What Hong Kong’s Joanne Ooi did at New York high society’s biggest Hamptons party

Pussy Riot created an art installation, Kanye was a no-show, but diamonds from Ooi’s Plukka online jewellery business were everywhere at this year’s Watermill Centre Summer Benefit to support its work with emerging artists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 August, 2016, 1:02pm

Every party in New York bills itself as THE party, but few deserve the title quite as much as the Watermill Centre Summer Benefit which captivated the Hamptons, and most of New York society, this summer.

The annual gala, now in its 23rd year, drew titans, tycoons, artists, patrons, royalty, and celebrities to the Hamptons for what is both the centrepiece of high society’s summer season and one of the oddest parties on the social calendar.

The gala and auction both benefit the Watermill Centre, an “interdisciplinary laboratory” started by avant-garde-theatre pioneer Robert Wilson on his 3.5 hectare property at Water Mill in the Hamptons. The centre runs a year-round artist residency programme and offers a coveted international summer fellowship for new and emerging artists. The money raised by the event goes for the most part to sustaining and improving those programmes.

Joanne Ooi takes Hong Kong jeweller Plukka international

On the night of the gala, installations of every description were scattered over the property: disembodied car headlights cast beams into the mist, voice actors read original and often disturbing monologues at lecterns set up in the woods, and a man swam in a concrete block full of water in a clearing surrounded by tiki torches.

The Watermill Centre benefit is inevitably, if a bit overzealously, called the Burning Man of the New York arts scene.

So it’s not hard to see why it holds such appeal for Joanne Ooi, the one-time creative director for Shanghai Tang and co-founder of Plukka, the jewellery e-commerce platform that has emerged as both a tastemaker in its own right and something of an engine in discovering cutting-edge jewellery talent.

Interview: Joanne Ooi of Plukka.com on China chic and the best and worst of Hong Kong's fashion industry

Like the event itself, Ooi values what she calls a “no-compromise commitment to creativity” above all else. She really does embody something of that fringe credibility and manages to remain mostly unfazed by the billionaires, tastemakers and public figures that are drawn to her. Over the course of the night she happily passes by old New York industrialists and Kuwaiti royalty to admire the art, but turns into a giddy fan when meeting more serious artists like Orlan, the French artist famous for her literally cutting-edge work using cosmetic surgery in the 1990s.

This was the second year that Ooi’s company, Plukka, sponsored the event. And her touch, if you knew what to look for, was everywhere: a line of earrings meant to cling to the wearer like diamond-bearing vines caught the light, sparkling in the ears of the artists in one installation; and the man in the concrete cube of water wore a cuff featured on Plukka’s website. Guests of every stripe were dripping in Ooi’s diamonds too.

The event, held on July 30, attracted the biggest crowd in its history, drawn at least in part by promises of performances or installations by Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot and perhaps the biggest celebrity of them all, Kanye West.

Pussy Riot did have an installation on the grounds: Make America Great Again, a wall covered in graffiti and an obvious, if not very daring, dig at Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In the end, Wilson waited until everyone was seated at dinner before announcing that Kanye would not be making an appearance – though he promised he would be there next year. Instead, and seemingly out of nowhere, New York rapper Ja Rule appeared. If the revellers were disappointed by this last-minute and frankly hilarious substitution they didn’t show it, cheering on his surprise performance later in the evening. “I love art. I’m an art enthusiast,” Ja told interviewers.

Kanye or no, in the end, as New York’s uppermost crust made their way back towards the bright lights of Manhattan, they could be comforted in the knowledge that they raised US$2.2 million for the centre, ensuring that the next generation of artists are being cultivated with the best care money can buy, and that next year they would be back – for the love of art and another promise of Kanye West.