Mediocrity is not in his vocabulary. Sloppiness is a sin. And tacky is just downright unforgivable. Moshe Aelyon knows how to turn a party into an event of grandeur. He is the ultimate… Party Boy
Stevie Wonder music wafts up from the boom box on the wide-planked floor of the Old Sasco Mill building in Westport, where event planner Moshe Aelyon chats at a cozy table with Brian and Kim Meehan. The Meehans’ oldest daughter, Arianna, who is four-and-a-half years old, has hopped off her mother’s lap and is twirling around the post supporting the roof in Moshe’s A-frame office. The Meehans’ baby girl is at home. Moshe and the Meehans are working out plans for an October 21 gathering designed to raise money for the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) foundation that was created in honor of their son Christian, who died of SIDS at the age of three months.
The Meehans, just back from a visit with doctors and researchers at Yale–New Haven Hospital, are bursting with news. “I don’t think people know that SIDS babies all share something in common,” Kim reports. She’s referring to recent studies showing that a genetic link may exist in infants who succumb to SIDS.
Moshe nods, taking it in. His tanned, tall, slender self is folded into camouflage-colored shorts, Army-green flip- flops and a green T-shirt. His penetrating hazel eyes look back and forth from Brian to Kim. Moshe emanates calm and stillness at the table — aided by his recent dance, meditation and yoga retreat at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. But inside, he’s sorting out details and processing spin. He’ll focus on the human condition to tug at the heartstrings of audience members and to generate the most press. “So we will shift slightly from support to research,” Moshe whispers. “We’ll wrap this like candy and put a spin on it.”
“He’s got this thing about him that whatever you’re trying to portray, he could just jump into your body and make it happen. He’s gifted,” Kim says later. “There’s so much to his soul. He is filled with gratitude and compassion.”
Can she be speaking of the same man whose voice instills fear and envy in caterers and servers, DJs and florists throughout Fairfield County and New York? The one who fires gum-chewers and cell phone talkers and bans them from working with him ever again? Who tolerates neither one wilted flower nor wrinkled napkin nor a service person trying to hit on a guest? Who forbids any vendor from wearing tacky jewelry or bad hair during his events and who points out such faux pas in their presence? The one who once lost twelve assistants in just three years?
“We’re so lucky and blessed to have somebody like him in our life,” says Kim. Lucky, indeed. From this light and airy second-floor office, Moshe produces about forty events a year, half the number that comes his way. The Meehans have won his heart and have his full attention, gratis. Moshe (pronounced Mo-SHAY) has produced events for the likes of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, David Rockefeller, NBC, the New York Stock Exchange, Miramax, Eileen Fisher and General Electric, not to mention countless weddings and bar mitzvahs. “I try to find a hook for myself in every single client,” says Moshe.
He’s been called a bitch, a diva, a perfectionist — and perhaps the best party planner around. This last label comes with a price tag: from about $70,000 to more than $1 million for a complete party, with Moshe’s firm earning about a quarter of the tab. In Fairfield County, entertaining conveys social status, prompts networking, convenes executives, helps raise big bucks or simply brings out the buddies for a grand celebration. No one can be more important to a party than its producer. Forget working out what to serve with chicken or fish in a blasé banquet hall — party producers like Moshe envision a concept and design along the lines of a Broadway production, lining up vendors from the tristate area and seeing to every single detail in a five-hour fantasy. Colleagues say that when it comes to perfection, few producers can hold a citrus-scented candle to Moshe.
“His vision, his color palette and sensibility, his ability to collaborate on menus and create events — they’re all extraordinary,” says Sarah Gross, owner and chef at Cabbages & Kings Catering. “Sometimes, he’ll come to me with something and I’ll say, ‘What is it? How do you make it?’ and he doesn’t know because he just made it up. He’s really fun to work with in that he pushes the envelope on what I do.”
Not long ago, the pair conjured up a New Orleans Cajun bar mitzvah that included a fire-eater during the candle lighting, a stilt-walker and a woman making funny hats out of paper plates. Sarah and Moshe presided over a civil ceremony with an Indian theme featuring a soup sip, chicken with roasted corn sauce, lamb kabobs, five kinds of nan, halibut in a coconut tamarind curry sauce with ginger and mango and pear sauterne with orange mascarpone. And a drag queen.
“The only thing I questioned was the drag queen. But she was a big hit,” Sarah recalls. “That sort of exemplifies the direct confidence Moshe has in what he’s doing. If you’re paying the fees he’s asking you to pay, you trust him to create something spectacular, something that people talk about years later.”
