Brian Ellner looked at home as he made his way through the crowd of fashion designers, style editors and various trendistas sipping mulled wine at Kevin Carrigan’s sprawling Chelsea loft last December. Dressed in what appeared to be the male uniform of the evening-an elegant black velvet blazer and designer jeans-he charmed old friends and new acquaintances with equal aplomb. Mr. Carrigan, the creative director of CK and Calvin Klein, had invited a hundred of his most fabulous friends to support Mr. Ellner is his latest venture. But was he launching a new line of men’s moisturizers, or perhaps opening yet another overpriced boutique in the meatpacking district?
As it turns out, the 34-year-old lawyer is one of a handful of Democratic candidates running in the crowded 2005 race for Manhattan Borough President, and the party was designed to raise money and build awareness with a constituency not known for its rabid interest in municipal affairs: the fashion industry.
Tapping friends in highly fashionable places and a fund-raising invite list that reads like a fall issue of Vogue, the candidate is hoping to make politics the new black, stitching together a politico-fashionista patchwork with the precision of a Prada loafer.
Mr. Ellner, an openly gay attorney who works in the litigation department of O’Melveny and Myers, is a true native son. He grew up in rent-stabilized Stuyvesant Town and attended public city schools before heading to the more private bastions of Dartmouth and Harvard Law. His entrée into politics came with an appointment to Community Board 5 in 1997. And like a miniaturized version of the Hollywood–Capitol Hill axis that Bill Clinton nurtured, Mr. Ellner has been utilizing the attraction that people feel for political power to create big-name alliances.
He now cites fashion P.R. powerhouse Ed Filipowksi and Peter Arnold, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, as close advisors. And just as Richard Nixon turned to Henry Kissinger on matters of foreign policy, Mr. Ellner has Jeffrey Kalinsky, the owner of Jeffrey New York, for equally crucial guidance.
“The political part is not my forte,” said Mr. Kalinsky, who has offered to help Mr. Ellner with wardrobe refinements. “But Brian looks every bit the part of a U.S. Senator in training. He almost evokes a modern-day Kennedy.”
Like J.F.K., Mr. Ellner is a charismatic and debonair liberal. And, given the sartorial limits of civil servitude, where a gray Brooks Brothers sack suit is considered chic, being well put together is certainly a differentiator. Still, it’s hard to see what style has to do with making sure the borough’s garbage gets collected.
But while Mr. Ellner may be overdressed and inexperienced relative to the rest of the field of career politicians vying for the Beep’s office-his highest elected position was the presidency of the District 2 School Board, though he did work briefly for former Public Advocate Mark Green-he is passionate about issues ranging from civil rights (he supports the legalization of same-sex marriage) to affordable housing (he fears Manhattan may soon become an “outdoor mall for millionaires”).
And despite an affinity for what Mr. Kalinsky calls “modern classic” suits, the dapper candidate claims to be a fashion novice, more interested in his weekly pick-up basketball game than this season’s couture collections. Whether this is true or simply a man-of-the-people pose, his boyfriend Simon Holloway, a senior design director of the women’s collection at Ralph Lauren, brings a closetful of insider influence to the endeavor.
“Before I met Simon, I didn’t know the difference between a Manolo and a Mombasa,” said Mr. Ellner. In addition to teaching his boyfriend to distinguish iconic Italian footwear from rare Yves Saint Laurent handbags, Mr. Holloway provides a crucial point of entry into the city’s fashion elite.
These connections have helped attract A-list star power to the campaign, including Diane von Furstenberg and culture czarina Ingrid Sischy. The two will host an “Ellner for Manhattan” fash bash for 600 guests at Ms. von Furstenburg’s meatpacking district studio in late March. And on March 13, some supporters are throwing a fund-raiser at the salon of Sally Hershberger, the style impresario known for her $600 haircuts and $1,000 jeans. Tim Gunn of Project Runway is also a supporter.
Whether the constituency that can spot a DVF wrap dress and reads Interview magazine will trudge out to vote on primary day remains to be seen, but they have been generous with their pocketbooks.
According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, as of Jan. 18, 2005 (the last legal filing deadline), Mr. Ellner had raised just under $170,000. Among the more fashionable names on his donor list are downtown darling Zac Posen; Mark Lee, the newly installed president of Gucci; designer Lela Rose, a red-blooded Texan who, ironically, has created several outfits worn by First Daughters Barbara and Jenna Bush; and Project Runway star Tim Gunn, the fashion director of the Parsons School of Design.
