Reaching the last of Europe’s famed finishing schools requires driving from Montreux up a narrow, impossibly steep road with hairpin curves and oncoming traffic that ranges from mopeds to tour buses.
High above Lake Geneva stands the elegant Institut Villa Pierrefeu, with a breathtaking view of snow-capped Alps that young women have enjoyed for nearly 60 years while learning proper etiquette and the fine art of being a hostess. In generations past, that meant sewing ball gowns and conversing on art history; today’s lessons feature Japanese tea ceremonies and the appropriate pairing of food with wine.
Initially, classes were taught in French – the language of culture, after all – and tailored to the daughters of the elite in Europe and North America who were on the cusp of matrimony.
Students now span a much broader range of age and nationality, coming from as far away as India, Hong Kong, Oman and Mexico, and including high-powered investment bankers and lawyers as well as wives of politicians and, still, some princesses.
The curriculum has been adjusted to reflect the modern world with its greater cross-pollination of cultures, and English has become, to principal Viviane Néri’s palpable regret, the language of instruction.
But an even more fundamental change is on the horizon: Next month, for the first time in its history, the institute will provide a finishing touch to gentlemen as well as ladies. A generation ago, something like this would have been unthinkable. Now, it may prove to be essential to the school and what it represents.
The finishing-school tradition dates from the 1800s, when wealthy debutantes began coming to Switzerland, famed for its clean air, majestic mountains and multilingual population. Here, they would complete their education by acquiring the domestic and life skills needed to run a household – and to attract a suitable husband. The goal was to produce an ideal mate, someone refined and accomplished with impeccable manners.
The experience became de rigueur for the upper crust, drawing royals such as Diana, Princess of Wales, and Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, as well as France’s former first lady, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, and Tamara Mellon, co-founder of the luxury shoe label Jimmy Choo.
It also provided much literary inspiration, even in Canada. Toronto-born Gwethalyn Graham won the 1938 Governor-General’s Literary Award with her first novel, Swiss Sonata, using her experiences at a school in Lausanne to explore rising tensions as Europe prepared for battle.
But since the war, as women have commanded greater equality and become increasingly well educated, the fascination with finishing has faded, driving it toward extinction.
Gone are such icons as Institut Chateau Mont-Choisi, after more than a century, and Institut Alpin Videmanette, which the Princess of Wales left just three years before marrying Prince Charles in 1981.
Now, only Institut Villa Pierrefeu remains, kept alive, Ms. Néri maintains, by its willingness to adapt.
The atmosphere is heavy with tradition and ritual in the elegant living room, where Ms. Néri serves tea in china cups served on a polished silver platter, along with sugar cubes and wrapped spheres of Swiss chocolate. But since taking over from her mother, the school’s founder, in 1972, she and now her son, Philippe, who oversees strategy, have changed with the times.
They offered shorter summer and winter courses as well as school-year terms, and shifted their emphasis to skills of assistance to globetrotting professionals. Home management is now less in-depth, with sewing one of the first things to go, followed by interior decorating and the history of art and furniture styles.
But some lines Ms. Néri, articulate and rather stern in her pearls and black hair band, will not cross. Some competitors may pose as finishing schools but are really just image consultants, she says. “They’re more superficial. We teach table manners of 20 countries, and diplomacy, and protocol.” True manners, she argues, are about listening well and making people feel comfortable, not snobbery.
Because of the various changes, the student body mirrors the massive power shifts under way among the world’s wealthy – more women are from emerging markets – and leans toward a business clientele. (Its website says that, as well as being “elegant, exclusive and charming,” the school “will prepare you for a role in the business world and society” and “help you become more effective in multicultural environments.”)
All this training does not come cheap. A six-week course, with board, costs about $20,000. Which may seem expensive, but not to the father of a young Saudi woman who has enrolled for three summers in a row. He claims that it is less expensive than sending her to a major city, although Ms Néri notes that the shops of Paris, Milan and Prague are within easy reach of her school.
Nadine Abou Zahr, editor-in-chief of a Dubai-based fashion magazine, attended the last winter session, learning international customs, table manners and how to receive VIP guests.
“It reminds you to always keep an open mind, remain as curious as a child and never be afraid to ask questions,” she says.
“What particularly surprised me is that, no matter where you come from, at the end of the day women are pretty much the same. India or Japan, we share the same problems.”
Now, they will have to find something in common with men.
Two week-long courses, the first starting in late January, will be co-ed, and are expected to appeal to male diplomats, executives and even professional athletes.
Why would a man even be interested? Philippe Néri says both courses, one devoted to international protocol and the other to etiquette, feature “soft skills” that can help a man as well as a woman. For example, in today’s global business world, a social occasion can be the difference between sealing a deal or having it fall apart – especially when the language or culture are not his own.
“In difficult times, it gives you a competitive advantage,” he says, and with “more and more women in power or key decision-making positions, men need to learn how to deal with them – clichés can also kill your deals.”
And it seems popular already. Ms. Néri says men from Lebanon, Mexico and Britain – as well as Canada – have enrolled, undaunted by the cost of the tuition ($6,800 for both weeks) or accommodation in a nearby hotel (up to $520 a night). “In a way, this is a test,” Ms. Néri says. “We’ve been going through our textbooks and curriculum to make sure we address things that are interesting for men.”
As well as a test, it has the appearance of being part of a last-ditch effort to keep the idea of the Swiss finishing school alive.
Mr. Néri says no, that the idea of admitting men came from alumnae eager to send brothers and husbands for some added polish. It is “not a necessity to survive,” he insists, but then says “the new strategy defines our vision for the next 20 years.”
The Neris’ strategy also includes plans to go mobile, taking their seminars to other countries if there is enough demand.
But perhaps even more telling is the decision to suspend, at least for next year, Villa Pierrefeu’s biggest-ticket item: the traditional school-year program.
Ms. Néri insists that time poverty, rather than lack of confidence in the value of what is being taught, is behind the move: “I don’t think people are ready to commit for a full year any more.”