Designer Samantha Sleeper Discusses Controversy Over Former Cooper Hewitt Director's Wedding Dress

Two weeks after Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum director Caroline Baumann was forced to resign over questions of how she procured her wedding dress and venue, the dress’ designer Samantha Sleeper insisted there was no impropriety.

Baumann’s forced exit from the museum has created blowback, including the resignation of six of its 17 trustees. Baumann, in a statement Thursday, continued to insist she did nothing improper.

Sleeper said she first heard from Baumann blindly via an inquiry on her web site in July 2018. The Brooklyn designer said it was “just another client project that was a cocktail dress.” They decided on a silver lamé, tea-length cocktail dress and Baumann paid $750, Sleeper said. “We make everything in New York in my studio. We do everything really sustainably. On my end, there was no impropriety, no scandal, no story.”

During an interview this week, Sleeper insisted that the fee Baumann paid was consistent with the amount of work required to make the dress. The designer said that two investigators for the Smithsonian’s inspector general took the prices listed on her web site at face value. During a series of interviews with the two special agents last fall, Sleeper said she tried to explain to them the difference between making a fully corseted gown with a train that requires multiple fittings versus doing a little sheath dress that requires a zipper. Sleeper told WWD, “You’re talking about [the difference of] renovating a bathroom and renovating a whole house. It requires far less fabric, very few fittings. It’s a very simple thing to create. It would be a little outrageous for me to charge her $3,000 for it.”

In late November, concerned about how the investigation was handled, Sleeper filed “a true letter of concern” documenting the alleged inappropriate behavior by Francis McCarthy and Veronica Spell, special agents with the museum’s inspector general and received a written response of thanks from counsel to the Smithsonian’s inspector general Epin Hu Christensen and asking for a follow-up meeting with a supervisor. Sleeper said she was told by the agents, “’You’re a nobody designer,’ and that this was supposed to boost my career so they know there are sour grapes and they know I’m lying.’ Really outrageous remarks. They said they heard that Caroline was a b—h and that she was a ‘Devil Wears Prada’ type.” She said, “It was so obvious from the start that they were looking to feed a storyline. At least on my end, that was not accurate. There was open irritation that I would not go along with it.”

Sleeper said the agents used “openly misogynistic terms,” during their meetings. Sleeper claimed she was later sent e-mails by the investigators saying how it “is always nice to have cooperation in lieu of the subpoena, threatening to subpoena all my e-mails and my business records over a small cocktail client I had two years ago.”

Asked if there would be an inquiry into Sleeper’s concerns regarding the alleged exchanges with investigators McCarthy and Spell, Christensen said via e-mail, “It is OIG’s policy to not comment on the existence or substance of our investigative work.  As a general matter, consistent to other Offices of Inspector General, we adhere to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Quality Standards for Investigations.

Sleeper said she and Baumann became friendly, as she has with a lot of clients because wedding dress design is a personal exchange. “As mothers and women and people, who love design and art, we connected…They have all my e-mails so there would be evidence that she asked for a discount or she promised to promote me. There’s literally no evidence,” she said.

As for how the media exposure from the controversy has affected her business, Sleeper said, “I don’t think anybody likes their integrity being questioned. As a business owner, I’m getting lots of dress inquiries from non-brides. I had 17 inquiries the day after the article came out [in The New York Times] which is interesting because their whole thought was it was a press-related thing to begin with. It wasn’t and now they’ve manifested that.”


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