This month’s That Girl is Emanuela Santi, the beautiful Managing Director and Partner of Tuff Consult! She’s put together some of the most glitzy and glamorous events in town and has even worked on the Cannes Film Festival.
We catch up with this multi-tasking event queen to find out what her favourite Hong Kong spots are, the secrets to a fabulous event and how her style fairy godmother (and our former Super Styler!) Sarah Rutson influences her…
Fill us in on your background and where you grew up. How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I was born in Rio de Janeiro to Italian parents who lived there for 8 years. We kept a house in Buzios for 20 years and returned there frequently, but shortly after I was born we moved to Cairo where we lived for 7 years. It was an incredible experience to say the least – my day began waking up to morning prayers from the local mosque next door, school days were followed by horse riding in Giza with the pyramids as your backdrop. Typical weekends were spent with family and friends at a secluded beach, the now ever popular Sharm el Sheik. We then moved to Hong Kong in 1991, I’ll always remember that day… landing at Kai Tak airport between a mass of grey buildings in a Typhoon 8! I can still remember peering out of the window of the plane and I was sure I could see families going about their daily lives, eating noodles in kitchens. Swapping the Egyptian desert for skyscrapers was a real eye opener for my brother and I at such a young age to say the least!
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live in Mid Levels, about 1km away from my family house and 1km from my brother and his wife. To that extent we really are Italian, we can’t live with each other but we can’t live without each other! I recently moved a year ago, and it’s probably the smallest house I’ve ever lived in – but the shoe box is what I call home.
I’ve made it my own mainly from collecting as I travel. The carpet is from a recent work trip to Mumbai, where I was accosted into a carpet cave by Sandeep and convinced by many affectionate head wobbles that if I didn’t buy the carpet bad luck would ensue! There is a bit of Morocco, Egypt, Brazil, Paris, London and all of the cities that have played a big part in my life or that I’ve lived in.
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds that you can let us in on?
I am very lucky in the sense that I have a Fashion Director, Sarah Rutson (and Sassy’s former Super Styler!) as a fairy god mother, who spoils me with shoes and amazing outfits. However, my go-to shops are J. Crew, Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant and of course Zara.
I also get a lot of things made – I have the best seamstress across the border in Shenzen that does anything from very basic trousers to my grandmother’s and mother’s Valentino vintage dresses. I tend to shop a lot in Italy and Paris; when I’m there, a particular shop I love in Paris is L’Art du Basic in the Marais – very chic but understated. For home and lifestyle, I just discovered Bowerbird and love what they do. When I do get some free time, I love heading over to the flower and bird market and bringing something home.
What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
Depends what meal! For breakfast, hands down Cafe Grey – they do the best Bircher known to man and great coffee. Other favourite restaurants include Chom Chom, Cipriani and Carbone for great atmosphere as well as Café Causette. And my favourite for a big meal has to be Nadaman at Island Shangri-La. Watering holes usually include Bibo, which is just by the office. I’m obsessed with all the street art especially the Vhils mural! For a good Gin and Tonic, I love the vibe at Stockton and the story behind the name of the bar. I recently discovered “what the doctor ordered” at Aberdeen Street Social too – order it and you’ll also get a dose of literary prose.
What is your favourite place in Hong Kong?
As I grew up in HK, I feel like there is a memory everywhere. One of my favourite spots is one particular rock that overlooks the city… it’s my go-to place for a breather. I hike with my dogs every weekend and I often take them swimming by a little waterfall off Pik Shan – it’s very chilled and nothing special, but I love it there. I also do love the back beach bar in Shek O where I bring Casper and force Lola to swim. Basically, if I have sand in my toes and I’m by the sea, I’m a happy girl.
How did you get into events? Where did it all begin?
I began my career in fashion at Boss, and my first experience at a big event was the opening of Hugo Boss on the Bund in Shanghai. I wasn’t on the events team at that time, but I remember seeing models come in for castings, lighting plots and set designs – I immediately knew I was in the wrong field. I then moved to Lane Crawford where in a short space of time I learnt a huge amount about events. My boss there will always remain one of the most inspirational and hard-working women I know and I still consider her my mentor today. I met my boss now and business partner Stefan Santoni at dragon-i of all places – I took one look at his impressive portfolio of events and told him I wanted to work for him. We took a leap of faith and five years ago, we opened Tuff Consult HK together.
What are some of the most memorable events you’ve done and why?
Every event is a chapter in my book, so it’s hard to pinpoint a few as each and every one has so much research and planning behind it. My most memorable is probably Naomi Campbell’s 40th birthday in the South of France. I was a baby to Tuff and I was launched into a world of pure madness – a set inspired by David La Chapelle with purple zebras, pink panthers, flocks of birds, a painting of Grace Jones in a tribal Keith haring print, I had to convince Le Lido that going nude would be better than wearing costumes, hiding a very loud Black Eyed Peas in the Du Cap kitchen as a surprise act and more! So much went on in that evening… it was probably the craziest event I’ve done.
