GLION, SWITZERLAND — The sign on the door with a stick figure of a man overlaid with a big “X” will have to go now that the last Swiss finishing school, bending to economic reality and social change, is accepting men.
The Institut Villa Pierrefeu, located on a hill above Lake Geneva, is the last in a line of institutions that struggled to shake their image as “schools for princesses” after Lady Diana Spencer, who later became Princess Diana, attended one in the same canton.
In their heyday before feminism stirred in the 1960s, European aristocrats sent their daughters to finishing schools in safe, neutral Switzerland to polish their manners and prepare them for married life.
About half a dozen such schools once flourished in the French-speaking Alps, but the others have closed as young women have instead chosen to attend university and pursue careers.
Now part of the demand for the last surviving school is coming from a very different segment of the population - men.
“Men are starting to realize that like it or not, we are also judged by our manners,” Philippe Neri, who is the grandson of the school's founder and was dressed in dark suit and pink tie, told Reuters during a recent visit to the school.
He recalled how he once witnessed a deal in a restaurant collapse after a Western man offered his Japanese business partner a Swiss army knife as a gift.
“It was clear that the Japanese man thought the message was that the other wanted to cut off ties. The atmosphere went cold,” he said.
No more serving
The school has opened its doors to a more international and older, clientele and this year accepted men for the first time as part of the process of adapting its curriculum to stay relevant and compete with rival schools in emerging markets.
Sewing has been dropped and Neri said that, contrary to the stereotype, students have never had to balance books on their heads.
Instead, male and female students want to learn about etiquette and protocol to gain a competitive edge with international clients through courses on small talk, dress codes and the “dos and don'ts of giving gifts”.
Around a dark wooden table lit by candelabras, students on an intensive etiquette course were learning how to behave at a formal British dinner party.
Guillaume Rue, a 26-year-old Frenchman and the only male in the class, began by making polite conversation about holiday destinations but blundered in reaching for his bread roll.
Teacher Irene Vargas de Huber gently rebuked him: “The host will think you're starving if you eat before the first course.”
A student from China was told off for eating too quickly and was urged to make conversation to take pressure off her host who was struggling to eat and entertain simultaneously.
For Yann Olivier Tavernier, the 39-year-old managing director of GMHBI International which distributes Swiss cosmetics, these are exactly the type of costly faux pas he is seeking to avoid with clients.
“Clients in the luxury sector are very demanding. If we are well-mannered, then they will take that as their first impression of the product,” he said, adding that the course helped him to better understand clients in Russia.
Rue agreed that table manners could help create the right impression: “I think that we have a tendency to underestimate the importance of soft power. It's about knowing how to adapt to different situations and making other people feel comfortable.”
While the last Swiss finishing school has outlived its peers, a growing challenge is coming from rival institutes in the fast-developing BRICS countries to cater to the tastes of an emerging upper middle class.
This year, for example, former student Sara Jane Ho launched a Chinese finishing school in Beijing.
Ho said Institute Sarita has been successful in attracting U.S. executives from Fortune 500 countries for its Chinese etiquette course. It also offers a five-day gentleman's course.
Neri dismissed the challenge of the new schools.
“It's the same as the watch industry. If you want the highest quality, you stick with Swiss.”