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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 04/16/2012

‘Fashion for Paws’: A young people’s gala comes of age

Gabrielle Fronce and her dog Emmi walk the runway at "Fashion for Paws" Saturday. (Moshe Zusman for Fashion for Paws)

Tara de Nicolas was the kid who loved animals. Her pals on the post-college Georgetown scene were totally into fashion.

In 2007, she combined those two passions into one wacky party that raised money for the Washington Humane Society. Five years later, Fashion for Paws has made the 31-year-old one of Washington’s junior social titans.

On Saturday night, 1,700 guests turned out to the National Building Museum for the sixth annual F4P, as it’s affectionately abbreviated, a raucous fashion show/gala where socialites raise big bucks for the honor of walking dogs down the runway.

It’s the lesson that’s slowly being learned by charity fundraisers across the region: Want to get the young people involved? Let them throw their own darn party.

Tara de Nicolas, left, with the night’s emcee, Ashlan Gorse of E! News, and Washington Humane Society CEO Lisa LaFontaine, at Fashion for Paws. (Rich Kessler for Fashion for Paws)
De Nicolas, hired in ’07 to do marketing for the animal welfare group, had noticed that none of her peers seemed interested in the big seated dinners that are standard in fundraising. “The thinking was, ‘How do we get our friends involved?’” The group started small, with a party at the French Embassy — “We just thought it was cute, that all our girlfriends would be walking with their dogs” — and it took off. Why? “People have their certain tastes,” said de Nicolas, who now oversees style-themed fundraisers year-round as WHS’s Fashion for Paws executive director. “It’s energetic and loud and exciting.” (The name? Not a pun on “for a cause,” or “fashion faux pas,” it turns out, but simply a reference to a dog’s “four paws,” de Nicolas told us. Okay, then!)

Now the event raises twice as much as the Humane Society’s venerable Bark Ball — more than $700,000 this year. “It’s the fundraising model of the future,” said WHS president and chief executive Lisa LaFontaine. Overhead is kept to a minimum because vendors (such as event-planning firm Syzygy Events and caterer Design Cuisine) are enlisted as sponsors, no doubt glad to showcase their wares to an affluent young crowd.

Marie Osmond with George. (Rich Kessler for Fashion for Paws)
Then there are the models, who compete to see who can raise the most money (this year, Nikki Burdine, a young TV reporter who brought in $43K). Michael Clements, former editor of Washington Life, which chronicles the gala scene, credits de Nicolas with that concept.

“People in the social scene love to see and be seen,” he said, “and she found a way to mon­etize that.”

With success comes a certain maturity. The over-45 set has discovered F4P, which now features a seated dinner for high-end donors — and yes, more and more speeches, just like at the grown-up galas the kids once avoided. Not to mention the occasional celebrity jetting in to decorate the room.

“Is this the most fun event I’ve ever been to?” chortled this year’s dignitary, Marie Osmond, on stage to kick off festivities. “What’s better than fashion and animals? Hahahaha!” She adopted a shelter puppy named George on her way out.

By  |  12:00 AM ET, 04/16/2012

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