An Affair to Remember

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It hardly matters that the location, a private West Los Angeles estate, has been booked for months. With just 10 days to go before the elaborate wedding that will unite Hangin' with Mr. Cooper actress Holly Robinson and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete, catastrophe looms. It seems that a large pond and hot tub have been constructed on the lawn where the couple had planned to say their vows. "Now they can't get married there," says their wedding designer, Colin Cowie, "unless they've arranged to walk on water."

Cowie's 14-person entourage erupts in panic. But the master himself is lost in concentration. "I've got it!" he announces, suddenly euphoric. "The wedding can take place in front of the house. Latticework to hide the kitchen. Garlands on the columns to frame the ceremony. The guests go around to the garden for cocktails. The minute the first guest arrives, the hors d'oeuvres come out, the music starts, the party begins—boom, boom, boom!"

Cowie stops for a minute to catch his breath. "Dah-ling!" he tells Robinson excitedly, "you're going to like this even better than what we had before!"

For a moment, there is only stunned silence. Robinson studies the situation, her hand on her chin. "You're right, Colin," she says at last. "I like it better. Much better...."

With his exotic accent and dramatic manner, it is little wonder that Colin Cowie, 33, is widely thought to be the inspiration for the flamboyant wedding planner played by Martin Short in the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride. "Maybe we were related in a previous life," says the South African-born Cowie, whose llth-hour brinkmanship has earned him a niche as Hollywood's wedding designer nonpareil. From within the beige walls of his light-filled office overlooking downtown L.A., the velvet-voiced Patton has launched an array of Hollywood nuptial extravaganzas. In the past decade his clients have included boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, actress Sela Ward and producer Ted Field. For Hugh Hefner's 1989 wedding to Playboy playmate Kimberley Conrad, Cowie custom-designed 77 waiters' uniforms; at the 1993 marriage of actress Jennifer Grant (daughter of Cary) and TV director Randy Zisk, he floated 500 flowers in the swimming pool. And this past May 20, he orchestrated one of the most lavish parties of the decade: the Malibu wedding of singer Don Henley to model Sharon Summerall.

For his efforts, Cowie draws the kind of raves generally reserved for a Broadway opening night. "Colin captured my spirit," says Sugar Ray's wife, Bernadette. "Colin is the best," says sax player Kenny G, who was so enthralled with Cowie's handling of his 1992 wedding to actress Lyndie Benson that the following year he paid tribute to the planner in the liner notes of his album Breathless and hired Cowie to handle all the arrangements for his tour of Australia and South America. But such kudos are taken in stride by a man who has grown accustomed to holding celebrity couples' jittery hands. "My brides can call me the night before the wedding at 9 p.m. in a panic," says Cowie, "and know I'll have the answer for them."

More often than not, he can also anticipate the questions, as he did with Friends star Lisa Kudrow. Cowie planned her May 27 wedding to French ad executive Michel Stern in its entirety—beginning with the M&Ms in the bridal dressing room and ending with the buffet de fromage. "It was incredible," says Kudrow, who remembers the state she was in during her first meeting with Cowie in March. "I didn't really know what I wanted," she recalls. "But I got the feeling Colin did."

Whether the requirement is grandeur or attention to detail, Cowie is a master accommodator; in the course of planning a wedding, he handles everything from blueprinting the site to scheduling the bride for her hand-and-foot massage on the big day. "I could change the color of the sky if the clients wanted me to," he says matter-of-factly. "I just need to know their limits, their budget—and their fantasy."

Cowie oversees these details with an air of observable calm. "If the kitchen was on fire," he says, "you would never know from my face." Not surprisingly, this kind of coddling comes at a cost: the tab for a Cowie-designed wedding starts at $150 per person—exclusive of Cowie's fee, which is never lower than $12,000, even for a bare-bones affair. A top-of-the-line soiree can cost $250,000 or more (the Henley bash was estimated to hover around a million). At a high-end Hollywood fete, flowers alone can add from $40,000 to $100,000 to the tab.

So what is the average bride to do? Remember the Cowie caveat. "Style is not related to money," he says. "I've spent a million dollars in an afternoon, but I've been just as happy spending a fraction of that." If you can't afford Veuve Clicquot, he suggests, blend Bellinis from a sparkling wine and peach puree. No budget for flattering pinpoint spotlights? Do the reception by candlelight. And what, no Waterford? Instead, try flea-market colored glassware and floral-print linens for a charming country motif.

But none of these cost-cutting measures is anywhere in evidence during final preparations for the Robinson-Peete evening wedding. There is, however, one last-minute problem: the four-tiered, raspberry-filled, lemon wedding cake is obstructing the view of the head table. Per Cowie's directive, his staff moves it—and a candelabra takes a divot out of the side of the cake. Under pressure yet unperturbed, Cowie smooths the damaged icing and turns the cake so that its pristine side will face the guests. "When you're really stressed out," says Cowie's partner Stuart Brownstein, "the idea is, just keep smiling."

Which is exactly what Cowie is doing at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Time, as, precisely on schedule, Holly Robinson stands at the head of a perfectly arranged white-linen runner and prepares to take the most memorable walk of her life. At this critical juncture she neither hesitates nor falters. "Thank you, thank you for everything," she whispers to the elegantly dressed man beside her. And then, Robinson plants her last kiss as a single woman—not on the father of the bride, but on her wedding planner.

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