Italy, powerful women, and the first day of spring came together Wednesday evening for a dinner at the Italian ambassador’s residence, Villa Firenze. The theme was “luminaries,” and the hosts were Elle magazine and Gucci. The guest list featured the Vice President’s wife, Jill Biden, in the fashion spotlight in a nearly backless dress, which some called “daring” but seemed to us mostly an elegant and almost demure choice. After all, one does not wear just any old schmatte to a party hosted by a fashion magazine and one of the world’s best-known fashion houses. To the extent that Washington pulls out fashion for an occasion, there was some fine fashion on display. Lobbyist Heather Podesta, for example, was dressed by Gucci from head to toe in flowy mauve and yellow silk. She hoisted up a leg to show off her strappy yellow Gucci stiletto sandals.
We had a minor mission, though. Given the amount of recent play in the media about the mysterious hacker who goes by the name “Guccifer,” we wanted to see whether Gucci could help figure out the correct pronunciation. After all, they share half a name. We broached the subject to a pod of Gucci executives. Did they know about “Guccifer?” No. A brief explanation was provided. Their eyes widened, not sure where the inquiry was headed. “Do you think the name is pronounced ‘goochee-fer’ or ‘goose-i-fer’?” we asked. Wider eyes. No one wanted to jump in until one Gucci rep said, “Well, the two Cs together would make it ‘chee . . .’ but no comment.” Mission accomplished, sort of.
The Italian ambassador, Claudio Bisogniero, and his wife, Laura, were in good spirits. Given that it’s the year of Italian culture, their home is seeing a lot of action, which they seem to enjoy. This was the second year in a row they played host to the Elle dinner. Last year’s sponsor was Armani. Like at the last dinner, this year had beautiful spring light streaming in through the huge windows of the mansion, and catering by Cafe Milano, including most of the Georgetown restaurant’s waitstaff. Waiters decked out in Gucci slip-ons passed trays of delicious bite-size canapes that included toast squares holding seared tuna or mozzarella di bufala, a round of fig and cheese, and fluffy breaded cheese balls. They also passed trays of Prosecco and white and red wine to complement the full bar.
When dinner was called at close to dusk, the guests filed into the soaring great room, which held three long tables, each decorated with rows of pink roses in vases that were separated by votive candles. The vibe was entirely Italian, especially with the colorful Murano glass chandeliers and sconces. We wondered why they were not lit. One Italian offered this explanation: “Murano is Venetian, and the Guccis are Florentine.” Hmmm. Could that be? We asked the ambassador. He said someone had merely forgotten to turn on the lights.
At dinner we were seated with former congresswoman Jane Harmon, Pepco senior vice president Beverly Perry, and FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was one of the honorees. Across from us were philanthropist Jaci Reid, a former honoree, her husband, Morris Reid, and Kristen Silverberg, the former US ambassador to the European Union. As beautiful plates of lobster salad and grilled Chilean sea bass were brought to the tables, Clyburn and Perry revealed they were in the first ten days of a vegan diet. No lobster or fish for them. Instead, it was mozzarella and beets (we assume they skipped the cheese). They said they are coping well with the diet, so far, but it has its issues. “It is supposed to be a religious experience,” said Clyburn, “but I’ve used more bad words in the past two weeks.” Later, Perry and Clyburn compared notes with sports and hospitality executive Sheila Johnson, who said she’s been on a vegan diet for three months. Not at all related to food, an encounter with best-selling author Kitty Kelley, who was seated nearby, led to a game of “gossip poker.” Kelley, the varsity player, won.
Most of the ten women being honored by Elle were seated at the dinner.They included Clyburn, sports entrepreneur Michelle Freeman, senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, Alyssa Mastromonaco of the White House, political strategist Susan McCue, and lobbyist Susan Molinari. Mrs. Biden left after cocktails, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and CNN’s Jessica Yellin were traveling with President Obama in the Mideast.
Bisogniero, when he spoke at dinner, thanked Elle and Gucci and called the honorees “an inspiration.” He also made note of Italy’s special relationship with fashion: “Tonight we also highlight a marvelous and wonderful part of Italy’s cultural identity, because fashion and style are a vital part of the Italian tradition and the history of Italy’s economy.” He said fashion was born in Florence, Italy, as a textile capital, in 1300.
Robbie Myers, the editor-in-chief of Elle, said she had just returned from a few weeks in Europe on the fashion show circuit and could credibly report on the up-to-the-moment trends. “I’m here to tell you the rich hippie is now retired and the very chic urban warrior has come back,” she said.
Last year, the dinner ended with dessert and drinks on the Villa Firenze’s large terrace, equipped with heaters and bars. The weather then was balmy; this year it was cold outside, so guests remained in the mansion for chocolates and limoncello. In an adjacent room, as the evening wound down, the waiters had gathered, and when mention was made of sore feet, they collectively asked, “You want to talk about sore feet?” They then lined up their Gucci loafers and pointed down, nodding. Apparently urban warriors prefer athletic shoes.