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The High Life

Photo by Max Dolberg
THE RICH CAN DEFINE A CITY. Dallas conjures an image of brash oilmen with pageant-perfect wives. New York: Wall Street tycoons and nanny-handled offspring. Los Angeles: hard-driving Hollywood types and spoiled Brentwood babes.

San Diego’s elite defy crude stereotypes. One of the few defining characteristics of our rich is that they tend to work hard well beyond the time when they could trade a life of leadership for leisure. The majority of our billionaires still show up at the office on a daily basis—albeit in gleaming Maserati or chauffeured Benz.

At least, that’s what they tell us. If this high-I.Q., entrepreneurial bunch indeed defines San Diego, they paint it as a domain of quiet prosperity, where appreciation for natural beauty and casual elegance trump overt opulence.

Where are those famous “ladies who lunch” one might expect to find in La Jolla? Apparently either busy making their own millions, or finding ways to coax it out of others through high-concept charity events. “Chairing an event is basically a full-time job,” says Elisabeth Bergan, a La Jolla socialite and three-time chair of the Mama’s Day event benefiting Mama’s Kitchen. “In some towns, chairing an event means writing a check. Here, it means really working and making it happen.” But if our rich really are hard workers, they’re hardly masochists. There’s no shortage of decadence here. The past few years have been very good to the Ranch, Cove and Cays sets, with ever more ways for them to enjoy their wealth, San Diego style.

Here are some of those ways.

WHEN IT OPENED IN 2002, The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe shot into the league of its older counterparts—the Fairbanks Ranch, Del Mar and La Jolla country clubs. It doesn’t hurt that 2004 Masters champion Phil Mickelson and Senior Open winner Peter Jacobson are members. But it isn’t these golf luminaries’ endorsements that lure San Diego’s privileged.

There may be some things money can’t buy.

But folks at The Bridges would argue the club’s initial membership fee of $350,000 (plus about $1,000 per month in dues) can buy members some elbow room.

One of the most striking aspects of The Bridges is how every detail of the development is designed to create an illusion of a grand, sequestered country estate. The club spent $15 million building the 36,000-square-foot Tuscan-style clubhouse, then many thousands more antiquing every surface to give the place the feel of the ancestral homes of European aristocrats.

The service at The Bridges is exacting, yet friendly enough to make it comfortable. Staff is instructed to recognize by name every one of the club’s members, and the kitchen keeps an exhaustive file on guests’ preferences, allergies and despised ingredients so each meal and snack can be made precisely to their liking. When a country club doesn’t provide escape from everyday tensions, San Diego’s spas step in. A $12 million makeover of the spa at La Costa Resort & Spa contributes to making this area favorite a hallowed haven of relaxation. For the ultimate indulgence, the $250, four-hand massage has two therapists simultaneously kneading one double-happy client for 50 minutes.

For the downtown and Coronado set, Loews Coronado Bay Resort’s year-old Sea Spa also offers the high-end luxury experience. It’s one of the few spas in Southern California that has a Vichy shower treatment room, where seven shower heads cleanse the body of wrap debris while the client is lying down, eliminating the pesky need to get vertical during a treatment.

Sea Spa also offers watsu, a gravitydefying shiatsu massage done in a private outdoor hot tub. In watsu practitioner Tania Popov’s able hands, clients get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a baby in the womb. This $230 treatment is only for those who really know how to spa. “This is not the massage for beginners,” Popov says. “You have to really understand how to relax in someone else’s care.”

TO MOST PEOPLE,
the verb “to dress” means simply getting decent to go out in public. For those who regularly get catwalk seats at fashion shows in Paris and Milan, dressing is something done for you—by a consultant. The people who man the couture departments at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus are not retail clerks; they know the lines they handle right down to the thread. Their job entails going to all the right parties to meet clients, as well as competing with other cities for access to the best designs, as the more-fabulous couture pieces are made in very limited number.

a womann trying on a fur coat Jason Wimberly, a designated sales associate for Gucci at Neiman Marcus, dresses some of San Diego’s top female executives and socialites. For Wimberly’s “poodles” (his name for his adored clients), shopping is a one-on-one mini-retreat. They drink champagne, nibble on lobster salad and enjoy lavish attention as the former ballet dancer presents selections from Chanel, Gucci and Christian Lacroix.

“For the people I dress, shopping is an escape from all their other hassles of life,” says Wimberly. “They can come and have fun, focus on themselves, beautiful clothes and shut everything else out.”

Wimberly’s service is truly head to toe. He selects clients’ accessories, shoes, even their undergarments and hosiery. He visits their homes to organize their closets and make sure the racks aren’t clogged with ghosts of runways past. And for clients in “The Ranch” who don’t feel like making the trek to Fashion Valley, Wimberly brings the store to them.

“I throw about $40,000 worth of merchandise in the car, and when I pull up, the maids bring out the rolling racks and load them up, and we shop at home.”

His clients’ closets are, of course, enormous.

For one footwear fetishist, Wimberly photodocumented each of her hundreds of pairs of shoes and made an illustrated map so she could recall and locate them. When it’s a gown for a special event, Wimberly undertakes the awesome responsibility of ensuring no one else shows up wearing the same thing, mostly by calling around to other guests’ “people.”

“It’s not that hard,” he says. “There’s only a very small group of women in San Diego who dress.”

