Lauren Davis, the golden-haired scion of a bottled-water fortune, was swooshing uptown in a cab from her West 30th Street office, discussing her job as the director of public relations for the fur-centric fashion house J. Mendel. Ms. Davis, 28, who has co-chaired the American Museum of Natural History’s Winter Dance for three consecutive years, doesn’t consider herself a publicist. “A young girl who is out and about and loves fashion and really believes in her products” is her preferred description. “I would never have taken a job with a designer I didn’t believe in,” she said. “Otherwise you become a salesman.”
Ms. Davis is not a salesman-well, not exactly. She’s part of a new breed of socialite- cum -publicists-”socialists”? “publicites”?-who are leveraging their network of rich friends into a lucrative career of their own: seamlessly promoting both charitable and commercial causes. The alpha women of this group are Emilia Fanjul Pfeifler, 29, the daughter of sugar baron Jose (Pepe) Fanjul and honorary co-chair of the recent Young Collectors’ Night at the Winter Antique Show, and Countess Vanessa von Bismarck, the thirtysomething great-great granddaughter of “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck and an occasional vice chair for the Central Park Conservancy, both of whom have owned eponymous public-relations firms for several years. Slightly lower-profile examples include Ashley Schiff, the polo-playing sister-in-law of Karenna Gore who works for Steven Rubenstein at his father Howard’s publicity behemoth; and Tinsley Mortimer, married to Standard Oil heir Topper and until recently “the list girl” at the hard-partying firm Harrison and Shriftman.
Filling out the ranks are women who, like Ms. Davis, toil in-house at luxury brands: Samantha Gregory, who’s on the junior committee of the Boys Club New York and is the spokeswoman for leather-goods company Hogan; Allison Aston, daughter-in-law of society plastic surgeon Sherrell and the flack for jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris; and Alexandra Kimball, the great-granddaughter of former Brazilian dictator president Getulio Vargas and vice president of corporate communications for Oscar de la Renta. “I’m an ambassador of Oscar,” said Ms. Kimball, 31, whose job consists, in part, of wearing the designer’s clothes. “And it’s a delight!”
To veteran publicists, the cross-pollination makes perfect sense. “These girls know about fashion, O.K.?” said Peggy Siegal. “They grew up in wealthy homes. Their mothers wear beautiful clothes. Their grandmothers wore beautiful clothes.” Said Paul Wilmot, “These girls get hired because they represent the lifestyle of their products. If there’s a party to be given, these young people have a lot of contacts. If you’re launching-opening a store-their friends are the ones that you want to have go, it’s a natural thing. They don’t have to thrash around and find a mailing list, they just go to their own personal journals.”
It seems publicity has become a respectable career choice for a young woman with money, as interior-decorating (Chessy Rayner) or working at Christie’s (Nan Kempner) used to be-so long, of course, as you adopt the late, sedate Eleanor Lambert’s “Best-Dressed List” model of being a publicist, not the nouveau Lizzie Grubman mow-over-in-a-Mercedes sort. David Patrick Columbia, the editor of the Web site newyorksocialdiary.com, applauded the “socialists” for working at all, when they could be living off their trust funds. “Good for them!” he said. “They’re not go-go dancers or drug dealers.”
Chomping at the ‘Bit’
“I love Peggy Siegal-I think she’s a riot,” Ms. Davis said.
The cab transporting her had pulled over to the corner of 56th Street and Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Escada boutique, where Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler and a handful of her staff were putting together a nice little lunch for editors from InStyle , Harper’s Bazaar , W and Elle magazine, as well as some other “socialists.” It was a bit warm for fur that day, so Ms. Davis-dressed down in gray jeans, a Marni trench, a Banana Republic enamel neckpiece and a brown leather Hermès tote-was planning to represent the J. Mendel brand through sheer force of her face and personality. “I guarantee that girls who aren’t even thinking of it right now are going to see me at this lunch and be like, ‘Oh my God, I need something for Thursday night!’” she said. “And boom! Someone will wear something .”
Ms. Davis paid the taxi driver in singles, borrowing two from The Observer . She didn’t take a receipt, because she never files expense reports; she feels guilty charging her small company for quasi-personal outings. “I have a corporate credit card, I don’t use it,” she said, shrugging, as if she couldn’t quite account for her behavior. “Because it’s such a fine line, what I’m doing for work and what I’m doing for pleasure.”
There was indeed pleasure galore waiting inside the white, cocoon-like subterranean boutique: buttery lobster salad, crème brûlée, demitasses of espresso and, on the way out, a $575 Escada pocketbook in the color of the guest’s choice. Ms. Davis had selected a tawny bag. A steady stream of social butterflies fluttered by her center table to say hi, including Ms. Mortimer, jewelry designer and front-row regular Zani Gugelmann and Cristina Greeven Cuomo, the wife of Mario’s son Chris and vice chairwoman of Niche Media, which publishes Gotham . Ms. Davis excitedly pitched Ms. Cuomo an “amazing piece” her boss had created: a raspberry-colored dyed fox fur “bit”-a small shrug for the shoulders-with a chain clipping it together. “It’s really great,” she said. “It’s great for an ultimate gift guide; it’s a really great piece.” Ms. Cuomo swiftly BlackBerry’d an e-mail about the “bit” to the fashion assistant at Gotham , then kissed Ms. Davis on the cheek and took off. Mission accomplished, the J. Mendel publicist resumed chatting with Ms. Mortimer over whether she’d be attending a benefit at the Met later that week.
