For his latest adventure, David de Rothschild explores eco-fashion while dealing with the existential dilemma of being able to do just about anything.
On a warm day in London, David de Rothschild, an heir to a centuries-old banking fortune, was pointing at a butterfly with translucent blue wings.
“Look, look at that,” he said with awe. “Nature has four and a half billion years of R&D. Incredible.”
He was walking through a butterfly exhibition in a white tent on the grounds of the Natural History Museum. Mr. de Rothschild, 36 years old and 6-foot-4, was the tallest person in a space filled with families and squealing schoolchildren.
“That one’s huge!” Mr. de Rothschild said, pointing at a brown butterfly that had come to rest in front of his eyes. “Can you imagine what the world was like before we came and messed it all up?”
He left the tent and strolled down nearby Exhibition Road. His mood seemed to go sour when he spotted plants in a window.
“That’s nature now,” he said. “When did this happen? Everything is so premeditated and formulaic. Our idea of nature is a window box with plants in it.”
Mr. de Rothschild has grown tired of the modern world: the disconnection with nature, the urban grid, the digital life.
“We’re hyperconnected and we’re hyperdisconnected,” he said. “We’re losing a sense of wonder; we’re losing a sense of stimulation from the natural world; we’re losing that interaction with nature. Nature is not ‘out there.’ ‘Out there’ is here.”
David Mayer de Rothschild was born to the banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and his second wife, Victoria Lou Schott. His father, now 83, was the chairman of N M Rothschild & Sons bank in London.
In his teens and early 20s, David was a skilled equestrian, bungee jumper and kite skier. At 26, he traversed Antarctica by foot, ski and kite. A year later, he crossed the North Pole with a dog sled and skis, making him the youngest Briton ever to ski both the North and South Poles.
In 2010, he sailed the Plastiki — a boat made of 12,500 two-liter recycled plastic bottles and other flotsam — on an 8,000-mile journey, from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, to raise awareness of ocean pollution.
Paradoxically, part of what made it possible for Mr. de Rothschild to escape the grid is what has kept him tethered to it. Although he prefers not to talk about it, Mr. de Rothschild is, after all, a Rothschild.
His lineage leads back to Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who was born in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt in 1744 and went on to serve as the financial overseer to Crown Prince Wilhelm, who later became Wilhelm IX. Mayer taught his five sons the banking business and dispatched them across Europe. The family bank financed the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and, later in the 19th century, the railways and mining businesses at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.
In many ways, David’s own life came as premeditated as that of a window plant. He was a Rothschild. Great expectations were implicit.
He attended the all-boys Harrow School in London, but when it came time for college, he did not go the Oxbridge or Ivy League route, settling on the less heralded Oxford Brookes University. He subsequently received a master’s degree in natural medicine from the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.
When he was 22, he bought a farm near Christchurch, New Zealand, and lived and worked in Australia for three years. He said it never crossed his mind to go into banking.
In 2003, when it was time to choose a successor to head the family business, Sir Evelyn went with a cousin from the French branch of the family, Baron David René de Rothschild.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Well, surely, you should just be a banker,’ ” David Mayer de Rothschild said, “and I’m like, ‘Well, it could be an obvious route, but if I have a choice, which I’m fortunate enough that I do, do I want to sit in an office all day with a tie on, doing things that I might not necessarily believe in or be in 100 percent emotionally; or, do I want to follow the things to which I’m really connected and passionate and maybe have an impact?’ ”
He faced an enviable but existentially dreadful conundrum: What would you do if you could do almost anything?
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