It’s not always fun on the service side of the room, though. Even Sarah has been reprimanded for standing in the wrong place.
“Before the event I do a five- to seven-minute stand-up routine. It is graphic and brutal,” Moshe admits.
He’s alone in his office now, thumbing through a five-inch thick photo book chronicling his various events. “I edit hairpieces, jewelry, makeup. I will not lose my career because someone chose to chew gum or talk on the cellphone. I know they roll their eyes but that’s too bad. It’s my party that night, too. The perfection end of it is mine. I am paid to be a perfectionist. I apply myself 150 percent to each project. When I see people applying themselves only 70 percent, I get pissed. I think bitch comes with perfection.”
A Fashionable Beginning
Moshe’s proclivity toward perfection might have been sensed at his wedding in Istanbul, Turkey, his hometown. “I had a lot of odd questions that were not very well received by the banquet managers at the Hilton Istanbul,” he recalls, chuckling. Moshe insisted on approving everything, including the tablecloths and chairs. Not even the betrothed was spared. “I directed the hairstyle of my wife-to-be,” he admits. In the end, sixteen waiters bearing fire-torched swords served among ice sculptures shaped like Bambi. Dinner was splendid, though: an intense buffet of Turkish specialties, complete with bowls full of spoonable caviar.
Fortunately, his decorating sensibilities evolved. He honed them during a career in merchandising. Moshe spoke three languages when he arrived in the United States at age eighteen, but English wasn’t one of them. He had followed the family of his childhood sweetheart (and eventual wife, Riva,) west to study. They had landed in California and Moshe attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, from which he graduated in 1983. In the process, he added English to French, Spanish and Turkish. His final project was a Parisian runway show for which he interviewed and hired models, held rehearsals and chose lighting and music. Following his marriage in 1986, Moshe landed a job as a salesman in Southern California for a Turkish leather company, rose to manager and helped expand the company’s line, opening four stores in the United States. Moshe realized his efforts could be put to better use in his own endeavors, though, and he started the leather accessories business Geomo Fashions, a private label company that manufactured for names like Ralph Lauren, Barneys New York, Donna Karan and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“When I first saw (model) Rachel Hunter on the cover of the Saks Fifth Avenue catalog wearing one of my belts, it energized me. I felt like that Frank Sinatra song — If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” Moshe recalls. During his business travels, Moshe grew fond of the East Coast — especially New York, a place where Moshe, who considers himself a citizen of the world, readily fits in. He and Riva packed up their two children and their dog and moved to Connecticut from Venice Beach.
“I liked that Westport was an old artist colony and that it had some retail sensibilities — Barneys New York was here. I know that’s shallow, but honest,” he says, laughing. “I liked its natural attributes, like the beach. I liked the art center. And then there was the school system.” Moshe, who is forty-two years old, was in his thirties when he suffered his first midlife crisis. The fashion industry was changing, moving overseas. “I came to a crossroads. Do I go and travel all the time and never be home and never see my son or daughter? Or do we change our lifestyle. I thought, ‘Why not be local?’ I could be home for my kids’ games and not have to take a train, a car and a cab.”
Moshe’s business had done well enough to buy him time to figure out what to do next. Whatever it was, he knew it had to include food. “Food and local cuisine tell the whole story of who we are,” he says.
Building a Dream Team
When they’d moved to Westport, Moshe and Riva, a photographer, had flung open their doors and threw parties galore in an effort to meet people. Moshe was so good at it that people asked him to do it for them. A business consultant friend of Moshe’s joked that with all of Moshe’s attention to detail and food he could be the next Martha Stewart. Moshe took that as a compliment and a challenge. He considered catering but figured he’d have to sell a ton of tapas to turn a profit. He studied event planners in New York City and found, to his surprise, that only a few existed at the top.
He decided to build a team of the best caterers, musicians, waitstaff, florists and producers. He would function as the creative director. He pitched top providers in New York City and Fairfield County with his plan and ninety-nine percent of the people he approached told him to get lost.
“The one percent acknowledged the possibility and really examined what it meant to be a caterer or to be a florist and to be the best at what they do,” Moshe remembers. To learn their businesses inside out, Moshe cleaned vegetables, cooked, trimmed flowers and set up banquet halls. He set up shop on Main Street, calling his company Mosaic. At the beginning, Moshe produced events for free for the nonprofit sector. He evolved to working incessantly for social and corporate clients, as well. But it took its toll.
