Soft violins from a French opera and the sweet scent of lavender waft through the air. Fresh-cut lilacs in a crystal vase grace a table. A burgundy wool Persian rug warms an immaculately finished hardwood floor. An oil painting of one of Washington's most illustrious citizens is prominently displayed in the foyer of the salon.
In the upstairs styling room, Lowaunz "Chichie" Tascoe lifts, then gently clips a lock of Nikki's raven hair. Nikki sits entranced as Tascoe brushes, combs and surveys, transforming the unruly black tresses into a sophisticated coif.
When the style is done, Tascoe escorts Nikki back to the salon's elegant foyer. In lieu of a handshake, Nikki, a 4-year-old toy poodle, shows her satisfaction with a swish of her tail.
Welcome to Chichie's Canine Design and Grooming Spa in Georgetown, where some of Washington's most well-heeled Shih Tzus, papillons, bichon frises and less exotic breeds are primped, pampered and primed to glossy-coated perfection.
"What I do here is design and style," Tascoe said. "Styling is an art, and I am an artist."
Some of Tascoe's clients call her place "the beauty parlor." That Chichie's is no typical doggie spa is apparent from the foyer, where photos of dogs and their owners grace the walls, including a huge oil painting of the late Millie, author and companion to former first lady Barbara Bush and former president George Bush.
For the past 36 years, Tascoe, assisted by her two grown daughters, Aleta and Lowaunz, has been combing, clipping, styling--and caring for--dogs owned by some of the Washington area's most prominent residents, including writer Art Buchwald, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), television commentator David Brinkley, singer Roberta Flack, Elizabeth Dole and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Tascoe's clients also include pets of dignitaries from the Chinese, Russian, Norwegian and Italian embassies; executives from the Kennedy Center; Joie Lee, the sister of filmmaker Spike Lee; and numerous employees from the White House.
"We offer close, personalized service, and we have a wonderful rapport with our clients," said Tascoe's daughter, Lowaunz Koger. "Our clients are like family."
Tascoe's salon is perhaps the oldest black-owned business in Georgetown, and she is one of the few successful black female entrepreneurs in one of the most upscale enclaves in town. She has been grooming and pampering the dogs of the political elite since 1963.
Her longtime customers speak of Tascoe's P Street salon in spiritual terms, describing it more as a relaxing retreat, a therapeutic sanctuary, instead of simply a grooming business.
"It's a safe haven for my dog--and for me," said customer Marie Drissel, a special assistant to Mayor Anthony A. Williams who has been bringing her 8-year-old bichon frise, Lord Chomondeley, to Chichie's since he was a pup.
"She's mystical. She's so spiritual. Chichie's has a calming influence on the dogs--and on me," Drissel said. "Dogs feel at home here."
Clients say they enjoy the visits to the salon almost as much as their pets do. Tascoe, a lively woman who wears her black hair in a bun, also always wears a smile and engages her visitors with warmth and wit.
On a recent afternoon, Tascoe was clipping Boston--a 2-year-old white standard poodle. Before the clipping, Boston was bathed and shampooed in a huge antique, white-porcelain soaking tub, and then massaged by hand.
"She is a very special person," said Carol Holmes, who brings in Sport, a bichon frise who belongs to a Georgetown couple. "The dogs love her. It's just like home. She spoils them, she talks to them, she gives them treats, she treats them like her babies. They don't want to leave."
And Tascoe doesn't just groom animals. She has spent the past few years providing on-the-job training for young people--and some adults--in the District who may decide to pursue a career in the dog-styling business.
"She loves people and she loves to give people a chance," said Tascoe's daughter, Aleta Elsayed. "She helps people by inviting them to work with us and their lives have always changed for the better."
Kendall Jones, 15, is working with Tascoe this summer.
"It's good experience for me," said Jones, a Northeast Washington resident. "I want to work with animals [professionally] one day, and Chichie is teaching me how to handle and care for dogs and cats."
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has entrusted the grooming of Kayla, his 4-year-old golden retriever, to Chichie's for three years--with one horrendous exception.
"We took her once to a different place and they butchered her," Evans said. "We had to rush back to Chichie's to repair the damage. Never again will we stray."
GOP presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole is a fan, even though her beloved dog, Leader, a miniature schnauzer, died several months ago.
"We think a lot of Chichie," Dole said. "She had a close relationship with Leader, as she does with all of her dogs. She took good care of Leader, especially when he was going downhill. She cared about him so much, she was like a part owner."
Tascoe said the idea for a dog grooming business came to her when she was just 12 years old, when her dog Sunday was scalped by bad groomers. "I was so devastated," she recalled. "I knew I could do a much better job."
She has been doing her job better than most people for years. And the secret to her success, Tascoe says, is simple: She loves her work.
"We have a special touch here," she said. "The dogs trust us. I understand them."