For Ms. Davis, this gig, which she began last April, is an entirely logical step in her life’s trajectory. She grew up in Greenwich, Conn., attending boarding school at Kent (one year behind Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler, who would go on to act as a kind of P.R. mentor, giving her “direct dials for Page Six”), and then the University of Southern California, where she majored in history. During her high-school summers, and briefly after college, the 5-foot-10 coed worked as a fashion model, represented by the Elite agency and appearing, among other places, in the pages of Sassy . “My heart wasn’t in it,” she said. “It was more of an excuse to go around and party. I loved the behind-the-scenes more.”
She got a job working with U.S. Steel heiress Samantha Phipps at a now-defunct firm called Network P.R. “It was a glorified internship,” she said-and a slightly rougher, more hip-hop scene than the familiar, well-manicured turf she treads now. At one party during the Network days, someone said to her, “Oh, you’re the door girl from Halo, right?”
“That was when I’m like, ‘O.K., I need to go get another job, this is ridiculous ,’” Ms. Davis said. She landed a position as a fashion assistant at Vogue , where she remained for three years, eventually graduating to associate market editor. She was recruited for the position at J. Mendel, which was transitioning from society furrier to ready-to-wear, by predecessor Melissa Gellman, who enjoyed collaborating with Ms. Davis. “Lauren looks killer in a sample size,” cooed Ms. Gellman, now the director of public relations at Theory.
Ms. Davis assured her boss-to-be that she’d find the job a snap. “Listen, I know all these social girls, these girls who are already your clients,” she told him. But learning to kowtow to the non-society celebrities that are the bread and butter of the business-the J. Los and Kate Bosworths of this world-took time. “I remember being like, ‘Are celebrities important? Are celebrities important? I’d much rather see Olivia Chantecaille walking around in one of our gowns than I would see some celebrity from some hit TV show,’” she said. Now, five shots of La Lopez, J. Mendel’d out in InTouch , People , etc., are pasted up beside her desk. “I see it now, I see the importance of it now,” she said.
‘A Walking Mannequin’
In the insular world of Manhattan, “socialists” come with their own celebrity clout. They are, perhaps, their own best spokesmodels.
At the Escada party, for instance, Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler wore the label’s fall animal-print shirt dress and slung a creamy white purse on her shoulder, and plenty of pictures of her later appeared on PatrickMcMullan.com.
“She’s a walking mannequin,” said another client, Intermix boutique owner Khajak Keledjian.
In these circles, the lines between socializing, publicizing and editorializing are easily traversed. After Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour attended Ms. Pfeifler’s 500-person wedding in the Dominican Republic’s Casa de Campo resort, owned by the latter’s father, the magazine gave the affair a four-page spread. In it, the new Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler (her husband, Brian, is a private banker) is pictured dancing in a couture Carolina Herrera dress. Does it come as any shock that Ms. Herrera, an old family friend and society fixture herself, hired Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler’s firm to throw the store opening party for her casual-wear line, CH Carolina Herrera in Coral Gables, Fla.?
Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler did not want to speak to The Observer about the “socialist ” phenomenon. In an e-mail sent by a staffer, she wrote, “My company is extremely important to me and I consider it a real business. I started this company four years ago from scratch …. I have worked really hard to come this far.”
Ms. Bismarck also declined to be interviewed, suggesting that “the premise of this article is not a positive one.”
One of their confidantes, the designer Alvin Valley, suggests that the two women went into this business precisely to avoid the spotlight. (Let’s not forget the old adage that a well-bred woman should only appear in the newspaper three times: birth, wedding and death.) “It takes her out of the eye of publicity,” Mr. Valley said of Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler. “Once you go into P.R., you get on the other side of it. Emilia hates to be photographed. She’s one of the most modest women. She doesn’t want to be used for that. She wants to put her own strategies into place and do it as a strategic company that promotes the products.”
“I think that sounds a little silly,” countered R. Couri Hay, another longtime promoter of society gatherings. “You wouldn’t become a publicist if you were uncomfortable with the press. I’m sure she’s very flattered to be in Vogue . And I’m sure it’s good for business. She’s trading on the fact of who she is to attract clients, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Mr. Hay told of one “socialist” who had left the P.R. business because, he said, “she felt like she was hired into a company where they really just wanted her to drag her friends to parties. She felt a little uncomfortable with it.”
Indeed, Ms. Davis admitted that she felt a bit awkward when she had to “call in the troops”-Serena Boardman, Ms. Fanjul Pfeifler, Vanessa Guerrand-Hermès, Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss, Ms. Mortimer, Ms. Cuomo-to line the front row of J. Mendel’s spring 2005 collection show in Bryant Park, at 11 a.m. “That was the first time that I felt like I was asking people something that was inconvenient-that I was really calling in favors,” she said. “Not because they didn’t want to see the show! It was: I needed them for the front row-for the cameras, for the editors, the buyers-to see that we have the support of the New York social world. That front row had to be full with A-listers.”
Musing further about how her work responsibilities had affected her social life, she said: “I live in two worlds, which is funny. I’ll be south of Houston tonight. That’s sort of a fun thing that I don’t know if people realize. If I’m not at a black-tie event, most likely I’m exchanging scurrilous glances with hipsters at the Bowery. I used to live down there, I love it down there. I don’t think the Upper East Side is the most inspiring place to live.”
Nor is the public-relations field the end of Ms. Davis’ ambitions. This coming winter, she’ll be a junior chairwoman for the Save Venice gala, and a chairwoman of the Frick’s junior party. She said she has applications into the journalism schools at Columbia and N.Y.U. and professed admiration for the work of best-selling socialite-authoress Plum Sykes. “I’ve always loved to write,” she said. “It would be such a natural progression.”