No surprise there. For what Wimberly’s better clients spend each year being fashion-forward, they could hire a whole team of tailors—and buy them each a house in Murrieta. But how is that fun?

a woman models designer clothes For regular do-it-yourself shopping, San Diego’s fashionable have declared the local scene less than spectacular. There are a couple of special boutiques, though. Tobi Blatt in Del Mar is a favorite place to shop for casual attire, with a huge selection of high-end jeans brands. (In case you haven’t been paying attention, trendy jeans fetch $150 or more these days.) And being rich doesn’t take the fun out of finding a bargain every now and again. That’s where Encore on Girard in La Jolla comes in. The store buys goodas- new designer duds from exuberant shoppers and resells them to the public, and it’s not uncommon to find gorgeous couture pieces with tags still on.

“Apparently, there’s this woman up in L.A. who’s this insane shopper who buys stuff by the rack and never wears half of it,” says socialite Bergan.

Now that’s fun.

WHERE DOES ONE GO TO BE SEEN in one’s fabulous ensemble and post-spa glow?

For dining, San Diego’s familiar bastions of fine cuisine—Mille Fleurs, George’s at the Cove, the Marine Room—welcomed another of their own to the scene when A.R. Valentien opened in 2002 at the Lodge at Torrey Pines.

While it has the advantage of a positively stunning ocean view from the bluffs of Torrey Pines, A.R. Valentien hardly rests on that attraction. Chef Jeff Jackson uses the very freshest produce, building the menu around what’s in peak season and employing a creative simplicity that lets the quality of the ingredients come through. With its comfortably elegant setting and impeccable service, the restaurant has become one of the top places to dine for both business and pleasure.

For high-rollers inclined to stay awake past 11 p.m., downtown San Diego finally has a few places to have a decent meal and indulge in some choice people-watching. Bertrand at Mr. A’s, at the venue once famous for its dastardly décor, has slowly turned into a spot frequented by the beautiful people—ever since Mille Fleurs’ Bertrand Hug took over.

a man beside a rooftop dining table Hug attributes the change to downtown’s having become the place to live. He’s only partly joking when he says he’d ditch The Ranch for downtown if his wife and dogs would have it. “Now, it’s just amazing downtown,” he says. “I mean, oh my God, look at all these amazing spaces people are creating.”

Another place to see and be the scene is Chive on Fifth in the Gaslamp, where the menu isn’t the only place to find delicious treats. “On Friday nights, the bar has a fabulous mixture of sophisticated out-of-towners as well as handsome men who know D&G from D&B,” says Kanani Moser, an executive who lives and plays downtown.

(If you must ask: Dolce & Gabana versus Dooney & Bourke.) During the racing season at Del Mar, watching the horsies is an entertainment staple, although opening day has lost some of the cachet it once had. While one can still spy our socialites graciously attired in demure suits and outstanding hats from Paris milliners, many complain they’re being squeezed out, so to speak, by an unabashedly intoxicated crowd that is too high on silicone and too low on couture.

San Diego Magazine society columnist Jeanne Beach Eigner describes the elegance- meets-bling-bling scene as “surreal.” She recalls the plainly horrified look on the face of one prominent society maven who rushed over and said, quite seriously, “Tell me the truth. They’re prostitutes, aren’t they?”

FORMAL CHARITY EVENTS remain the center of social life in San Diego, and in recent years, these black-tie balls and galas have grown in number and sophistication to accommodate increasingly generous donors.

Not so long ago, the social season had only a few important dates, in particular the venerable Jewel and Charity balls, both still key events. Now, San Diegans have many more occasions to don Dior, with the increasing prominence of events that benefit a thriving arts and culture scene. Opening-night galas for the symphony, opera and Old Globe are must-attends, as are benefits for the Mingei Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. (This year, horror of horrors, the Globe and MoCA Monte Carlo soirées were on the same night, and the decision was positively brutal for those passionate about both.) Burl Stiff, who’s covered society events for The San Diego Union-Tribune for nearly three decades, says that in recent years, “The amount of money raised by events has skyrocketed.

“I remember when the Charity Ball committee was thrilled to make $25,000,” Stiff says of the event, which this year netted $350,000 for Children’s Hospital. “And at all the events, the most expensive tickets sell first.”

With more events comes more competition and pressure to put on a fabulous do, according to event planner Job York. “You have five events every weekend now, and that’s brought things to a whole new level over the past 10 years,” York says. “We went from themes like ‘fiesta’ and ‘beach party’ to events that take vision —and we’ve shown San Diego has its visionaries.”

One mustn’t confuse fabulous with lavish, however. According to Stiff and York, San Diegans have a low tolerance for flash and ostentation.

“When it comes to the wow factor, you don’t want ‘Wow, look how much they spent,’ ” York says. “You want ‘Wow, look how beautifully this was done!’ ” Every cause has its informal steward (the symphony has Joan Jacobs; the opera has Iris Strauss), and every chair brings a certain style to an event. The choice of honorary chair makes a statement about whom the organization is aligned with, York says, while the committee chair selection tells what sort of event it will be.

“When choosing a chair, you know who brings what to the table, and you choose on that basis,” he says. “You know what an Iris Strauss event is going to be like, because she has a certain standard, and she always achieves it.”

The wealthier the client, York says, the more likely she’ll scrutinize the budget for excess and focus on the one unique or special touch that will make guests feel honored and appreciated. But if that little extra something happens to cost a little too much, often a committee member will anonymously donate it rather than take it out of ticket sale proceeds. It’s worth it sometimes to have the desired effect.

“It’s not just an event. It’s them,” York says. “Money only buys so much. The rest is personality.”
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