Photographed By Lilly Gabriel
Rockefeller Center at Christmastime – that quintessentially New York holiday spectacle. My Publisher warmly suggested I join the thronged sidewalks and walkways around Mr. Rockefeller’s famous tree for a photoshoot with a Vanderbilt and an eminent fashion designer.
I must admit, at first, I was less than amused. But Christmas in New York City can charm the Scrooge out of anyone. I donned my most outrageously ostentatious coat – metallic lilac – an item I’d first seen IG influencer Jay Gould wear, and set out on the town certain that I would be easy to find even amongst the holiday hubbub.
As I walked down the five blocks of Fifth Avenue from my apartment to the tree, I did my best to enjoy the Christmas carnival and try to get into the holiday spirit. It’s not every day that someone meets a Vanderbilt – that storied family of New York, Newport, and Palm Beach, – or a polymath fashion designer. Today I have the very rare opportunity of interviewing them both for a holiday song they did together.
A strange situation by anyone’s standards, even in 2020, but a highly intriguing one. I learned from my wife that you could not get close enough to the Rockerfeller Tree for a photo-op due to Covid-19 restrictions, so Lily, my photographer, and I scrambled to find a suitable change of venue.
Our quest led us into the crowds across from Saks Fifth Avenue, justling for a spot to take photos of the tree with my interviewees. Bah HumBug.
I missed a call as Lily and I tried to line up the new angle for the shoot. Lily bumps my arm. I look up and there is a woman- striding towards me like Carrie Bradshaw on the catwalk in a lustrous green chartreuse knee-length pleated dress with a matching feather-trimmed frock coat and bright coral scalloped stilettos. She was radiant and smiling ear to ear. I relaxed, you can’t fake that type of joy, she saw my coat and laughed.
“Aren’t you striking” she says to me, a statement, not a question. “I love that coat, you look absolutely stunning.” She looks up at me, towering over her despite her gleaming stilettos and says you look like a Californian – I laugh. A common mistake. It’s the Florida tan and curly surfer hair.
Photographed By Lilly Gabriel
She smiles again this time even bigger, I turn and behind me is a man dressed head to toe in a beautiful shiny cobalt royal blue wide-lapeled suit brocaded with subtle palm trees and slightly upturned shoulders paired with bell-bottom trousers. He looks dashing with perfectly styled jet-black hair and a youthful face. He sees her and immediately starts beaming – a real smile – and suddenly I’m in the holiday mood.
Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin, or the rebel heiress as Page 6 as the society rags love to label her, is the 7th descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was named for Consuelo Vanderbilt – this part is important later, Consuelo has carved out a life for herself separate from her family’s heavy legacy as a singer and entrepreneur.
Malan Breton hails from Taiwan. He charged into the New York scene as a model, who then took up designing, then television, eventually starting his own fashion company, and lately he has branched out into music.
Their energy is palpable. They’re clearly dear friends, and real ones. The photoshoot progresses from Rockefellerto Saks and then on Malan’s suggestion up to the Plaza Hotel and Bergdorf’s.
As we set up to shoot in front of Bergdorf’s, a gentleman walks out holding a Bergdorf bag. He says to me “they are famous”, another statement not a question. I say yes it’s Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin and Malan Breton. He informs me has seen Malan on TV and as for Consuelo, “She is named no doubt for Consuelo Vanderbilt who was married off to some British royal who never loved her, she missed her family dearly and always longed for home.”
New Yorkers never cease to amaze. But his remark sticks with me, after all, the holiday single they recorded together is “I’ll be home for Christmas.”
We hail cabs and head down to our lunch reservation in RockefellerPlaza.
We walk into Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, one of the few remaining restaurants that take reservations for indoors and outdoors around the plaza. It’s cold out but not typical December weather. I check-in with the hostess and my subjects assure me they are comfortable with whatever I choose. I get us a private table in the back. I’ll need to hear this conversation.
We sit down, the service is Covid slow, but we hardly notice. I am a new friend amongst old friends. The vibe is congenial and direct, the engrossing kind of conversation one can only have in the company of those with whom one enjoys comfortable trust.
I dropped awkward formalities and jumped right in, “This year sucks, is that why you did this song to provide some hope?”. Consuelo laughs and Malan does too, light and resounding. She says “well yes that is kind of the point right;” Malan dead eyes me and says “yes for others and ourselves.”
Consuelo shared with me that she “lived a very nomadic life while growing up and home was never really a place but an idea. An idea that gave such warmth and hope. It was this idea of home that drew me to I’ll be home for Christmas.”
I’ll be home for Christmas is one of those Christmas songs that can be overwrought, cliche, and sappy. To be sure, Consuelo and Malan’s rendition feels like it could go that way, yet it doesn’t. Opening with a warm brass instrumental, Malan’s voice punctuates it with an enunciation that is deep and resonates like a less jazzy Michael Bublé. Consuelo joins with a sultry timbre, and together, their voices provide rich yet contrasting brogues with distinct hints of their origins. The song hits the mark – but in 2020 it’s so much more than just holiday music.
It’s been some four odd years since Consuelo created an album. She was direct in admitting that she’d fallen out of love with music and found entrepreneurship more rewarding. Being a woman in business is daunting and Consuelo clearly enjoys a challenge. Her link to Malan is due to fashion; they were fast friends and became collaborators mostly in the business realm. Malan, ever the renaissance man, built his own multi-billion dollar company yet found he had to expand his passions. He is an accomplished pianist, one of the many talents this prodigious man has. 2020 happened, in all its destructive chaos, and both found themselves drawn back to music.
We spoke for over four hours – Consuelo’s phone rang multiple times, Malan’s did likewise. Both stayed enraptured in the conversation as it moved from one subject to the next but maintained focus on the human aspects of their stories. It was a rare moment that I felt privileged to witness. In this most trying of years, two friends sought to provide comfort to themselves and to those around them. To use the authentic spark of love and friendship between them, combined with their skills as musical artists, to share something magical with a weary world.
Their kindness and their music are a gift to all those that hear it.
And a powerful reminder of what’s been lost in the many social distances of 2020.
I felt full of electric energy and Christmas cheer, and hoping that next year, we’ll all be a little closer together.
As for this year, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams”.