WASHINGTON — Scalamandré is as much a part of Washington as glad-handing, deal cutting and Embassy Row.
In fact, Michelle Obama is the only First Lady since Jacqueline Kennedy to redecorate the White House without help from the 80-year-old fabric firm famous for its opulent silk, brocades and toile. But its fabrics remain in use pretty much everywhere else, from the salons of Georgetown to cabinet secretaries’ offices.
Scalamandré made headlines with Kennedy’s White House restoration, which has inspired every subsequent administration to turn to it to keep things fresh. Now with budget austerity and White House officials rarely going out to private homes for parties, Scalamandré president Steven Stolman is working hard to boost the morale of Washington partygoers in a novel way to blend silk and Champagne.
“Steven has great color sense,” says Michael Smith, who last year helped the Obamas with their decorating needs. “But all these interior design companies have been hard hit by their real estate having to pay rent on these large showrooms while so many people are ordering on the Internet.”
Former fashion designer Stolman, who has been at Scalamandré for three months, came up with idea of using design showrooms to host parties for local charities and lure potential buyers in to see what they’ve been missing. One recent fall day, as workers on the seventh floor of the Washington Design Center scurried to get ready for his second fall event, the interior designer for the architect of the U.S. Capitol ducked out the glass door, carpet sample in tow. “A lot of museum curators don’t want us to use their names,” fretted one Scalamandré source.
Outside the showroom, the company’s new owner Louis Renzo took a break. “What we need is more people coming here,” he groused. Confident of “the power of the showroom to support important causes,” Stolman replied that “you have 150 people coming to the showroom tonight.”
Renzo, a newcomer to the design business, bought Scalamandré in 2009, two years after promising to leave the financial services industry for good as part of a $4.3 million, five-year probation settlement following his conviction for check-cashing fraud. Renzo’s accountant, who also represented the Scalamandré family and knew they were eager to sell, helped organize the deal. His first move as the new owner and chief executive was to send out $200,000 in refund checks to disgruntled customers for back orders over a year old.
Stolman joined Scalamandré last July, a day after ending a two-year stint as design director for Jack Rogers with his last trunk show at Georgetown’s Sherman Pickey boutique. “When I gave my month’s notice saying I’d been hired as president of Scalamandré, my boss said, ‘Wow, that’s great. Can I get a discount?’” Stolman recalls.
Two months later he was back in Georgetown, this time at the palatial home of Bush White House stalwart Boyden Gray. As a corporate sponsor, Scalamandré filled Gray’s ballroom with its signature red, black and white zebra goodie bags for about 60 young donors to the Sackler and Freer galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. Returning to New York, Stolman then held a reception in Scalamandré’s New York town house for the Irish Georgian Society.
The lure of a discount has been an important factor for Washington’s museum curators representing the State Department diplomatic rooms, the U.S. Capitol and Ford’s Theatre. Despite tight budgets, they all depend on what Stolman calls Scalamandré’s “museum-quality archive of antique textiles, dating back to the 17th century.” Among the newest clients is the 1915 Georgian revival home of former President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith.
When the house’s curator John Powell decided the lace curtains in the main entertaining spaces were beyond repair, he toured the D.C. Design Center looking for help. “We looked everywhere to find a suitable fabric. Scalamandré offered to custom-make an historic replica based on the lace window shades that hung in the house chosen by Edith Wilson,” said Powell. “They were the only ones to offer this service. They used a loom in England, and the fabric looks exactly like the original. They gave us a discounted price as the museum is a nonprofit. This was the first time we worked with them.”
“We are finding the future of our business in unusual niches,” explains Stolman, who spent 20 years in the fashion business, launching his own line of stores after working as creative director for manufacturers including Albert Nipon and Lilly Pulitzer. “Who knew the Mormon Church would order our silk damasks, purchasing out of Salt Lake City? Another new client just ordered $200,000 of trim for a client out of Dubai.
And then there’s the Ritz in Paris through designer Thierry Despont’s office in New York. We also got a really nice order from the Waldorf Astoria. As a member of the design community for too many years, I have a lot of friends, accomplished interior designers. My role is as ambassador of the brand.”