A couple of years ago, I was invited to a fund-raising lunch in a surprisingly down-at-the-heels part of London. Rather than a gilt-and-mirrors five-star hotel, which is the norm, the home for this event was a massive ground-level raw space, glass-fronted on all sides. Passersby had a prime view of the 200 women—a standard mix of Gucci, diamonds, and blowouts—seated at long tables. And they weren’t the only spectators: lying on sleeping bags, gawping at the goings-on inside, were three of the city’s homeless. Was that Tom Wolfe I could hear choking with laughter above?
Ah, rich women and philanthropy—what a long and mutually beneficial marriage that has been. For the most part, at least. No matter that their parties often cost more than the money they raised, everyone wanted in on these camp extravaganzas, coming-out parties for socialites who fought like embattled C.E.O.’s for their place at the top of the committee list. But in recent years their allure has diminished, and in their place is a new breed of cash-rich but fully engaged female activists who say they do not give a fig for social jockeying or how Jackie O used to dress. Climate change has shaken the status quo and even high society is adapting to a new ethos. These women are trying to save the planet.
co-founder, Omnia Strategy
As a child growing up on Majorca, the British aristocrat Sofia Blount (née Wellesley), 36, witnessed firsthand the degradation of marine life in the Mediterranean. “Do you know why there are so many jellyfish now?” the elegant blonde asks me when she calls from Ibiza. “Because turtles feed on jellyfish and the turtles have disappeared.” In 2011, the Edinburgh University graduate co-founded the law firm Omnia Strategy, which lists human-rights law among their many specialties, with Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie—a fact the British press often has trouble recalling, because “wife of singer James Blunt” (he dropped the o when he became a performer) and “granddaughter of the Duke of Wellington” make for better reading.
“Do you know why there are so many jellyfish now? Because turtles feed on jellyfish and the turtles have disappeared.”
Not that it seems to bother her much when we chat again a few days later. She’s far too busy now sitting on the board of the Blue Marine Foundation, a charity founded nearly 10 years ago to focus on marine reserves and sustainable-fishing models, while also retaining a directorship at Omnia, where she sets strategy and works on client relations. In September, Blount begins a master’s at Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership, where she will be researching different finance mechanisms with relation to the fishing industry, strategies she would like to put into practice at Blue Marine. “It’s the future of the conversation,” says Blount, who hopes to advise investor companies, such as Procter & Gamble, on how to operate in an equally eco-conscious manner. “It’s a much longer-term view of conservation that doesn’t require a constant need for fund-raising.”
Jessica Getty and Frederikke Magnussen
Co-Founders, Ocean Family Foundation
In a similar vein, Jessica Getty is one of the founders—alongside Frederikke Magnussen—of the Ocean Family Foundation (OFF), a London-based organization she dreamed up two years ago while sailing the Mediterranean with family and a group of friends. The foundation’s aim is to ensure a cleaner ocean for the next generation, and through OFF she has worked to uncover, and donate to, local organizations in need of funding that are making a measurable impact on their communities in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, such as Oceans Without Borders and Worldrise.
Getty, 49, is shy, softly spoken, with brilliant blue eyes. She was brought up on a 20-acre farm in Sussex, something she credits for her down-to-earth, can-do attitude. “We were milking cows and eating our own vegetables,” she says when we meet at KX gym, in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, where Prince Harry is frequently spotted. “Put it this way, nothing was convenient in our lives, but I was given the tools to just get on with things.” Getty and her husband, Tara—the former Rothschilds banker and the only child of John Paul Getty Jr. and Talitha Pol—cut their teeth in Africa, where she moved to join him in 1996. Getty had traveled extensively through Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and was drawn back to the continent through his family’s interests.
Since then, the couple has worked alongside the Africa Foundation, which the Getty family helped found in 1992, as well as &Beyond, a for-profit safari-tourism company. Together, they also founded the Zuka Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, close to the Indian Ocean, where their three children have grown up. Getty makes a point of saying how it takes more than simply having money to do something good for the world. “Yes, we are from a privileged family,” she says, “but for us, philanthropy is about feeling it in your bones, choosing for it to be one of the pillars of your life.” In 2016, Getty helped create Ocean Talks, an annual event held at London’s Royal Geographical Society, sponsored by OFF and Boat International magazine with the aim of bringing the yachting community together with specialists in marine conservation.