Some of the other most memorable events have been here in Hong Kong. Firstly, turning the Grand Hyatt Ballroom into Milan’s La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and more recently into Angkor Wat. These events took almost a year to plan and a lot of love and passion went in from the team at Tuff; from sourcing thousands of real lotuses from Thailand and finding and designing the exact stone to replicate the large stones you see in the temples of Angkor, to the GH chef traveling all the way to Siem Riep to learn more about the cuisine. Each and every one of my clients, from corporate to personal, are very important to me. Some projects take a year to plan and in that time you build a very close bond with the clients because you create a story together from scratch and watch it evolve and build… it’s quite a journey. It sometimes gets quite emotional with the team at teardown, and to see a story of months – sometimes a year – built and then come down in a matter of hours is something I will never get used to. With the late hours and the heavy schedules I’m known to shed a tear!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced when organising an event?
Honestly, every event is a challenge. Not because we aren’t prepared, but because there is always an element of unknown and surprise on the day, whether it’s a performer calling in sick and sending a replacement, a model that has decided to get a huge tattoo of her boyfriends name down her arm or simply the client changing the run of show, you always need to be prepared. And yes, I hate the word no! The biggest challenge in HK so far has probably been the impromptu T8 last year – our client asked us to call it and we moved the whole event from Sky 100 to The Space. We had to redesign the event space in just 5 hours as well as have the teams work in a T8, which is something I never want to go through again… however, it did work in the end after a lot of black coffee!
How do you stay organised? Any tips?
Being a creative at heart, organisation is something I personally still find very challenging as we grow the business, but it is the core to any event. As the team grew we put detailed systems in place in the office, giant charts for every project and every meeting is followed up by detailed minutes and call to action for each client. It wasn’t always this way though! We also have endless project meetings to update on the status of each client and event. The flow of an event from concept to creation is a long one and so my main tip is to have a flow in place that works for you and your team of creatives and non-creatives.
What do you think makes an amazing event?
The essence of an event for me is creativity and passion. There are many events in Hong Kong and worldwide, but without sounding too crazy, I think of it as making a dish. Imagine making a mediocre plate of pasta: you boil the water you throw it in and mix a jar of pre mixed pesto barilla. Firstly, I would never do that (she laughs), however make a plate of pasta with a glass of wine in your hand, good music, your favourite people and add to it all your quirks and tips you’ve picked up from your grandmother and mother and voila, magic. Same goes for an event – if it’s missing creativity, passion, time and dedication, it’s pretty bland and cookie cutter, whether you are creating Cambodia, Italy, Paris, an ethereal circus, a Bollywood night club. Each of these require hours of research from the pantone of a cobblestone, the right henna hand painter or what wattage lighting is used in street lamps in Paris. I always tell my team that we will never stop learning.
What inspires you? How do you keep your ideas fresh and creative?
I’m inspired by literally everything around me – I have 13,000 photos on my iPhone which I use in my client proposals, whether it’s a shot of Man Mo Temple at 6am or street art in a back alley. But mainly what inspires me the most are my travels, new cultures, people’s stories and being open to learning about these. Imagery is a huge part of my job, so that means I can be browsing on Google for hours just to find the right 1920’s lamp for an art or furniture exhibition – visuals are very important.
How was Cannes this year? Any special moments or challenges?
Cannes is always crazy and challenging, I freelance write for Baccarat magazine and I feel that all my Cannes stories are recapped in there to look back and reflect on. My friends tend to ask me how it’s been when I come home and I’m totally lost for words, which is very rare for me! This year, Tuff mapped the first 3D mapping on enigmatic Hotel du Caps facade. For amfAR we had 42 top models including all the Victoria Secrets girls, Rosie Huntington Whitely, Karlie Kloss and Liu Wen. Carine Roitfelds show is bigger and better each year since we began working on it 3 years ago – organising 42 girls over 3 days is a major event in itself and every major designer is in that show. Every girl is important but at the end of the day it’s about the cause and we were all there mainly for that.
What’s your dream event to be a part of?
I’ve worked on over 100 events but I feel like I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg and that I am constantly learning – I have so many brands and clients I still want to work with. I do have a passion for set builds and creating these from scratch. Whether that’s a fashion show, a collection presentation or a beautiful dinner, I’d like to explore more detailed set design for photo-shoots.
Any advice for those looking to get into event planning?
I once read on a plane that event production is in the top 5 most stressful jobs in the world, and that really stuck with me. It may seem like it’s all rosy and fun picking Pantones and tasting good food whilst choreographing beautiful models and starlets, but the reality is that you have to be prepared for every possible scenario! From mopping a bathroom floor to sleeping under a lighting truss, I’ve even had to give my favourite dress that I was wearing to Patti Smith because she took a liking to it… the Tuff team is endlessly passionate and always running around. But to sum up I would say that passion is the key ingredient in the ‘pasta dish’ and you’ve got to get used to saying “yes” – everything IS possible and you can at least try to do it!