, urbane figure with a full head of sweeping, silvery hair, Roxburgh wears his age well, and little wonder. The commodity in which he trades – unrestrained luxury – happens to be very much in vogue. At a time when a contracting economy has left the majority of Britons teetering on the precipice of yet another recession-shaped sinkhole, the prosperous one per cent who constitute the habitué of AC are carousing like never before.
Roxburgh and his charges arranged some 380 gatherings last year, up on 290 in 2010, and an already buoyant trade looks set to prosper, with bookings made for as far in advance as August 2013. “We had an incredibly good January,” he says, sipping coffee. “Even though it’s historically quiet, it was an amazing month. We are having a huge February and will have a really good March, and we’re always busy over Easter. After that, we have the Golden Jubilee and the London Olympics, so it’s a great time for people to celebrate.”
The company – named after the butler in JM Barrie’s play of social reversal – began in 1982, an era when its burgeoning industry had yet to confine paper tableware and party hedgehogs to history’s dustbin. Roxburgh, an old Glasgow Academy boy from the city’s Pollokshields area, was at the time a chartered accountant and lawyer who had grown weary of his work in the field of international copyright, chasing down royalties for artists such as Abba and Bob Marley; Frewen a sculptor, albeit one with culinary acumen and a refined palate. They set AC in motion from a small coachhouse in Clapham, armed only with a malfunctioning typewriter and grand intentions.
Naiveté notwithstanding, the asset that would make their name was the recognition of exclusivity’s importance. For the first six months of their fledgling business, they spurned all entreaties, informing potential patrons they were too busy to meet their requests. It proved a classic example of supply and demand, the desire of their would-be suitors only inflamed by rejection. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Roxburgh concedes. “But we were bright, and we learned.”
Word of mouth quickly spread, culminating in 1983 with a showcase job for oilfield behemoth Schlumberger, complete with one of the first starcloth ceilings, followed soon after by the two day-long 60th birthday celebrations for one Robert Maxwell, which made an Elton John bash look like a WRVS tombola.
Nowadays, the firm is also called in to organise society weddings and film premières, its prestige consolidated by a succession of alliances and endorsements, of which the royal warrant is but one. Take the firm’s much-vaunted catering service: its ordinary menu or canapé selection is perfectly delectable but, for the most discerning tastes, chef Tom Aikens is on hand to rustle up his Michelin-starred fare. “It’s great, and we’re just starting to do all kinds of things with another celebrity chef that I can’t tell you about, but it’ll be much bigger,” Roxburgh adds.
So too, the array of venues AC can procure for your party are of an equally formidable pedigree, and includes Kensington Palace, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Tower of London, the V&A museum, the Caledonian Club in Belgravia and the Fleming Collection.
None of this matters a jot, mind you, if the most important element of a party – the guests – fail to gel. “What really matters is whether you’ve got people who are good hosts and hostesses,” implores Roxburgh.
“You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t actually interact with your guests, if you don’t mix your guests up, you won’t host a good party.” Hosts, he says, should write down the names of every guest on a piece of paper and pin it up in their bathroom a week before the event, learning conversational segues through which to introduce people. “If you do that, a party will sound like champagne, it begins to bubble,” he says.
“I went to a very grand dinner on Saturday night and while there were people who knew each other, a lot of guests clearly didn’t. The host was absolutely crap, really, really, really bad. You just found people who knew one another staying together in pods. It struck me as rather hopeless.”
The technical exactitude with which AC brings its visions to life is worthy of Cecil B DeMille – one event in Marrakech boasted a perspex dancefloor over a vast swimming pool – although the firm has at times flirted with, and skilfully avoided, disaster. One charity event featuring Prince Charles, John Travolta and Jamie Oliver saw a cucumber and melon gazpacho terrine melt in the afternoon sunshine, but Frewen had the foresight to serve it to them as espresso-style shots.
So exacting, though, is all this Masters of the Universe stuff that at times it threatens to skirt with self-parody. The venue of one early affair was furnished with dead rabbits and birds to recreate Mr Fezziwig’s ball from A Christmas Carol. More recently, Roxburgh’s staff paced the rooms of a country pile carrying smouldering logs after the client asked for a welcoming woodsmoke aroma. At another bountiful gathering for the British Fashion Awards, held at the National History Museum, the company threatened to upstage the venue’s spectacular dinosaur exhibits by turning the main stairway into a waterfall, flanked by naked young men, their bodies painted to look like zebras.
