Lotusland Celebrates Oscar de la Renta–Style

Annual Fundraiser Nets $500,000

Event Commitee Members Jasmine Zodeh (Trustee), Belle Hahn Cohen (Trustee), Nati Smith, and Eileen Rasmussen (Trustee).
Photo Credit: Gail Arnold

On July 28, Lotusland held its extravagant Gems of the Garden Gala, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of this botanical garden of rare and exotic plants and netted $500,000. The 500 stylishly attired guests strolled through the magical garden with a plethora of added attractions along the way.

The theme reflected founder Madame Ganna Walska’s love of jewelry, especially the creations of Suzanne Belperron. Walska loved her garden even more than the jewels, however, so in the 1970s she sold $1 million worth to finance the Cycad Garden, which she dubbed her “crown jewels.” This garden is the most scientifically significant selection of plants at Lotusland and includes some which are extinct in their natural habitat and that Lotusland is working to repatriate. Along the garden stroll, there was a display of some of Walska’s Belperron jewels, correspondence between the two women, large Belperron design illustrations, and of course, the cycads.

Models sporting outfits from Oscar de la Renta’s Pre-fall and Fall Collections, which fittingly have a botanical theme, posed along a lush, garden backdrop. De la Renta was a big fan of Lotusland — after visiting years ago, he took inspiration from it in creating his own garden and in designing his couture. Oscar de la Renta CEO Alex Bolen shared that being part of the gala “seemed like a great fit and a perfect way to honor Oscar.”

State Street Ballet’s Leila Drake charmed guests with an enchanting ballet performance set to classical music in the Water Garden. Yves Dharamraj provided soothing cello music in the adjacent aloe garden. Around another corner was the debut of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, an abstract series of paintings inspired by Lotusland by acclaimed artist Russell Young. Artist Lily Pon, an SBCC student, created a remarkably beautiful memorial installation of 10,000 ceramic flowers handcrafted from 1/9 Debris Flow mud and she was on hand to share the creative process.

After being wowed by all these attractions, guests arrived on the grand lawn for more cocktails and appetizers, a bounteous display of Oscar de la Renta fashions, and mingling. A three-course meal followed, along with remarks by CEO Gwen Stauffer and Research Associate Jeff Chemnick, an opera performance by Solange Merdinian, and an extensive auction led by the Armory Show’s Eliza Osborne.

In an interview, Stauffer shared how Lotusland was significantly affected by the twin disasters. It was the southernmost location where burning embers landed during the Thomas Fire, and while the gardens themselves sustained only very minor damage, there was significant damage to infrastructure. The large fire trucks and heavy rains took a toll on the roads and the main building experienced some water damage. Fortunately, the disasters struck in the four-month window when Lotusland is closed to the public, but their restoration and other work had to cease for 40 days and visits in the spring were impacted by the downturn in tourism. Stauffer is not optimistic that insurance will come anywhere near to making Lotusland whole. However, she remains positively focused on the fact that the gardens are in good shape and offer a beautiful and tranquil place for those who did not have such a good fortune to come to grieve, meditate, enjoy the beauty, and find a way to heal.

Lotusland’s conditional use permit limits it to 15,000 visitors per year, which impedes its ability to generate income through admittance fees for its $3.5 million budget and makes fundraising imperative. For more info about Lotusland, go to lotusland.org.

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