“One day, my spiritual side got up and just slapped me and said: ‘This is too much!’ After a while I understood that not everybody has to be my client. After 9/11 I decided I would cater to the top ten percent. I would be expensive and I would be the best. It was easy to justify: We make it effortless.”
Few clients actually understand what’s really happening behind the scenes at a party. Take the groom marrying into a high-powered family. The bride was completely unaware when he disappeared in the middle of the evening. But Moshe wasn’t. “He had other activities on his mind, which is not acceptable during my event. I certainly cannot have the MC announce the bride and groom if he can’t be found,” says Moshe, who tracked down the groom and corralled him back to the party, without the bride’s knowledge. “You have to make sure she’s not upset and that papa bear doesn’t
Another time a truck full of props got wedged under a low bridge just two hours before the start of an event. With time running out, Moshe ordered metal workers to slice open the stuck truck and hired a second truck to pick up the props.
His most extravagant event was a party for two. A husband telephoned from his private jet and ordered a one-year-anniversary party for two — in just two days. “Do whatever you want. You know her better than I do,” Moshe remembered the husband saying.
Moshe, who had planned the pair’s wedding, knew she would want a fur for a gift, and he found the perfect one. He knew that the couple was building a house, so he set up a romantic table for two in what would be the dining room of the new house. He covered the frames of the walls with fabric and covered the floor with rose petals and had waiters serve cocktails. He hired a driver to take the pair to dinner, where he had arranged with the chef to prepare an amuse bouche with the couple’s favorite foods.
A Work of Art
Moshe named his company Mosaic to represent the collection of experts he had assembled, but the name could apply to Moshe, as well. He’s an American citizen whose Jewish ancestors were ousted from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and fled to Turkey. His parents divorced, which is uncommon in Turkey and Moshe was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. He was educated early in elite French schools then chose to attend public school with a hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions, living and studying with Armenian, Greek and Turkish Christians, Jews and Muslims. He was married for more than fifteen years when he came to terms with his homosexuality. A divorce followed. Moshe renamed his business Moshe Aelyon Studios and moved it to the mill, where his apartment behind the shop overlooks the Sasco River.
From the view out the rear window a white swan swims past as Moshe works out party details with the Meehans. A year after Christian died, his parents hosted a homespun event at Fairfield Beach to raise money for the foundation, which Brian’s father had formed in his grandson’s honor. But the couple was so lost in their grief, Kim says, that the event nearly swallowed them whole. The second year, Kim made an appointment with Moshe, whom a friend of a friend had planned to hire for a party.
“She walked in like a wounded animal. For me not to feel would mean I have no blood in my veins. As a parent, I can’t fathom what they went through,” says Moshe.
Says Kim, “I wanted a beautiful, exceptional event that people could enjoy and come back to. I was looking for someone to be able to take control of our event so my husband and I could just show up.”
The trio chose a space and a date, but that was just the beginning. “We weren’t having a party. We had to ask ourselves what were the goals of this event?” Moshe recalls. “This whole relationship was layers and layers of things they had to accomplish. There’s an emotional part: honoring Christian; an artistic part: creating the party, and the problem-solving part: we need a cure. We played with that balance as best as we could.”
Moshe magicked up a Cuban theme that drew 175 people to Lillian August in South Norwalk and raised more than $40,000 for the Christian Meehan Hope Foundation for SIDS. The event featured cigar-rolling, soft jazz, tequila and wine-tastings and auctions.
This year, the challenge is finding a larger, yet intimate venue, creating a theme to engage guests, creating a brand for the foundation. Moshe has just the place in mind. Kim jumps into Moshe’s spotless Saab sedan and off they drive to check it out: a showroom for high-end appliances. Moshe has transformed this place in the past. He once created a South Beach catwalk in the warehouse. Another time, he turned it into a market in Provence.
Moshe brings Kim into the vast warehouse. He stands at the entryway, appraising the setting: about a dozen metal tables scattered on the industrial carpeting. But that’s not at all what Moshe sees.
“We can cover the walls with fabric and make vignettes in each room. With Thanksgiving approaching I’d go ‘gourmet adventure’ and make it more dramatic in the evening,” Moshe says. “For the auction, we can have items people will use for the holidays. Pies and wine and that sort of thing.” Kim nods in affirmation. Moshe continues, “I was thinking in the car that we can invite the doctor from Yale and give him an award and make him a guest of honor.”
“It’s perfect,” Kim says, misty-eyed again.