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WWD Scoop issue 11/24/2008

Call it gilt without guilt.

Major economies may be in recession, financial firms are falling apart and global stock markets are bouncing up and down faster than a SuperBall, but the social set carries on. Partygoers’ calendars are packed with over-the-top store openings, black-tie benefit galas and elegant launch parties, just as always.

This story first appeared in the November 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But appearances can be deceiving. The rules of engagement are shifting as event decor is being scaled down, committees have to get creative with ticket sales and comfort food is trumping fancy canapés.

“I wouldn’t be serving vintage cellar Champagne and caviar. Even if money isn’t an issue right now, it’s in poor taste to go down that road,” says event planner David Stark, who used “stupid slide sheets from Staples” in the centerpieces for the Whitney Museum’s annual gala in October. “I try to keep things innovative, not expensive.”

He’s not alone. Carolyne Roehm, who frequently entertains in her posh apartment on 57th Street, recalls telling a friend, “Let’s give a couple of Christmas lunches. I don’t care if we do grilled cheese sandwiches and soup.” She adds, “I think it’s a time that you really want to be with friends—when things are shaky and weird. One’s got to be conservative, but I can still throw a dinner.”

Fund-raising continues, but it’s harder than ever in the current economic climate, says Adelina Wong Edelson, a committee member for a Baby Buggy dinner in December and the Save Venice ball in February. “It’s definitely a more difficult environment,” she says, adding that she and her co-chairs are reaching out to a younger set as well as relying on their core circle of supporters. Single-ticket sales have become more important than selling a full table—or, in the case of the Baby Buggy event, which consists of a performance by Jerry Seinfeld at Jazz at Lincoln Center followed by a party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Wong Edelson says she is selling more seats for the performance only (from $500). “Most people don’t want the rubber-chicken dinner anyway,” she says. Baby Buggy’s “rubber
chicken” starts at $1,250.

With almost daily job cuts on Wall Street, in fashion and in media, all traditionally deep-pocketed sources of funding for charity events, organizers are having to cast their fund-raising nets wider than before—and hope people turn up. Especially now that donors are more choosy with what they support. “St. Jude’s, where it’s, like, a child’s life, OK,” says one regular patron. “Save the movies, save the whatever, I don’t know….”


There is a sense that corporations and individuals will maintain gifts to their favorite charities, but not contribute to any additional organizations. “The things they support, they will try to continue to support,” says publicist Jacqui Lividini, whose clients, such as Liz Claiborne, sponsor causes like domestic violence. “But everything else will go by the wayside.”

Many committee members fear the arts are one of the areas likely to be hit hardest. “When we start talking about our spring gala next month, we won’t set our goals as high as they would have been last spring,” admits American Ballet Theater chair Blaine Trump. “We’ll look to keep our costs to a minimum and see how we do.” (That said, Trump’s other passion project, God’s Love We Deliver, which feeds people living with AIDS/HIV, is suffering, as well. The organization’s annual run/ walk in Central Park in November saw a 30 percent increase in attendance but a 10 percent decrease in donated funds.)

May’s Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art remains one of the year’s priciest nights, with tables ranging from $75,000 to $250,000, but a spokeswoman for the museum contends: “We are early in the process, but are very optimistic. Sales are going well and are on track with last year.” That was when Giorgio Armani sponsored the event and George Clooney and Julia Roberts cohosted. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Beyoncé Knowles, Victoria Beckham and dozens of other top names came to support two of Hollywood’s hottest stars and the evening brought in a staggering $7.3 million for the museum. (Ironically, the upcoming May event’s sponsor, Marc Jacobs International, recently canceled its traditionally over-the-top Christmas party for staff because of the economy.)

And there are those who insist that, sipping Champagne and nibbling on canapés aside, the current recession is just the time when people should party—especially if it’s in support of a good cause. “We might scale back, especially in this economy,” says Antoine Arnault, director of communications at Louis Vuitton, which sponsored a MoMA film benefit with Men’s Vogue in November, just days after most of the magazine’s staff was laid off when it was cut from 12 to two issues a year. “What we support may be less ostentatious and less frivolous. But it’s always important for us to support the arts.”

Then there are those who think a stiff drink is just what’s called for during the crisis. John Thain, chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch (which had to sell itself to Bank of America because of the subprime mortgage crisis), attended a cocktail party for interior designer Michael Smith in October, even though his industry was tanking and his employees’ portfolios were going up in smoke. His rationalization? “This, at least, is fun, as opposed to the rest of the day.”