With New York City’s public matching-funds program, this figure could translate into almost $500,000. By law, candidates for Borough President can only spend $1.289 million. Mr. Ellner has some work to do, but he’s off to a robust start. This is partially due to his aggressiveness at throwing fund-raisers, most of which have had a distinctly fabulous feel.
High fashion and politics are not the strangest of bedfellows. But while P. Diddy encouraged citizens to “Vote or Die” and designer Marc Jacobs donated his talents to Downtown for Democracy, they were canvassing on the national stage. Mr. Ellner’s fashion partnership is unique at the local level, where fixing potholes is often the most glamorous item on the agenda.
“Historically, fashion people have not been at the front lines of politics in New York City,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University’s Wagner School. The irony is that the city’s apparel industry generates nearly $35 billion in revenues annually and employs 150,000 people, making it a sector well worth embracing.
And in New York City, where participation in municipal elections hovers at about 25 percent of registered voters, enlisting new voters can tip the scales. Moreover, because the Manhattan Borough Presidency is often decided by a crowded Democratic primary and not a general election, a candidate can win with a relatively small percentage of the vote. For Mr. Ellner, victory could mean a critical mass of as few as 35,000 well-dressed supporters who pull his lever on primary day.
There are, however, risks involved with relying on the ultra-fashionable as a base of support.
“I’ve never voted for Borough President, and I’m not proud of that,” said Michelle Giuliano, an executive at Burberry. She did reveal her own rationale for why tapping the fashion crowd made political sense: “We may not be curing cancer, but we are some of the most fun people in the city. And we look fabulous.”
This latter fact was evident at the recent holiday-themed Ellner fund-raiser hosted by Kevin Carrigan, the creative director of CK and Calvin Klein.
“I admire the causes Brian is fighting for,” said Mr. Carrigan, “even though I cannot actually vote for him.” Mr. Carrigan is British, so he showed his support by donating the use of his sprawling Chelsea loft, a modernist’s paradise awash in earthy hues and mid-century furnishings.
Some of the guests who were eligible to vote shared Mr. Carrigan’s admiration for Mr. Ellner, even if they didn’t understand the specific nuances of the office for which he’s campaigning.
“It sounds as if [Borough Presidents] follow up on agendas and make sure promises are being kept,” said Beth Mayer, a vice president of merchandising at Ellen Tracy. A born-and-bred Republican, Ms. Mayer confessed that she was planning to cross party lines to vote for Mr. Ellner. However, as election laws would have it, only registered Democrats can participate in the Democratic primary.
Michael Giannelli, a vice president of design at the Gap, was more vocal about his uncertainty. “Borough President? What is that?” said Mr. Giannelli, who matched a chocolate-brown velvet Paul Smith blazer with Adriano Goldschmied jeans. “Do they go to fashion shows?”
According to the office of current Manhattan Borough President, C. Virginia Fields, the role has more to do with serving as an advocate for the needs of Manhattan and its more than 1.5 million residents than it does with mingling under the white tents of Bryant Park, though the semi-annual shows do fall within the Borough President’s geographic purview.
Despite the confusion of some of his supporters regarding the office he seeks, Mr. Ellner is outspoken, especially on the one issue that promises to dominate the 2005 citywide elections: the proposed $1.4 billion football stadium for the New York Jets on the West Side of Manhattan. As it turns out, so are several of his fashion-world supporters.
“I know I’m a lone wolf on this, but I think the stadium would be good for urban renewal,” said Mr. Giannelli, between servings of mulled wine at the Carrigan affair. “I mean, just picture Madonna under a retractable roof. It’s breathtaking!”
Mr. Ellner, an avid Jets fan, disagreed, citing quality-of-life issues and more beneficial possible uses for the funds, such as education and keeping Manhattan safe. “The Jets played in Flushing, Queens, when I was young,” said Mr. Ellner, who was also dressed in a dark velvet blazer and jeans. “I am more than happy to take the 7 train to home games.” But if his fashionable friends come through next September, Mr. Ellner’s attentions may soon be focused on the borough due west of Queens.