The tickets are coveted, the dresses are couture, and the message is clear: Naples’ social season has begun. And it starts unofficially—but officially to those in the know—with a magnificent millinery parade called Hats in the Garden.
“People can’t wait to get their invitations,” says Mary Ann Bindley, a former chair of the highly anticipated Naples Botanical Garden fundraiser, which started in 2004. “The RSVPs start coming in as soon as they go out.”
In the weeks and months to come, there will be benefit balls and hospital galas, wine auctions and celebrity appearances, golf tournaments and teas, and themed dinners of every sort. But it’s on the November day that about 600 women (and some men, too) don their finery and mingle amid the garden’s lush foliage that Naples’ philanthropic frenzy takes off.
Perhaps it’s because Hats—as it’s most commonly called—is the first major event of the fall. Or because it emerged from a collaboration between legendary designer Carleton Varney and Naples grande dame Jane Purdy Berger. Or maybe it’s because of the festive mood and camaraderie.
“There is just so much love and fun,” says Wynnell Schrenk, another former chair. “It’s just so exciting. It’s like a parade of everyone you love looking gorgeous, and we’re just thankful we can be a part of this community.”
If Hats sets the tone for season as much as it signals its start, then Naples may be in for a particularly creative stretch. Jody Lippes, this year’s chair, conceived a theme that drew from her love of contemporary art and is rooted in the garden’s design.
“I’ve always been intrigued by Henri Rousseau,” says Lippes, referring to the nineteenth-century French painter known for his exotic landscapes. “The interesting thing about his career is he had no teacher other than nature. He was self-taught. … Everything he learned about nature, animals, and exotic plants either came from illustrations in childhood books or visits to botanical gardens in Paris.”
She titled this year’s event “Rousseau’s Parisian Garden.”
Proceeds support the garden’s operation and mission, and each season, event organizers also hold a fund-a-need appeal for a specific endeavor. This year’s initiative, Garden for All—in collaboration with the United Way of Collier County—seeks to make the garden more affordable for working families. The effort is part of a larger Museums for All program launched by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2014. About 400 cultural institutions nationwide participate, and the garden is the first in Southwest Florida to do so.
To Lippes, the initiative pairs perfectly with the event’s theme. She hopes the garden ignites curiosity and exposes guests to places they might never see, just as Rousseau learned about regions that differed from Paris through botanical gardens and books. Naples Botanical Garden celebrates the flora and cultures found along the twenty-sixth latitude, including areas such as Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.
Hats in the Garden includes a fashion show, a featured floral designer, and a potted amaryllis for each guest to take home.
For this year’s event, Lippes made a special phone call to secure the fashion designer—to her stepson, Adam Lippes, who is based in New York and will show his latest collection.
“It’s just such a magical place,” he says of Naples Botanical Garden. “What’s not to love? As a person, gardens are important to me. I spend all my summers outside working on them. As a designer, working with florals is important to me.”
His line features a floral collection designed using actual bouquets. He works with floral designers who create arrangements using whatever color palette Lippes has conceived. Those bouquets are then photographed three-dimensionally and printed on fabric in Milan.
This year’s floral designer is Lewis Miller, who also lives in New York. Miller is known for his “flower flash” in which he or his crew slip into public spaces—anything from fountains to subway stops to trash cans—and adorn them with breathtaking floral arrangements. “I thought, ‘How fabulous would that be if somebody did that in Naples?’” Jody Lippes says.
Another special touch is the amaryllis bulbs given to guests, compliments of Connie Vandenberg, a member of the Sustaining Leadership Council, which is the garden’s philanthropic arm. (Bindley and Schrenk are members as well.) Vanderberg and her husband, John, who serves on the garden’s board of directors, have provided the flowers for about 12 years. “It’s wonderful,” she says. “We get so many compliments, but it’s not for us. We want guests to go home and remember the garden.”
The council was formed about 10 years ago to address the garden’s financial needs and currently has 43 members. “There’s just this fantastic camaraderie to being involved,” says Karen Scott, a council member and former Hats chair. “It brings women together for the greater good of the garden, and it touches you when you see people walking around the garden during season, and you’ve been a part of building that legacy.”
And that’s what drives Naples’ bustling social season—creating legacies and supporting social change and good works. Collier County nonprofits rely on philanthropy to accomplish a range of goals—from improving the health and well-being of children to expanding medical care to engaging older adults and more. At the garden, Hats proceeds support a range of programs, including conserving rare and endangered plants and providing services to special populations, such as those with dementia and sensory disorders.
“We are so grateful to the members of the Sustaining Leadership Council and all of those who support the work of the garden,” says Donna McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the garden. “This garden was built with the vision and support of community members, and thanks to the community, we can continue to dream big as we enter our second decade.” «