Designers may have been scarce at the reception Laura Bush hosted at the White House on Monday in honor of the Heart Truth’s Red Dress Initiative’s fifth anniversary, but those in attendance were plenty impressed with the digs — and with the graciousness of the First Lady, who chatted up and posed for photos with most of her 180 guests.

Then there was a surprise appearance by President George W. Bush, who thanked the fashion industry for “stepping up” to fight heart disease. Going for a joke, he added that the heart-challenged Vice President Dick Cheney “sends his best.”

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Everyone was surprised that the President was there because the Red Dress Initiative is Mrs. Bush’s thing,” said Mark Badgley, who, along with James Mischka, had a prior relationship with the Bushes, having designed the inaugural ballgowns for their daughters Barbara and Jenna three years ago.

Unlike the President, though, numerous invited Seventh Avenue types were no-shows. Representatives of Carmen Marc Valvo, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan and Nicole Miller maintained that it was previously scheduled travel plans rather than politics that prevented them from attending. “Given it was the Monday after fashion week and it’s a very hectic time for fashion, it was a nice turnout. People were either exhausted or off to somewhere — probably to source fabric,” said CFDA executive director Steven Kolb, who did attend.

“Who wouldn’t want to come?” mused Francisco Costa as he and others, including Luca Orlandi, Fern Mallis, Kevin Krier and Alek Wek, meandered through several of the public rooms that had a surprisingly homey feel, though not quite homey enough for Monique Lhuillier. She and her husband, Tom Bugbee, flew in from L.A. for the event, to which she wore a discreet black-and-white cocktail dress. Completing her ensemble: opera gloves and a frothy sleeveless jacket, selected heedless of the long security-induced walk from street to entrance. “I thought, it’s a house, you drive right up to the door,” Lhuillier said. “I was freezing.”

Inevitably, awe of her surroundings warmed her up. Many guests lingered in the recently redone Green Room that boasts a major portrait of Benjamin Franklin wearing his spectacles. Still, Ben took a back seat in the fascination department to Jackie Kennedy, whose mesmerizing full-length portrait resides in the Vermeil Room along with those of five other recent First Ladies. (One of the fashion set noted that Mamie Eisenhower, all pink, poufed out and pin-curled, looked “a little draggy.”)

Following the sightseeing, the designer honorees had a few private moments in the Red Room with the First Couple, after which everyone filed into the East Room where the President introduced Laura Bush, who in turn introduced Elizabeth Nabel, M.D., director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Not surprisingly, they all voiced ample thanks, to doctors and other health care workers, to researchers, to the designers and models who participated in the initiative, to women who practice sound heart health.

But that’s not all.

Sounding a bit like a fashion pro herself, Nabel had a few more stops to make on the gratitude train: she thanked the Heart Truth’s show sponsors, Diet Coke, Johnson & Johnson, and the ubiquitous corporate benefit benefactor whose largess extends from the Rockettes to the White House and Swarovski.

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