"I can't believe that all these people, me included, are willing to get all gussied up to go to a party at a department store."
Anadol Rich at the opening of Bloomingdale's Tyson's Corner, September 1976.
They are Washington's new social strategists, steady party givers sending out invitations that reach prospective participants at the rate, even in a slow season, of one a month. Before this month is over, there will have been at least six parties held in Washington area stores.
And it's not exclusively at Washington phenomenon. In the first two weeks of March there were at least five benefit parties in New York stores.
They range in size from huge bashes for 3,000-plus to a sit-down, black-tie dinner with candles and placecards for 200. And there are breakfasts, brunches, lunches and cocktail parties for groups as small as 50.
But whatever the size, the theme is basically the same. Stores provide setting and sustenance for the party; the group supporting a particular charity provides the guest list. Guest often get a preview of new merchandise, the store presents itself in a fresh light to new and old customers and the beneficiary gets the proceeds with few of the expenses docked from their total take.
Benefit parties in stores are not entirely new to Washington. As early as March 1971, Garfinckel's hosted a post-theater party for the opening of "Hair;" the evening netted $40,000 for Workshops for Careers in the Arts.
But never have the parties come along with such frequency. In the last three weeks three parties at Lord & Taylor's new White Flint store have benefited the Smithsonian Institution, Meridian House and the Montgomery of fashion events at Saks-Jandel boosted the Wolf Trap Farm Associates membership by 350 names, and Bloomingdale's opening party at White Flint, added to the Kennedy Center's Performing Arts Fund.
Still to come this month are a benefit at Bloomingdale's for the D.C. Medical Society Auxiliary and a cocktail fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue to raise money for the Home for the Incurables.
Washington parties, more than an exercise in social grace for the political and diplomatic crowd, provide an after-hours opportunity to make contacts, continue conversations and prepare for or conclude business. And like hostesses in private homes, some stores have worked to develop social clout with their guest lists.
Big names have not been reluctant to come to these parties, and some even lend their names to attract other guests in the name of charity. Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens, Ford White House counselors Philip Buchen and Robert Hartmann, Sen. Barry Goldwater. Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution S. Dillon Ripley and former First Lady Betty Ford have been store party guests. Even Secretary of State Cyrus Vance is on the guest list for a store party later this month.
Joan Glynn, general manager of Borghese (cosmetics), looked around at the crowd swarming into Bloomingdale's White Flint opening two weekends ago, and gasped. "What is this thing I've wrought?"
She was teasing, she says. But what in fact was wrought by the parties she first choreographed at Bloomingdale's in New York in 1971 provided a formula that later fundraisers seized upon for many reasons. Among them:
The increasing cost of benefit party giving has scaled down profits for charities. Stores, in a mixture of community involvement and self-interest, generally assume full costs.
Women, increasingly unavailable or unwilling to give up considerable time for the immense detail work of volunteer efforts, have found stores willing to undertake some of thse roles.
Stores receive publicity (if he guest list is sparkling enough) and a chance to bolster the company image as a concerned participant in the life of the city.
"It's the civilized approach to free enterprise," says Joseph Brooks, chairman of the board of Lord and Taylor. "We have the return before we have the party."
"It shows up in the bottom line, where it counts," says another local retailer who believes that properly merchandised store parties lead directly to custmore sales.
Glynn's first in-store fundraiser at the New York Bloomingdale's was a benefit for Lincoln Center's Film Society and a chance for stor executives to expose their remodeled third floor to what Glynn calls an "upscale group."
Glynn speaks in marketing lingo, which indicates the calculation that goes into some of these events. "When you open store doors to the public, you buckshot (scatter the impact): when you invite in a special, pre-selected audience, you are targeting your group and that's what we were doing with this benefit," she says.
Along with the benefit subscribers and the press, Glynn created a "Funny List" to invite to that and later parties, "an amalgam of attractive and visible people," as she describes it. On the list were Andy Warhol, Frank and Fernando Gilligan (he's with Harold Reed ("he's an art dealer and they are an attractive couple").
While that specific benefit raised $616 plus a store contribution of $3.000 for the charity, it also provided the blueprint for the in-store parties to come, includding a party Bloomingdale's gave for itself a year later - 1,300 people invited to a sit-down dinner of pheaasant and all accountrements to celebrate the store's 100th birthday.
Bloomingdale's encourages committee members working on benefit parties to get donations of food and music if they have the contacts, but when they are not forthcoming the store provides everything.
Just what "everything" costs varies by the kind of event and the number of guests. But a reliable estimate puts the range at $10 to $12 per head for a cocktail party, $25 for a seated dinner. Some stores tie benefits to in-store fashion events or speakers and those affairs can cost less than $1 for the doffee and danish plus th cost of models if they are used.
Like any good gimmick used too frequently, and sometimes overused, the store party may already is seriously considering moving its store-supported function, out of the store for the first time.
William McDonald, vice president of Woodward & Lothrop, thinks the party scene is wearing out for a different reason. "We're really not touching the true store customer with this kind of effort," he says. "The shopper is touched only by the publicity, and that doesn't present the store in the total light of what we are trying to do for the community."
But Marilyn Funderburk, who is co-chairman of Bloomingdale's room opening benefit for the D.C. Medical Society Auxiliary later this month, disagrees.
"The allure is irresistible because the hotels charge so much for food and liquor," says Funderburk. "As long as a store is willing to underwrite an event, and provide the gimmicks such as the fashion show, carnival or whatever, it will attract organizations. Benefits won't let go until there is an absolute flop."
If the glow is off, it hasn't yet touched Washington's next big retailer, Nieman Marcus. There's a long list of charities seeking the nod for their opening event.
"It would be great for the Opera Society of Washington," says Dr. Carl Shultz, vice-president of that organization's board of trustees. "It is a great way for any arts organization to raise money inexpensively."
Funderburk would agree, "Store parties," she says, "are like manna from heaven."