A Shop Like a Mini Barneys or Bergdorf in the Connecticut Countryside

Walter Kidd/Connecticut Magazine

Apart from friends and those who know Abdo Ballester well, anyone who’s made his acquaintance likely thinks of him as the Mojito King, a role the irrepressible Ballester, a native of Cuba, performs to perfection during an annual summer solstice soiree held by the Washington Art Association.

Yet there’s so much more depth and complexity to the man who fled his homeland amid the rise of the Castro regime in 1960, when the price of freedom in the U.S. meant having to say goodbye forever to his father and family.

Ballester has played many prominent roles in his lifetime—arts activist, the godfather of Damian Woetzel, former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and current director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, and even Vice President for Administration of the Foundation for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court.But on a glorious autumn afternoon we went to find Ballester (right) in another arena to which he brings his trademark Cuban-spiced joie de vivre, underpinned by his strong gravitational compass that values substance over surface and right over might—all of it stitched together with impeccable style.

For nearly two decades Ballester has been the visionary force behind the “gift shop” at a boutique luxury hotel in the Connecticut countryside that’s favored by such influential folks as Bill and Hillary Clinton. Established as the Mayflower Inn by Robert and Adriana Mnuchin, it’s now The Mayflower Grace and part of the international Grace Hotels empire.

See the related story Jonathan Cartwright’s Food Dazzles at Mayflower Grace in Connecticut CountrysideWe say “gift shop” in quotation marks because, in the hands of Ballester, the modest space across from the Mayflower’s reception desk—just off the grand entrance hall—is more like a bijoux version of Barneys or Bergdorf Goodman.

(Above, baby cashmere women's sweaters, scarves and a hat by Loro Piana.)

From vintage Chanel and Hermès bags to bespoke jewelry, and Rolexes to paintings of the sylvan local landscape, hand-blown glass and so much more, the aesthetic lair is more boutique than gift shop, and its small size belies the range and depth of what Ballester is able to offer sophisticated men and women.

The first thing he highlights in giving a tour is a men’s cashmere sweater made from the wool of Himalayan baby goats, who are only gently combed, not sheared.

Bergdorf long had the exclusive rights to it, Ballester recounts, and the moment the Manhattan retailer relinquished those rights, he swooped in.

Women needn’t be envious, as the shop at the Mayflower Grace is the only boutique/gift shop that sells Loro Piana clothing, the Italian-made holy grail for fashionable women of means. “The classic look of Loro Piana textiles has attracted clients with refined tastes—very appropriate for clients at The Mayflower Grace andclients of the Southern Berkshires,” Ballester writes in a statement about the shop.

“You don’t have to go to New York City to buy beautiful things,” he says with characteristic animation. “Here we are. … It’s right here.”

“The magic and charm of well-chosen wearable art is a very important part of a fully lived life,” he adds in the statement. “And it’s what you can always find at The Mayflower Grace Gift Shop.”

“I consider these pieces museum pieces,” Ballester says of his collection, which he constantly updates and changes significantly with the seasons.

(Right, a ‘Storm system’ women's coat with fox by Loro Piana, with silk and cashmere scarf.)

Jewelry is one category he changes often, and he points out, “I have a lot of vintage jewelry.”

The vintage line is gilded by magnetic contemporary pieces made by local jewelry artists, among them Alexandra Rivera, who used to show her work at Barney’s, and Holly Shannon, whose latest efforts make use of 3D printing technology.

Ballester became interested in couture after extensive travels, and residency, in Europe. “My taste has developed from all the exquisite things I have seen around the world,” he says in the statement.

Witnessing exquisite things, apparently, has given him an exquisite eye—and one that is appreciated by the discerning clientele of the Mayflower Grace.In offering an anecdote of the gift shop’s influence, Ballester says, “The man is registering and the wife is already saying, ‘Send that to my room.’ … Sometimes after dinner the man is saying, ‘Honey, the car is here,’ to a wife who has become entranced by couture expertly curated.

A June New York Post story about The Mayflower Grace had this to say in its “Don’t Miss” paragraph: “The specially curated Mayflower gift shop, hand-selected by dashing store-manager Abdo Ballester … . His offerings range from vintage Chanel handbags to Loro Piana raincoats … while his conversation is as sparkling as his wares.”

(Left, a baby cashmere men's sweater by Loro Piana.)

Ballester’s taste and élan hasn’t gone unnoticed within the hotels industry.

He recalls the Four Seasons hotels and resorts group coming many years ago to Mayflower for a corporate retreat, a visit that resulted in Ballester being asked to do a little moonlighting—to redesign the Pierre Gift Shop at the famous Pierre Hotel in Manhattan.

“I redid it completely,” says Ballester of the pre-9/11 project, lamenting that the terrorist attacks changed the landscape for the New York City lodgings industry, as afterward a lot of people were hesitant to travel.

In finishing the Pierre anecdote on that note, Ballester isn’t just offering an addendum but tangentially touching upon a topic of primary importance to him—freedom and justice in a world that’s perennially in short supply of both.

He felt the tyranny of oppression first-hand as a young man in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution and the rise of Castro. In describing how his father took great risks to arrange an exit visa for him—and resolutely told him to go to the U.S. and live his life—Ballester’s eyes tear up, even these decades later.Injustice and dictatorial crimes against a nation’s people tore apart the fabric of his family, and when he had a chance Ballester eagerly stepped into a role that would help assure other injustices across the world would not go unpunished.

Through the late Robert K. Woetzel, a professor of international law who founded and served as president of Foundation for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court—a nongovernmental organization (NGO) affiliated with the United Nations—Ballester became Vice President for Administration of the foundation, a post he still holds today.

He participated in the International Diplomatic Symposium of 1991 at Talloires, France, and was present in Rome when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was adopted at a conference in July 1998.“That was the beginning of a new era for the world. It’s like guarding your freedom,” says Ballester. “That was a wonderful, wonderful time.”

The statute took effect in July 2002, establishing four international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community,” the court’s website says.

(Left, a Martin Gala winter coat for men by Loro Piana.)

“The ICC is an independent international organization, and is not part of the United Nations system. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands. Although the Court’s expenses are funded primarily by States Parties, it also receives voluntary contributions from governments, international organizations, individuals, corporations and other entities.”

Sadly and ironically to Ballester, although 122 nations have ratified the statute, another 31 countries have signed it but not ratified it—including Russia. Even worse, Israel, Sudan and the U.S. have informed the United Nations that they will not become party to the statute and accept no legal obligations from having signed onto the statute earlier.

“It’s unfortunate the U.S. has not signed,” he says.

Ballester calls Professor Woetzel his mentor, and recalls being asked “to join the family in 1964.” He was then asked to be the godfather to Damian Abdo and Jonathan Robert and “that is how I helped to raise the boys,” he says. In the Mayflower gift shop is a photo of Damian Woetzel with Ballester and Yo-Yo Ma.

Before coming to the East Coast, Ballester had previously lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was an arts activist, president of the Santa Barbara chapter of the National Society of the Arts and Letters and a co-founder of Friends of Santa Barbara Dance, among other posts.

To learn more about Ballester, visit him at his shop at the Mayflower Grace (860-868-9466gracehotels.com/mayflower) or attend the Washington Art Association’s next summer solstice party (washingtonartassociation.org) and try his mojitos.

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