Sandy Marple with Giorgio Armani

Sandy Marple with fashion designer Giorgio Armani

Come on in, and meet the definition of hostess greatness. Her name is Sandy Marple and she’s the divine doyenne of parties at Neiman Marcus. Sandy was just about to regale us with tales of her 46-year career at the luxury retailer, which began when she was hired by Stanley Marcus, the store’s legendary CEO. As Neiman Marcus’s vice president of special events, Sandy and her team produce more than 8,000 shindigs each year. That’s an average of 154 a week. Gulp. Exhale. Let’s listen in. Clearly, Sandy’s got something special in store.

Sandy, 8,000 parties a year is an astonishing number. How do you keep them fresh?

As with anything creative, there are trends to watch in entertaining. Right now, people’s tastes are harkening back to the 60s and 70s with less fussy hors d’oeuvres and brown spirits. Ideas are constantly evolving and inspiration is everywhere. And, of course, we always try to tailor each event to the area and season we’re in, the customer we’re hosting and the merchandise and/or designer we’re highlighting.

Alexander McQueen Show Neiman Marcus CCB 2013

The Crystal Charity Ball Fashion Show and Luncheon Honoring Alexander McQueen

One of your biggest and most anticpated events of the year – the Crystal Charity Ball Fashion Show and Luncheon – takes place tomorrow in Dallas. What are you planning for this year’s event? 

This will be the 41st year of the annual Crystal Charity Fashion Show and Luncheon. Over the years we have hosted the most prestigious names in the fashion industry as our guest designers – Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Chanel, Akris, Michael Kors, and Nina Ricci to name a few. Giorgio Armani came to personally produce his show for us in 2007 as part of our 100th Anniversary. This year, we’re presenting the Oscar de la Renta collection for the fourth time in Crystal Charity history. And we’re delighted that Peter Copping, the creative director hand-picked by Mr. de la Renta to succeed him, will be joining us. We will present the Resort 2016 Collection and the décor will reflect a lighter resort feel with touches of “Oscar Blue” scattered throughout the event.

What is the essence of a Neiman Marcus event?

To me, the essence of any event is the guest experience. We want it to be memorable, whether you purchase anything or not. My team and I walk through every event on site and in our minds numerous times. If we were the guest, what would we be seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and feeling during every moment of the event? We tend to every detail accordingly. We entertain in the store like one would entertain in a fine home. This is our home and we’ve adopted an elegant yet simple style that we hope will exceed our guests’ expectations. We leave the “corporate” and the garish behind. Our goal is a warm, luxurious feel – when you are our guest, we want you to feel like one.

Neiman MarcusThe glamorous place setting at a Neiman Marcus event in Sydney, Australia

And, for contrast, what is absent from your events?

Keeping in mind the entertaining in a fine home analogy, there are several things you won’t find at our events for a variety of reasons:

  • We don’t serve red wine if guests will be standing and walking through the store. We want to minimize the chances for staining the dècor and merchandise.
  • We avoid balloons in most cases. There is nothing luxurious or elegant about them.
  • We prefer European or garden flowers. They are softer looking than tropicals. And flowers and plants must be appropriately sized to the table and room, so they do not block sight lines or conversations across a table.
  • We prefer that coffee at a meal be brought to the table and served. We won’t place coffee cups on the table except perhaps at a breakfast.
  • What is done in hotels should stay in hotels. For example, we don’t like tablecloths that are too short, uninteresting and undersized glassware and plates, food that’s been pre-set on the table, pre-pleated, clip-drape skirting, jack stands in the room for clearing plates, and napkins folded any way other than flat.

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Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director, enjoying one of Sandy’s parties

What are your favorite memories and greatest accomplishments?

Some of my fondest memories are from the really big events like store openings that attract more than 1,000 guests for a first look at their new Neiman Marcus store and benefit local charity organizations. They are the most challenging events logistically and, sometimes, come with near misses that we laugh about today. For example, there was the time when:

  • A tunnel closed in Manhattan with part of our catering on the city side and our hungry party guests in Short Hills, New Jersey.
  • New air conditioning towers had to be flown in by helicopter and replaced on the roof of the King of Prussia store two hours before the guests arrived.
  • All the bathrooms were stopped up in the Orlando store and our facilities executives were fixing the main drains outside the building in their tuxedos.
  • There were no party rental companies on the island of Oahu for the opening of our store in Ala Moana, so we had to buy everything on the mainland and ship all the glassware, plates, napkins, trays, utensils, bar equipment, and serving pieces to Honolulu. We learned the freight ship schedule out of Long Beach really quickly. We also learned that when surf’s up, FedEx drivers like to go surfing.
  • The valet parking staff in Boca Raton put the tickets on the outside of all the car windshields, and a brief tropical shower washed all the numbers off the tickets of hundreds of cars.

We open our 42nd store in Roosevelt Field on Long Island in February – and I can’t wait.

What was your path into your role at Neiman Marcus? 

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been with Neiman Marcus for 46 years. I have never worked anywhere else. I started as a model while I was attending SMU in Dallas. I also had the opportunity to travel to colleges all over the country to talk to other college girls about Neiman Marcus and do special projects for the store. I met Stanley Marcus and, before I knew it, I had a full-time job.

Who influenced your love of events early on?

It began with my mother and culminated with Neiman Marcus. Mom was a wonderful hostess. Everything was thoroughly planned and carefully executed, but she was always relaxed and enjoyed her own parties. That is a gift. Perhaps it was the Sagittarius in her. Oh, how I wish I had gotten more of that relax-and-enjoy-them gene! Mr. Stanley, as he was known, was often called The Merchant Prince because he was a brilliant merchant, but he was also a brilliant showman and entertainer. He wanted his customers to have fun while they shopped and perhaps learn something new and to be as thrilled with the experience as they were with the merchandise. He used to tell people that he raised me at Neiman Marcus, and as young as I was when I started, he did.

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Sandy uses lighting to create a glamorous ambiance at a recent in-store fête

How has entertaining changed in the last four decades?

I have a collection of etiquette books dating back to the 1950s that love to read and reread. The biggest change has come with the casualization of America. Ours is a fast-paced world, and people tend to be less formal in so many aspects of their lives, including entertaining.

How often do you entertain at home?

Never – I entertain for a living!

What is your favorite hostess gift to give and receive?

I try to give what I think would be appreciated by the recipient. Personally, I love to receive flowers – white ones.

Sandy Marple

Sandy at work

Given all the fabulous parties you’ve planned over the years, I imagine you’ve received a lot of wonderful thank you notes. Which do you treasure most? 

There are two, and I still have them both. One I received from Mr. Stanley with an amazing gift after his 90th Birthday Gala, a party for more than 1,000 of his friends, customers, vendors, retired employees and family members. The second came from the grande dame of manners and etiquette, Letitia Baldrige, whose books have guided so many. Her note told me not to worry, that I knew it all, but she included her personal phone number just in case. I have laughed over that for years.

Thanks, Sandy, for stopping by. I know you’ve got a party to get to…

Photos: Neiman Marcus

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