“Yes, we are from a privileged family, but for us, philanthropy is about choosing for it to be one of the pillars of your life.”
A close friend of Getty’s, the former Danish model turned ocean crusader Frederikke Magnussen, 46, developed a zeal for activism at a young age. At school, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, she corralled her classmates for a silent walkout to protest the firing of a teacher whose liberal lessons were seen as too outré at the time. Magnussen was suspended, and not long after was spotted in a pizza restaurant by John Casablancas, the founder of Elite. The straight-talking, flaxen-haired beauty moved to Paris and became a successful model, later marrying a Brit and moving to London.
It was during a family holiday 10 years ago with her friend Sonia Norman in the Philippines that she first encountered plastic pollution, and the idea for the 2013 documentary A Plastic Ocean was born, for which Norman served as executive producer. “I saw all this plastic so far away from civilization,” says the outspoken Magnussen when we meet at London’s Farm Girl restaurant, “and thought, What is all this doing here?” She is now the main driver, alongside co-founder Sian Sutherland, behind A Plastic Planet’s plastic-free-aisle program, started in 2017 to encourage businesses and the public to eliminate the material from their shelves.
Julia Restoin Roitfeld
FOUNDER, Less is more
Then there’s the French model and mommy blogger Julia Restoin Roitfeld, 39, whose story is a different, but equally visceral, one. Unlike her mother, Carine (the former editor of French Vogue, whose ageless style is lauded and much copied), she was instinctively parsimonious as a child. “I’ve always had few clothes, and I don’t shop much,” she says on the phone from her New York base, where she lives with her daughter, Romy.
It’s fair to say the Parsons graduate was brought up with fashion in her blood. Her father, Christian Restoin, founded the French cool-girl brand Equipment in 1976, and the showstopping beauty went on to front family friend Tom Ford’s own brand campaign for his first scent, Black Orchid; she has also worked as a freelance graphic designer for Miu Miu, Max Mara, Altuzarra, and others. In September, Restoin Roitfeld launches her new blog, Less Is More by Julia Restoin Roitfeld, with the goal of educating brands and individuals about the scale of waste in fashion, and how they can make a difference. “When I am on Instagram,” she says, “all I see is ‘Shop, shop, shop.’ It drives me crazy—it’s like a bulimia of stuff. You know when you get a package in the mail and you can’t even remember what you bought? That’s what I’m talking about.”
Fashion also tangentially played a part in American-educated, Swiss Nina Flohr’s philanthropic path. It was during a trip to Africa in 2012 that Franca Sozzani, the late editor of Italian Vogue, told Flohr that if she wanted to understand the problems faced by others, and go on to help them, she had to experience their plight for herself. “I wanted to engage with people, not just contribute,” says the serious brunette. While still in her 20s, Flohr—now 32—developed the Bazaruto Centre for Scientific Studies on Benguerra Island, off the coast of Mozambique; a nonprofit marine-research facility, B.C.S.S. shares all of the data it gathers with organizations such as the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network, for free.
“I call myself a jack-of-all-trades,” says the eco-entrepreneur, who is based in London but works remotely from wherever she happens to be in the world. “From my perspective, I want to be in a position to bring together the most talented people. I am very hands-on—there isn’t a single document I don’t check,” she says, adding, “It’s a bit of a joke with my team.” Her next project is the Kisawa sanctuary, a hotel, also in Mozambique, whose aim is to set a new standard in environmental luxury, and of which she is the founder and creative director. “I wanted to push the boundaries of hospitality, design, and conservation in a place that is so close to my heart,” she says of the resort, set to open in 2020. “It’s my way of demonstrating to the world that it’s possible to build a harmonious and socially responsible resort.” Where does all this verve come from? “I have a curiosity for life. I will work till the day I keel over.”
What these women have in common is money, not dissimilar to the 200 sitting at that ill-conceived London lunch. But their engagement is markedly new, driven by what they describe as a need to create change and a willingness to get their hands dirty. Gone are the days of sitting back and filling out pledge cards. Tom Wolfe would have undoubtedly parodied their imagined lifestyles, but he would have had a harder time with the fruits of their actions—even if they do still attend the occasional charity lunch.
Vassi Chamberlain is a journalist living in London