Then there is Roxburgh’s description of his in-house staff, capable of inducing apoplexy in equality campaigners. “Youthful, intelligent and good-looking,” the chairman of the party states unashamedly. Does this decadence, I wonder, know no bounds?
Over a fine lunch (confit of Loch Duart salmon with Scotch langoustine salad, followed by herbed lamb fillet niçoise), Roxburgh points out that, while in the 1980s “you just couldn’t be extravagant enough”, AC does not co-ordinate an endless procession of bacchanalian feasts. “Sometimes it’s about being incredibly over the top and lush and lavish, sometimes it’s about being austere, simple and pared-down,” he says.
Neither does the firm tolerate those with prosperity but no principles. “I had someone the other day who asked if they could pay for their child’s wedding entirely in cash,” he explains. “It was a big job, worth around £500,000, and I was so offended they would think I was the kind of man who would do that. I just walked away.”
Roxburgh is conscious that some deem his line of work profligate, yet holds no truck for “chippy, miserable people”, and has a stirring take on the recession. “The money doesn’t just go down the loo. It swishes around and goes somewhere else, to someone else.”
The meticulousness he bestows on parties is no less evident in his approach to business. Routinely dealing with occasions that stretch into six figures – the bill for one event came to £2.5 million – he insists on receiving 80 per cent of the fee upfront. His famed discretion regarding both customers’ identity and their outlay is absolute (“I deal with the rich and the rare, and if you say you’ve organised a party for £5 million they would drop you like a hot potato”) but the names of several incumbents of the celebrity A-list inevitably pepper the conversation. Vast multi-nationals also value Roxburgh’s bold aesthetic, and his list of corporate clientèle reads like the FTSE 100 index: Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton. Recession? What recession?
AC’s bespoke commissions in Britain seldom stray far from London, but Roxburgh would dearly love to increase the firm’s workload north of the border. Best known here for organising the dazzling European première of Rob Roy in Edinburgh, it can also arrange the exclusive hire of a clutch of Scottish venues: Fenton Castle, near Berwick; Floors Castle, in Kelso; Glenisla’s Forter Castle; and the National Museum of Scotland, in the capital’s heart.
The nation may boast around 50 individuals with fortunes of nine figures and above, but only the likes of Aberdeen’s Sir Ian Wood and Highland Spring owner Mahdi al-Tajir could be said to enjoy a status befitting the south-east’s gilded circles: the multi-billion-pound empire forged by steel magnates Lakshmi Mittal and Alisher Usmanov, or Russian tycoons of Roman Abramovich’s ilk. “It’s very sad that there isn’t the requirement for us to come to Scotland to do more events,” Roxburgh sighs. “But I guess there aren’t many very rich Arabs living there on a permanent basis, and it costs a fortune to transport equipment and staff from London to somewhere in deepest Perthshire.”
His fondness for Caledonia is not the idle romance of a Scot domiciled on the Thames’s southern bank (home is an “unpretentious little Battersea cottage”). His compatriots occupy key positions in the firm, including Glaswegian Barbara Simpson, head of royal events and senior party organiser;Edinburgh-born Gordon Robertson, head menu planner; and chefs Stuart Lyall, from Kelso, and James Murray, from Banknock in Stirlingshire, the latter being tipped for culinary stardom. “Being Scottish is a huge benefit in this line of work,” Roxburgh reflects. “We have a natural desire to entertain and are very hospitable. And, of course, the country has some of the finest ingredients in the world to work with.”
For the moment, however, the demand is from elsewhere in the world. The day after we meet he is bound for Paris, part of a routine whirlwind tour of the world. “On Wednesday it’s Zurich, then I’ll come back before heading to Florence, where we’re doing a big party,” he explains. “I’m waiting for a phone call later today, which I expect will confirm a venue in Spain later in the week. Then I’m off to Doha, and there’s a big wedding at the weekend.” He pauses, juggling dates and countries in his head, before allowing himself a smile. “Yes, I think that’s about it for the moment.” With that, the Great Entertainer scoots off to perform yet more feats of conjury. All tomorrow’s parties will not arrange themselves.