A Tale of Two Sakses

Stores hold dueling inaugural ball events.

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WASHINGTON — Call it “A Tale of Two Sakses.”

This story first appeared in the December 11, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Job seekers, lobbyists and socialites aren’t the only ones reaching out to the new crowd of Obama pals sweeping into town in this pre-inaugural season. Rival retailers Saks Jandel and Saks Fifth Avenue have been staking out their own territory ­— and it tells a lot about the opportunities and challenges facing Washington retailers amid the changing social scene.

“There is something different in the air this time,” said Peter Marx, Saks Jandel president, who hosted one of the first fashion events of the inaugural season, just 10 days after the election. “This seems more like Reagan’s first inaugural to us. There is something electric about this one. Everyone is celebrating.”

Saks Jandel, the privately held, family-owned business that has been in operation since 1880, is a designer specialty store with deep roots in the community. The store has sponsored high-end fashion events to educate shoppers and raise money for charities for decades, including a regular quadrennial informal showing of sample inaugural ball gowns. For six months, the company planned a three-day inaugural ball event for the second weekend after the election. The month before Barack Obama’s victory, Marx invited Los Angeles designer Kai Milla, wife of singer Stevie Wonder, to visit the store on Nov. 15, and show her inaugural ball gown collection.

The day after the election, Cynthia Vance, who works with Marx at Saks Jandel, turned to her friend Megan Beyer, who holds a special position among Washington Establishment Democrats. Married to former Virginia Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, she was one of the few local Democrats to support Obama early on over the political insiders’ favorite, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Beyer agreed to invite some of her friends to the Saks Jandel event.

The retailer served up Champagne and mimosas to 80 people gathered over the 28,000-square-foot store. The guest list included former Hillary Clinton supporters Ann Stock, a Kennedy Center executive, and Ann Jordan, wife of Lazard Freres senior managing director and Democratic honcho Vernon Jordan.

Also in the crowd was Vanessa Reed — and that’s where things get interesting.

“Who is she?” asked Marx three weeks after the event, which, he says, tripled the sales figures from either of Saks Jandel’s events for the inaugurations of George W. Bush.

Reed is a lawyer at the Justice Department, and the wife of one of Michelle Obama’s best, oldest and rare friends residing in the Washington metropolitan area. Her husband, Thomas A. Reed, went to Princeton with the incoming First Lady and later worked with her at the Stiles & Austin law firm in Chicago, where he clerked with fellow lawyer Barack Obama. Of counsel for the D.C. law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, Preston, Gates, Ellis, Thomas Reed raised more than $200,000 for the Obama campaign in 2007.

In a contribution to a “Families for Obama” campaign cookbook, Thomas Reed lightheartedly wrote, “Michelle was one of the first welcoming faces I saw when I first stepped onto a college campus and there again during my first days working in a law office. She quickly became a mentor and big sister. It was during that summer at the law firm that we both met this fella, Barack Obama, and in obviously different ways became fast friends.”

Driving home to Centerville, Va., from last month’s Saks Jandel event, where she didn’t find anything she wanted to buy, Vanessa Reed had an idea: Why not host an event of her own at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship Virginia store at the Tyson’s Corner mall?

“The prices at Saks Jandel were very high,” she explained to WWD. “One dress was selling for $20,000. I wanted to invite friends to shop where the prices weren’t so high.”

So, shortly before Thanksgiving, she picked up the telephone to see who at the department store might help. She ended up talking to Patricia “Patti” Cho, a new addition to the Tyson’s team who joined the Saks management training program fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania. After nine years in New York as a corporate buyer, Cho had worked at the Tyson’s store for only two months when she fielded Reed’s request.

Like Saks Jandel, Saks Fifth Avenue had been planning some kind of inaugural ball event, but had yet to send out any invitations when Reed called pitching her idea. Like most retailers, Saks Fifth Avenue doesn’t host political events, but an informal showing of inaugural ball gowns could be seen as apolitical. The question now was how big to make it, especially for Saks, which prides itself on keeping its fashion event guest lists to around 30 guests to maintain an air of exclusivity.

“We got 30 acceptances in the first day,” said Cho, who relied on Vanessa Reed to e-mail the invitations. By the day of the event, acceptances had climbed to around 160. Reed supplied three African-American models recommended by her makeup artist, Kim Lee. In exchange, Saks’ head office added 20 percent to the store’s ball gown inventory with last-minute shipments from New York. Cho set up displays of shoes and handbags and provided extra seating, along with makeup artists manning four separate stations.

Last Saturday, amid red storewide signs boasting 40 to 50 percent markdowns on previously reduced merchandise, Saks store managers served up Champagne and dessert amid racks of inaugural gowns. Guests were asked to sign in and give their e-mail addresses at a welcome desk stationed in front of the escalator to the third floor eveningwear department.

Seated behind the desk, store personnel handed out printed coupons on slick paper for $10 off at the beauty salon and Xeroxed coupons for additional 15 percent, one-day-only shopping discounts. Throughout the store, sales personnel hesitantly honored the coupons even though in the store’s haste, a typographical error listed the day’s date as Saturday, Nov. 6, instead of Saturday, Dec. 6.

By all accounts, the event was a success in the midst of a horrible holiday season for retailers. Sources say Saks’ business on the entire third floor that day clocked in at almost triple last year’s same-day sales figures. Top sellers, according to unofficial observations by Vanessa Reed, included St. John, Nicole Miller, Carmen Marc Valvo, Teri John and Tadashi.

While declining to reveal sales numbers, Saks store executives had no qualms about sharing one of the clearest benchmarks of the event’s success: “We are building relationships with new people who haven’t been to Saks before,” said Cho.

Doctors, campaign workers and community activists representing organizations as diverse as the Aspen Institute and the Friends of New Orleans came together to shop and share their excitement about the upcoming inauguration of America’s first African-American president. One celebrity in the crowd was Laverne Chatman, president and chief executive officer of the Northern Virginia Urban League. Chatman is chairing the ball to be given by Earl Stafford, the Virginia philanthropist who paid $1 million to reserve the J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington for a “People’s Inaugural Ball” for disadvantaged Americans, providing ball gowns, makeup and accessories to those most in need.

“I want to make sure he gets tickets to some of the official inaugural events,” said Vanessa Reed of Stafford, noting that, “The Presidential Inauguration Committee is only hosting four official balls this year because the President-elect is very sensitive to the current economic climate of our country. That said, these tickets are quite coveted.”

Reed, who with her husband Thomas plans to attend one of the four balls, has yet to purchase her gown. And, despite organizing the Saks event, the mother of three children admitted that, “I might go to New York and spend a day shopping. I am in love with Stella McCartney and Derek Lam, but would leave them in a heartbeat for a unique gown by Carolina Herrera, Lanvin or Michael Kors. When it comes to fashion, I’m not faithful to anyone.”

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