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  1. Wealth
October 5, 2009

Blonde Ambition

By Spear's

She’s American royalty, super-connected, with a good head for business but will the Brits buy Tinsley Mortimer, asks William Cash

She’s American royalty, super-connected, with a good head for business — but will the Brits buy Tinsley Mortimer, asks William Cash

THIS SUMMER’S CARTIER polo event saw the debut on these shores of a social phenomenon. Few observers recognised the foxy blonde American, however, when she arrived on the arm of the dashing 6ft 4in, 33-year-old man-about-town Prince Casimir Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn — a German aristo, agricultural land and property developer brought up in an art-filled palatial castle near the Rhine and educated by the monks of Ampleforth.

Had they paid closer attention, they might have noticed the Virginian accent and the gold signet ring with her family crest, but still none of the army of society photographers assembled at the entrance gate had a clue who the prince’s date was.

‘Nobody batted an eyelid when she walked in — they had no idea,’ says Casimir. ‘And then one of the photographers asked her name and she said “Tinsley Mortimer”, and then suddenly there was this wall of photographers and her anonymity was gone.’

Tinsley Mortimer, 32, is far from anonymous in New York. Routinely described by Vanity Fair as ‘social royalty’ and hailed as the reigning young queen of New York’s fashion-and-charity-circuit society, Mortimer is an upper-class Wasp version of Paris Hilton. She has brilliantly leveraged her brains, beauty and breeding to turn herself into a brand that has made her the toast of New York society. Whether her charm and social brand appeal will translate so easily to London, where the real social action goes on behind closed doors and certainly is not conditioned by how many charity committees you sit on, we shall have to see.

Highlights of Tinsley’s career to date in New York include landing a job at Vogue thanks to inviting British fashion writer Plum Sykes to a tea party fashion shoot of her exclusive dining club at Columbia University (a sort of unisex version of the Bullingdon Club), her colourful feuds with fellow It girls such as Olivia Palermo (the notoriously socially ambitious daughter of a real-estate tycoon), her work as a ‘beauty ambassador’ for Dior and as a fashion TV presenter for Plum TV in the Hamptons, working as a well-paid handbag designer for Japanese label Samantha Thavasa, her almost daily fixture in Women’s Wear Daily, and appearing as herself in the TV show Gossip Girl as well as being a character in Sykes’s novel The Debutante Divorcee.

What distinguishes Tinsley from her fellow A-list socialistas is that she does have real class — her mother’s family is descended from Thomas Jefferson and her father is descended from the fourth president of the United States, James Madison — as well as being a genuine beauty with a savvy business brain. She is cashing in on her celebrity status not only by reinventing herself as a successful brand ambassador (for Dior and Armani) but also by creating a hugely successful retail brand named after herself.
‘IF I’D KNOWN there was going to be so much interest, I think I might have dressed differently for the polo,’ Tinsley says over lunch at Aspinalls after finishing her photo shoot at the Ritz. ‘I didn’t realise that polo was such a big deal in England and that the Queen comes to watch. In the Hamptons it’s pretty low-key. Anyhow, I’m loving being in England and I’m looking forward to getting to know the city better. I don’t know London well. I used to come as a teenager because my mum is an interior designer and she used to bring me and my sister over on buying trips for antiques.’

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Tinsley has always had a socially competitive edge to her; and she has a talent for making girls jealous. When she was growing up she spent a year training at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where she honed her tennis skills and became a nationally ranked player before deciding she was more interested in art history and fashion. But her year of intense training helped give her the naked drive that makes her stand out from the rest of the soi-disant ‘celebutante’ socialite pack who rule the gala benefit committees that so fixate the New York press.

‘I’ve always been a complete overachiever,’ Tinsley says. ‘I led my debutante ball. My tennis playing was always something that set me apart and made me competitive. I really want to be the best at whatever it is I do. When I grew up it was ice skating, tennis, ballet, horseback riding, and now it is building a business career and my own company around my fashion line, products and style.’

Within 24 hours of arriving on her German prince’s arm at the Cartier polo, her new relationship with Casimir was being scrutinised by Vanity Fair and the New York Post’s Page Six, who have covered every saga in Tinsley’s social career. Her arrival in London — she has been staying at Casimir’s flat close to Harrods in Knightsbridge — is something out of the pages of a modern-day Edith Wharton or Henry James novel.

En route to London, Casimir had taken Tinsley on a mini-tour of Europe, stopping off at the family castle and introducing Tinsley to his parents, Prince Alexander of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn and Countess Gabriella of Schönborn-Wiesenthied. ‘My parents very much enjoyed her company and found her to be a decent girl with great values, and it went really well,’ says Casimir of her visit to the family home.

While Tinsley may be related to several US presidents, as well as her mother being a member of the Colonial Dames of America, Casimir’s family is even more aristocratic. He is the second of two boys in a family of seven children who were brought up in the 800-year-old family palace of Sayn, near Bendorf on the Rhine, not far from Frankfurt. Casimir’s family have long had strong connections with England.
CASIMIR’S FAMILY IS one of the oldest noble families in Germany. His father, the 7th Prince (Fürst) zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, went to Harvard Business School and is president of the German Castles Association. Like his father, Casimir has also spent time in America, beginning his training as a financier and banker working for Brown Brothers Harriman in New York, where he trained, before working for Pictet bank for five years and then going to work for Mayfair-based hedge fund firm EIM, run by Uma Thurman’s fiancé Arkie Busson.

Casimir then worked for Renaissance Capital before leaving with the managing partner to set up their own emerging markets real estate business, Scimitar Oryx Partners. ‘I got a taste for America when I did my banking training in New York. I have always loved New York and that is how I first met Tinsley. We have known each other for a long time and have plots of friends in common from New York society.’

Unlike Tinsley, he prefers to keep his business profile very low and even refuses to give me the web address for his firm, as much of his business is done under the radar. ‘I don’t want people snooping around knowing about us,’ he says frankly. ‘We are a very private outfit.’

Tinsley’s interests and career, however, are a different matter. Recently, she has secured financial backing from a wealthy Virginian businessman to launch her label. In Japan, she is mobbed by crowds of thousands who view her as America’s answer to Princess Diana — being able to name-drop that you are related to Thomas Jefferson goes down well in Japan.

‘The Japanese are very sweet , and actually very respectful. When they have a big event, all the girls run up to you and they want the picture taken, and they always do the peace sign — its really cute,’ says Tinsley. ‘I’ve learnt so much from working over there. They definitely love the US.’

Tinsley wants to follow in the footsteps of Tamara Mellon, super-successful American clothes designer Tory Burch, and Diane Von Furstenburg in converting her social career into a business empire. But she knows that her success as a socialite has meant that the knives have been sharpened and that people will be quick to write her off if the product isn’t any good.
‘MY DREAM IS to have my own line of clothing,’ she says. ‘I definitely think that it’s unfair sometimes when people put a label on you. I never actually put my name to anything that I’m not fully involved in, and I work hard. That’s how I was brought up; that’s how I’ve grown up. I would wake up early in the morning and go out to run before school. I’ve always been tough on myself and nothing is going to stop me achieving what I want.’

Casimir says that one of the reasons Tinsley has been enjoying London so much has been that she has been enjoying her ‘anonymity’. She will be coming here for London Fashion Week and you can expect to see her in the front row at the shows. Tinsley first got her love of fashion through organising PR events in New York Fashion Week for PR firm Harrison Shriftman.

‘I got into that whole event world and I just fell in love with fashion,’ she says. ‘I always loved fashion, and growing up in Virginia I always knew I would come to New York, and I always wanted to come to London as well. I never expected to be coming here quite so often.’ 

Illustration by Elena Proskurova

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