Fundraising With the Fashionable: Ms. Gillibrand Has Designs on Well-Dressed Donors

On a recent Thursday night, dozens of the city’s most fashionable women crammed into Donna Karan’s Urban Zen. It was, in the words of one person there, “a very well-heeled crowd—I mean, you could literally hear the heels.” Guests dined on Nobu crowd-pleasers like steak and toast and downed copious amounts of white wine.

This was no standard summer cocktail party, however. And although the top ticket price went for $10,000, and the proceeds went to the campaign account of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, it was no run-of-the-mill political fund-raiser, either.

Instead, guests were treated to a slick video about Ms. Gillibrand, a pounding speech about the stalled women’s movement from the senator—featuring many references to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and an equal number of “amen, sister!”s from the audience—and a panel discussion on “getting women off the sidelines” that included Diane Von Furstenburg, Ms. Karan and Tory Burch.

The women were, in other words, Ms. Gillibrand’s base.

Because ever since she was thrust into the role of a U.S. senator, Ms. Gillibrand has enthusiastically courted a wellspring of support largely untapped until now—the city’s deep-pocketed fashion designers, manufacturers and retailers.

“We have people who care about the auto industry, who care about energy, who care about farming; we as an industry don’t get a lot of attention,” said Nanette Lepore, who hosted a fund-raiser for Ms. Gillibrand in her home and who designed a couture T-shirt for the senator’s 2010 campaign. “To understand the industry as a whole and what we need to keep growing American fashion, to have a politician that gets it, is wonderful.”

When Ms. Gillibrand was announced as Ms. Clinton’s successor, she was in the shadow of probably the world’s most famous woman, inheriting a seat held by names like Kennedy, Buckley and Moynihan. Her counterpart, Charles Schumer, has cornered most of the financial sector for his own fund-raising. But soon after getting appointed to the seat, Ms. Gillibrand arranged for a private meeting with Ms. Von Furstenburg and Steven Kolb, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

In October, Ms. Gillibrand appeared in a photo spread in Vogue. Then in January, Ms. Gillibrand convened a roundtable at the Fashion Institute of Technology with a handful of the some of the top fashionistas in the city, including Elie Tahari, Rachel Roy and Adam Lippes, where they talked about copyright protection, financing and how to preserve the garment district in New York City.

“I was quite impressed,” said Mr. Kolb. “She certainly asked the right questions, and her interest seemed very genuine and authentic.”

She has since endeared herself to the fashion industry further by becoming one the Senate’s leading champions of gay issues. She has become a regular presence at Fashion’s Night Out. Last year, she was described by one fashion blog as looking “striking in a Nanette Lepore LBD and heels,” and photographs surfaced of her the next day dancing on the floor of Saks Fifth Avenue with an aide, her arms swinging around her head.

“In the same way that Hollywood and the political community found each other, now in this case you see that the fashion world and the political establishment have adopted each other, and love ain’t got nothing to do with it,” said Robert Zimmerman, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser. “It’s about issues having currency in each other’s world.”

At Urban Zen, after the last of the speeches, the hordes of well-dressed women went off into the June night, searching their phones for how to get to Blue Hill, Babbo and Bouley.

“For this state and this city, [fashion] is one of our major economic engines,” Ms. Gillibrand told The Observer after the last of the guests had left. She cited the examples of Ms. Von Furstenburg, Ms. Burch and Ms. Karan.

“So I really engage it as one of our major job generators. We have more designers in New York than Paris does! It’s a business that generates over $10 billion in salaries across our state. We want to make sure that they have a voice on issues that affect them.”

  Fundraising With the Fashionable: Ms. Gillibrand Has Designs on Well-Dressed Donors