Girl Power, Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan Style

Women: Inspiration and Enterprise conference kicks off with Ladies Night dinner at Le Caprice

donna e1316561783289 Girl Power, Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan StyleAs it often does, autumn arrived with an unexpected chilly nudge to New York last Friday, and underprepared guests shivered slightly as they waited outside Le Caprice. They were awaiting entrance to Ladies Night, the kickoff event for the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise (WIE), a conference held over the past week. 

As attendees, conference supporters and panel speakers began to stream into the restaurant at the Pierre Hotel, it became apparent to photographers that the lighting, while warm, was too dim. An intern was sent to fetch a lamp, which was promptly set up next to the entrance, all the better to capture the glamorous guests’ faces. Chanel Iman, Anh Duong, Glenda Bailey, Alina Cho, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Lily Cole and Alek Wek were soon standing by the bar, chatting and posing for photographs.

The Observer spoke to consummate supermodel and activist Iman (the original, one-named Iman), who eagerly spoke about her most recent cause célèbre, the Somalian food crisis. “We need to make sure that children do not get malnutrition to the point of no return,” she implored. Be aware, be aware. We all love fashion, but there are other things happening out there.”

Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon soon arrived, looking stunning in a leopard-print frock paired with a cherry-red clutch. Ms. Mellon sang WIE’s praises. “It fights for women’s rights. It inspires, encourages young women,” she said. The designer added that her own struggle as a businesswoman informed her desire to speak at the conference. “There’s still a lot of change that needs to be made, and I know that from my own personal experience in business, particularly dealing with the private equity and financial world,” Ms. Mellon said.

A bespectacled man entered the restaurant, immediately drawing the attention of the strongly female-heavy crowd. A man? At Ladies Night? The man, it turned out, was no girl’s club crasher, but rather Salman Rushdie, who appeared with a young woman on his arm. The Observer asked Mr. Rushdie how he was involved in the women’s empowerment movement. “Well I’m not a woman, there is that,” the author said. “I’m very privileged to be one of the few nonwomen to be here tonight,” Mr. Rushdie said (leaving us slightly curious why he didn’t simply refer to himself as a man). “I have a lot of women friends, and a lot of my life I’ve been an honorary chick,” Mr. Rushdie said with a good-hearted laugh.

The room of women (and Mr. Rushdie) waited on tenterhooks for slated guest Jane Fonda to arrive, but as it turned out, the lifelong feminist  never appeared. Nevertheless, the evening carried on, as guests continued to sip drinks and eagerly discuss the upcoming conference.

Soon guests found their seats and listened to an introduction by hosts Donna Karan and Arianna Huffington. “We first of all want to say what a joy it is for us to have the second year of WIE, Women: Inspiration and Enterprise, and to see so many women who could be Donna and my daughters. I absolutely love that,” Ms. Huffington said. “Granddaughters!” Ms. Karan said, correcting her. “Actually, that’s true, Donna was a very, very early starter,” Ms. Huffington said, followed by a gracious chuckle from the audience.

“Let’s face it: Men have screwed up the definition of success. Except for Salman, of course,” she added with a nod to the token male guest. “You know they make success about working around the clock, grinding yourself into the ground, having a heart attack in your 50s. And we are saying no, there is another way to do success and happiness, which are all about balance and taking care of yourselves,” she said to the cheering crowd of women.

After the opening remarks, salads were served to hungry guests, many of whom had come to the restaurant straight from work. Women chatted, networked, and nibbled on halibut as the evening continued. Waiters were standing at attention with bottles of wine, and no glasses went unfilled.

The Observer spoke to Ms. Karan, who is in fact a grandmother, but of course looked youthful and energetic in her draping black tunic. We asked her which women inspire her most. “Hillary Clinton,” the designer replied without skipping a beat. “I adore her. And I look at Hillary and think of all that she has done, does and continues to do …. It’s beyond my understanding as a woman and for a woman,” she said with obvious admiration. “But for me, ‘woman’ does not mean necessarily female. The word woman has a man in every woman. It’s a feminine action of caring, taking and sharing and, you know, multitasking.” We pondered Ms. Karan’s philosophy of womanhood as she continued to talk about her work in Haiti and her most recent fashion show. The show, she said, was a success. Speaking of fashion, we noticed Ms. Karan’s oversize wooden bangles, part of the Haitian craftwork she has promoted in her line. “They’re like my wedding ring. I never take them off,” she admitted, before being called away to greet more guests.

As the clock neared 10, the evening concluded in good spirits. With a flutter of exchanged business cards and hugs, guests prepared themselves to depart, emerging once again into the cool fall air.

eknutsen@observer.com