Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Washington Social Diary

Jill Biden, the center of attention at cocktails before dinner.
by Carol Joynt

What’s particularly satisfying about being a writer who specializes in chronicling social life and events is the range of invitations that come through the mail slot. But it’s impossible not to rank them. Hard copy snail mail is becoming a thing of the past but still receives high regard, because it shows an effort; after that, interesting small to medium sized seated dinners, private parties and receptions that feature an interesting guest list (and not necessarily the usual suspects); parties where the host and event planner appear to be trying to change it up, break the mold, make it special. Exceptional stands out, as it always does. Same old, same old sinks to the bottom of the pile. 

italian dinner, placecards.
Which is why, in the last several days it was a pleasure to attend a cocktail party and seated dinner at the Italian ambassador’s residence. Kudos to Elle magazine and Gucci, who came to town to host the dinner at Villa Firenze with Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero and his wife, Laura. Elle has done the dinner here for the past three years, promoting their annual “power list.” First it was at the French ambassador’s Kalorama home and for the past two years it’s been glamorously with the Italians. The pleasure is that it was a beautiful spring occasion and also transporting. 

Yes, the French, and their soulmates up and down Embassy Row know how to host a dinner, but the Italians, frankly, have a way with sensuousness that can’t be matched. On this evening, Italy made the most of the spring light that streamed in the mansion’s large windows, the silver trays of Prosecco, the tasty bite-sized canapés,  the (mostly) Italian waiters in their white shirts, black trousers and Gucci slip-ons, and a dining room of three long “king’s tables” bathed in a pink glow.

You know the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats?” This party is that kind of tide, lifting us not-too-flashy Washingtonians a tiny bit more fashion up, stirring a style awareness in the reflected aura of Florence and New York. That included the nation’s “second lady,” Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, who is always well turned out. She wore a cowl necked and backless cocktail dress that caused a lot of buzz. She did not reveal the designer. Some asked whether backless was appropriate. Yes, completely. Some said it was daring. Not really. She is a fitness buff. Why not show off the results? Biden was #1 on the list of ten women being honored as “luminaries.” She stayed only for cocktails but stole the spotlight during her drop by. 
The view of the cocktail hour from the entry hall.
Fashion in relation to Washington is reliably a complicated subject. Everyone -- the people who live here, the people who don't live here -- are conflicted about it. We're damned if we do care about style and damned if we don't. First Lady Michelle Obama is the best example; she can't get a break or shake Oscar de la Renta from gnashing at her ankle. The conflict doesn't deter Robbie Myers, Elle's editor-in-chief. She keeps returning to celebrate us and so she must see our fashion potential in the way that we do--that it connects to our lives as professionals, and that it matters, but it doesn't overtake us. 

Myers was the center of the party. Literally. She is tall and slender, and with her hair clipped up in a chic tousle, and her little black dress, she loomed over the crowd, channeling Hepburn circa Holly Golightly. She had many flattering words to say in paying tribute to Biden and the other honorees, most of whom were there, and the ambassador and his wife, and the guests seated for dinner at the tables made romantic with vase after vase of pink roses separated by votive candles. The meal of lobster salad and grilled sea bass was prepared by Café Milano.
Christophe De Pous reaches out to Jill Biden.
Jill Biden, in her nearly backless dress. On the right are Kevin O'Malley and Robbie Myers of Elle. Christophe De Pous, president of Gucci America, and Jill Biden.
Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, Jill Biden, and Laura Bisogniero.
Holly Whidden and Robbie Myers of Elle.
Elle publisher Kevin O'Malley, Christophe De Pous of Gucci, Elle editor-in-chief Robbie Myers, Jill Biden, and Laura and Claudio Bisogniero.
In a throaty voice that likely reflected the fact she’d just returned from three weeks of fashion shows in Europe, Myers also had some news from Paris and Milan: the “rich hippie” look has been retired and been replaced by the “urban warrior.” This is a style trend that could resonate in Washington, where the prevailing mode has more in common with warriors than hippies. If members of the Administration and Congress negotiated while wearing chunky leather, metallics, camo and studded boots could it end their impasse? Please, fashion gods, make it happen.

This dinner was a success for a few good reasons beyond the beautiful mansion that is Villa Firenze, and the spring light. There were only two brief “speeches,” from Myers and Bisogniero, and they were more in the style of toasts.  He called the honorees an "inspiration." There was a video, highlighting them, but it, too, was refreshingly brief. Thus, the evening was allowed to bloom into a festive occasion, with flowing wine, good food and the din of engaged conversation. 

Kitty Kelley, who is always game for some mischievous fun, engaged with me in a lightning round of gossip poker. I lost to the master but our hands included one jaw-dropping extra-marital political love-affair, a less shocking diplomatic affair and a juicy real estate transaction.
CNN's Gloria Borger with Robyn Bash.
FCC Commission Mignon Clyburn with her chief of staff, Dave Grimaldi.
Joanne Mason and Nancy Bagley.
GW University Professor James Spellman and CNN's Edie Emery.
Jane Harman, former member of congress, who now runs the Woodrow Wilson institute.
Kitty Kelley.
Heather Podesta in her Gucci. Heather Podesta's ankle.
Luke Russert of NBC, with his mother, Maureen Orth, and Kimball Stroud.
Another key to its success: the ambassador and his wife. Since they arrived in Washington a year ago (a second time posted here) the Bisognieros have charmed the city with a consistently affable and calm approach to work and social life. Because 2013 is the year of officially celebrating Italian culture in the U.S., they are busier than ever. No complaints from them, though. In a few weeks, they welcome the Opera Ball into their home, which can be comparable to opening the front door to the circus; being affable and calm are essential. 

Elle's “luminaries” were seated around the room, which gave each guest the feeling of being at an “A” table. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News and Jessica Yellin of CNN could not be there, because they were traveling with President Obama in the Mideast, but others on the list of ten made it: senator Kirsten Gillibrand, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, sports entrepreneur Michelle Freeman, Voto Latino’s Maria Teresa Kumar, Google’s lobbyist (and former New York congresswoman) Susan Molinari, political strategist Susan McCue and Alyssa Mastromonaco, who is White House deputy chief of staff. 
Some of the servers from Cafe Milano.
The dining room before dinner.
Robbie Myers and Ambassador Bisogniero, up front, making welcoming remarks, before dinner.
The dining room during dinner.
Sheila Johnson, leaning in, listening closely. Jake Tapper, newly of CNN.
Also at the dinner: Kevin O’Malley, publisher of Elle, and Christophe de Pous, head of Gucci North America; Jill Daschle, Jane Harman, Maureen Orth and son Luke Russert, Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, Robyn Bash, Sheila Johnson, Melody Barnes, Jaci and Morris Reid, Susan Watters, Kristen Silverberg, Beverly Perry, Juleanna Glover, John and Joanne Mason, Nancy Bagley, Gloria Borger.

Last but not least, Heather Podesta, who appears to not need a tide to lift her. She was dressed by Gucci in flowing chartreuse and mauve silk top and pants and buttercup yellow stiletto sandals with ankle buckles - a look that was easy to covet. How do I know about the stilettos? She gamely lifted up her leg and propped it on the arm of a sofa - just for the camera. A fashion move, for sure.
Mignon Clyburn and Beverly Perry.
Susan Watters and Joanne Mason.
Jaci and Morris Reid.
The event staff, taking a break while dinner is served.
Ambassador Bisogniero makes a toast after dinner and invites everyone to stay for dessert ... in another room.
Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt