In this crowd of dark-suited D.C. office workers, it wasn’t hard to spot a supermodel–not least because a huge cardboard display, featuring a photograph of Frederique and the Capitol File logo, had been placed prominently at one end of the room. But no one seemed to know who Billy Campbell was. “That guy, maybe?” offered one guest, gesturing uncertainly at the well-dressed bouncer standing just inside the door.
That the celebrities were D-list said more about the city than the magazine. It’s genuinely tough to attract bona fide boldface names to events like these in D.C., in part because most of the celebrities here are politicians, who fear that being photographed partying with supermodels at trendy French-Asian restaurants won’t necessarily play well with the voters back home. Indeed, the city is so glamour-starved that the big news in The Washington Post’s gossip column recently was that Brad and Angelina were not moving to the district, after a photo of the couple outside an on-the-market Kalorama townhouse had sparked fevered and hopeful speculation on the blogs the previous day. Turned out they were just admiring the architecture.
All this has left the members of Washington’s high-end-style conscious minority–who have grown used to laughing guiltily along when their New York friends call D.C., “Dull City”–feeling bereft. But Capitol File–along with a competitor, Washington D.C. Style, which launched earlier this year–is trying to change all that.
The inherent difficulty of the task can be seen in the fact that both magazines held their launch parties at Oya. D.C. may have plenty of expensive steakhouses, but the short list of truly cutting-edge venues is, well, short.
And there’s a hint of hometown defensiveness inside the magazines themselves. The new issue of Capitol File blurbs photos of partygoers with the tired line about D.C. being “Hollywood for ugly people.” “Not true!” the magazine adds indignantly.
Side by side, the magazines look pretty similar, but there are important differences. D.C. Style is “luxury,” while Capitol File is “ultra-luxury,” D.C. Style editor Sarah Schaffer told me.
So, what makes these magazines think they can sell the luxury–not to mention ultra-luxury–lifestyle to a city where even the interns wear black or grey business suits and carry briefcases? In recent years, thanks both to the northern Virginia tech boom, and to the doubling in size of D.C.’s lawyer-lobbying industry, the capital region has developed a burgeoning population of professionals earning Manhattan-like levels of income.
That’s reflected in the distribution plan for Capitol File–which, as part of Niche Media, owned by publishing mogul Jason Binn (n Binstock), has sister publications in New York, the Hamptons, Los Angeles, and Aspen. It’s based on “controlled circulation,” with most issues delivered to homes valued at $750,000 or more, and with incomes of over $250,000. It can also be found wherever else rich people gather: luxury hotels, high-end boutiques, and the New York-Washington shuttle.
As not-quite-invited guests in the homes of its readers, these magazines strive to be agreeable. D.C. Style has an editorial ban on saying anything critical–“we try to stay away from raking anyone over the coals because we’re focused on highlighting what’s great about the city,” Schaffer told me. Capitol File‘s hardest-hitting expos involves Terry McAuliffe telling readers about the coolest new gadgets this season. Other noteworthy features include Paul Begala on his weekend place in Virginia, and John Podesta with 13 sentences on cooking polenta, given prominent cover billing.
But what Capitol File lacks in aggressive reporting, it more than makes up for in P.R. and marketing. The magazine hired Linda Roth Associates, a veteran D.C. publicity operation, to get itself noticed, and went with “Capitol” rather than the more logical “Capital”–it covers more than the capitol building, after all–after focus groups confirmed that the ‘o’ spelling more effectively conveyed Washington’s distinct identity as the seat of government.
There’s no doubt the magazine’s staff is having a good time. “Part of it is complete fun,” conceded editor in chief Kate Gibbs, as we squeeze against the wall at Oya to avoid the incoming throngs. “But you’ve got to have the substance,” she added, referring, presumably, to the piece in which Ali Wentworth (Mrs. George Stephanopoulos) describes spending Christmas at the beach in L.A., or perhaps to the one where “consummate hostess Jaci Reid shares the tricks of the trade,” (sample tip: “An eclectic group of sexy, good-looking extroverts ensures animated conversation.”) Gibbs’s eyes were darting wildly around the room, and her mouthed ‘Hi’s’ over my shoulder seemed to be increasing in frequency (“you are looking hot,” she told publisher Paige Bishop as she walked by) so I wandered off for another Stoli on the rocks. A staffer assigned to greet guests at the door echoed her boss’ enthusiasm: “Love it. Everyone’s so cool.”
And the guests, too–many of whom appeared to be advertisers (or potential advertisers) the magazine was trying to court–seemed impressed, though perhaps the bar was low. “This is exactly what D.C. needs,” said a man who owned a “very high-end” jewelry shop in Virginia. A small, intense woman enthused, “Jason Binn is a marketing genius. Capitol File is the magazine to watch,” then offered a confident prediction: “D.C. Style will be out of business in a year.” The woman denied being paid to promote Capitol File, but conceded that she did work in P.R., and named the Chevy Chase Cosmetics Center as a client. Just keeping her skills up, apparently. In the women’s bathroom (don’t ask), one partygoer announced that her husband was a sous-chef at Maestro, a fancy Italian place in Tysons Corner, Va. “Ooh,” gushed another, impressed beyond measure. “You never know who you’re going to meet here.”
Over near the bar, a stylish twenty-something was grappling with the dilemmas of modern living: “I usually always wear studs, but I was like, should I wear these to work?” she told a companion, pointing to the silver pendant earrings dangling from her ears. Nearby, three good-looking gay guys stood in a circle. One leafed through a copy of the magazine–it was hard to move without tripping on one–to show his friends a picture of himself, taken at a previous Capitol File event much like this one, except that, according to one, “the waiters’ asses were better.”
Still, there was a sense of mild disappointment, faintly detectable under the composed party-smiles of the magazine’s staff, that no one more interesting had turned up. A Washington gossip columnist complained that the pickings had been slim, news-wise. But suddenly–salvation! A frisson of excitement rippled across the room as in walked Jessica Cutler, aka The Washingtonienne. As a junior Senate staffer in the spring of 2004, Cutler briefly gained local fame for turning tricks for high-ranking government officials on her lunch break. She writes a column for the magazine–her Holiday-issue effort begins, “If I don’t get a Cartier “Love” bracelet from my boyfriend this Christmas, it’s over,” –and her presence seemed to provide affirmation that in spite of everything, there was glamour, of a kind, to be found in Washington. Hey, who knows? Maybe this is all gonna work out fine.