White House social secretary could take a page from the fashion industry

White House social secretary Julianna Smoot.
White House social secretary Julianna Smoot. (Chris Lake - AP)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

The new White House social secretary, Julianna Smoot, may be understandably loath to get too cozy with the fashion industry. That inclination did her predecessor no favors.

So it wasn't surprising to see such a striking contrast between Smoot and Desirée Rogers in stories detailing their comings and goings. The images of Rogers had a certain sheen, whether she was dressed in a graphic combination of black jacket and white blouse, or in the avant-garde, pale peach dress she wore to the Obamas' first state dinner.

The most favored picture of Smoot was essentially a monochrome of beige. Her blond hair and beige suit against a blurred backdrop blended into a visual declaration of blah, which, of course, is not especially problematic in federal Washington.

In New York, fashion savvy might be used as a form of social currency, but on the Hill, in various government agencies and in the White House, no one's professional stock has ever plummeted from dressing too conservatively.

Still, one hopes that the reassuring safety of taupe will not cause the city's new social sheriff to overlook all that the fashion industry has to offer the White House. Seventh Avenue, after all, is not just a source for a dazzling party frock.

Designers are constantly on the prowl for the next wave in music, art, theater and film. For them, everything is a possible source of inspiration. A daring musician, stumbled across in a nightclub or at a music festival, might be called upon to provide a curated soundtrack -- live or recorded -- for a runway show. Established artists have had their work incorporated into a designer's collection and seen it introduced to a new audience that isn't part of the gallery-crawling crowd.

Surely rock-jazz pianist Eric Lewis won a few new fans when he performed at a Donna Karan show -- and later at the White House. Richard Prince was a respected and celebrated artist long before Marc Jacobs based a Louis Vuitton collection on his "Nurse" series. But his renown expanded, just a smidge, to include a few handbag aficionados.

A trip to the New York runway shows means stepping into an arts melting pot. And even if a social secretary doesn't emerge with the name of a musician to invite to the White House or an artist whose work might be worth celebrating, she might come away with a greater sense of the interconnectedness of the arts in our lives.

Smoot might consider attending a Yeohlee Teng runway show. Teng is deeply influenced by architecture: She says she designs for the "urban nomad." Perhaps Smoot would be inspired to construct a new kind of outdoor pavilion for a White House event. Teng also created the uniforms for the wait staff at the Modern, a restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art.

What if White House staffers swore off tuxedos at the next dinner? What if they wore something more surprising? Or more casual?

If the White House is charged with celebrating the best of American culture, why not use designers' skills to ensure that every detail of an event speaks to our contemporary style? Teng, by the way, is also leading the charge to save the Garment District, the ever-shrinking New York neighborhood that was once the center of fashion manufacturing. There could be a powerful message in one of her black work tunics.

There's also plenty to be learned from the fashion industry when it comes to party planning. Designers are masters at seduction. They know how to dazzle an audience; they understand the value of the mise-en-scene.

When Ralph Lauren celebrated his company's 40th anniversary a couple of years ago, he mounted his runway show in Central Park's Conservancy Garden. The collection was an ode to one of Lauren's favorite themes, Gatsby-esque glamour. But it was the dinner party setting that took his audience's breath away.

As Lauren greeted his audience from the runway, the show's painted backdrop lifted to reveal an elegantly terraced garden illuminated by chandeliers and candelabras, with lush arrangements of hydrangeas and waiters in white tie standing at attention. A fountain sent up a spray of water.

The mood spoke directly to the Lauren aesthetic, but it went a step further, sweeping the audience up in a marvelous fantasy of life in a grander, more romantic Manhattan.

Isn't it possible for the White House to take a few notes and create a similar sort of mythical world? A Washington that is more idealistic, more magical, more glorious than the reality? Give people "The American President," not "The West Wing."

The fashion industry understands that it's never merely selling a shirt or a dress. It's selling fantasy. It's selling us the glossiest version of ourselves. True, there are always political considerations at stake whenever, say, a state dinner is being planned. Just how lavish is too lavish in a time of economic uncertainty, even for a White House tasked with entertaining a head of state in high style? But designers have long known there's a difference between an evening that is creative and one that's just obscenely expensive.

When Belgian designer Dries Van Noten presented his spring 2005 collection in Paris, he was also celebrating his 50th fashion show. Instead of a traditional catwalk, he hosted a seated dinner for 500. His guests sat at a single table that ran the length of an enormous warehouse.

Not a seam was visible on the endless expanse of white linen tablecloth, and each wineglass was perfectly aligned with the one next to it. Each guest had her own waiter who served the courses with military precision and Rockette-like synchronization. After the last dessert plates were cleared, the chandeliers that hung low over the table slowly receded toward the ceiling. And Van Noten's models marched down the center of the table.

Could the White House be inspired to do away with multiple tables at the next dinner and opt for one long, continuous one? Perhaps construct a pavilion that runs the length of the South Lawn? Could a tabletop somehow be transformed into a stage?

The fashion industry should be a source for whimsical flourishes and contrarian ideas. Sometimes designers can be too provocative; sometimes they indulge their fantasies a bit too freely. But those moments are rare. Instead, we live with their enticing creative visions every day. We wrap ourselves in it at every price point. We are intimate with fashion.

And if there can be White House workshops on music and poetry, surely there can be one on fashion. Bring designers into the People's House. Have them talk to children about their inspirations, what they hope to achieve through their work, how fashion tells a story.

One might be surprised by how many designers struggle to help women feel more empowered or how they strive to be environmentally sound or to manufacture locally or to simply create something of extraordinary beauty if only because there is value in that. Designers can tell us who we are as a culture just as eloquently as any musician. American sportswear -- from Levi's to Brooks Brothers -- defines us on the world stage.

For a social secretary looking to be inspired, the fashion industry is a fine place to go. And it would welcome her with open arms, even if she arrived wearing beige.

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