Thain, perhaps, could be excused for not fully capturing the less-is-more mood right away. At times, partygoers in New York and elsewhere in the last few months have looked like sailors caught in a Force 10 gale as they rode the up and downs of the economy. Just look at how things have changed in a matter of weeks:

• In September, Jamee Gregory arrives at the New Yorkers for Children gala, traditionally the first big black-tie event of the fall social season, full of energy and optimism in spite of the doomsday headlines. “It’s like back to school,” she says. The social is joined by her peers and actresses such as Blake Lively and Julianne Moore, who don their best Oscar de la Renta and Burberry and settle into Cipriani 42nd Street. Jimmy Fallon warms up the crowd with a comedy routine, and when rapper Lupe Fiasco takes the mike, socials like Amanda Brooks start grooving in their seats with glow sticks. By the time Patti LaBelle performs, the crowd can’t contain its excitement and some women even get on stage with the diva and wiggle to the beat.

But not everyone is feeling so carefree, a portent of what is to come. The finance types belly up to the bar. “I give a lot of money to charity,” says one, “and yesterday I gave to a charity called Lehman Brothers.”

• Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of the luxury boutique Capitol in Charlotte, N.C., celebrates its 10th anniversary in October with a weekend-long extravaganza and calls it her “job” to have a party. “You can’t get away from it—the economy, the economy—these times,” she says. “It’s just, like, enough. The whole point of my business is being a respite or some sort of refuge for my clients.”

About 40 fashion followers, including Laura and Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte and Chris Benz, join Vinroot Poole in Charlotte for a dinner where tens of wguest is carefully tended to by a personal waiter. “I don’t think it was too over the top,” Vinroot Poole says. Dancing carries on until 4 a.m., and those who can drag themselves out of bed the next day hop on a chartered bus to take them around Charlotte to antique shows and local diners. Champagne is served on board.

• The opening of Juicy Couture’s Fifth Avenue flagship in New York one week later is similarly unabashed. “We planned the party way before anything happened [with the economy],” says Gela Nash-Taylor, who, with her partner, Pamela Skaist-Levy, arrives at the circuslike bash in a custom black ballgown and top hat. “We did, of course, take into consideration what was going on in the world, but we felt that at this particular time everybody was ready for a party, to go out, to turn off the news, to stop hearing about it for one night.”

The duo pack their two-story, 12,000-square-foot store with helium balloons, dancers from Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre, stiltwalkers, the Boys Choir of Harlem, teen queens such as Lively and mounds of pastel macaroons and cupcakes. Skaist-Levy insists that, “for us, it was not a ‘Let them eat cake’ Marie Antoinette moment. It looks like we went crazy, but we didn’t. We’re very mindful of spending.”

(The only intention on which the duo reneged was their plan to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange the morning of the party. “We were, like, mmm, no, not a good idea,” says Nash-Taylor. No kidding. The Dow fell 443 points that day.)

• Celebrities aren’t shying away from the party scene, either. Debra Messing and Becki Newton giddily party hop from Saks Fifth Avenue’s Key to the Cure event to Diane von Furstenberg’s studio, Jessica Biel and Maggie Gyllenhaal get all dolled up for a MoMA benefit and Christina Ricci and Sarah Jessica Parker trot out for a preview of the Chanel Mobile Art exhibit. Gossip Girl’s Kelly Rutherford plans a birthday party for her two-year-old son, Hermés, at the Four Seasons, sponsored by Gymboree. At the opening of Hugo Boss’ new Meatpacking District shop, Brooke Shields says, “It’s very brave of Hugo Boss to open a store now. It’s like my show [Lipstick Jungle]—some people look at it and say, ‘Why?’ But in these times you need a break from CNN.” (Well, maybe not: Shields’ series has subsequently been canceled.)

Others are showing up because they feel it necessary to make good on their promises. “They asked me to come out six or nine months ago, so of course I’m going to say yes,” says Richard Meier at a party hosted by Vacheron Constantin for its new Quai de I’lle watch collection. “Perhaps if they asked me today, I’d say that we shouldn’t be doing things like this.”

And, in the end, that’s the new mood throughout the museums, party venues and Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue apartments all over town.

Even Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group, one of the poster boys for hedge fund excess, admits (to an extent) the error of his ways. Schwarzman is taking the opportunity to express regrets over his $3 million 60th birthday party last year, which included a performance by Rod Stewart, recently telling an investors’ conference: “Obviously I wouldn’t have wanted to do that and become some kind of symbol of sorts of that period of time. Who would ever wish that on themselves?”

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