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Philanthropy Chic

Angela Valdez is a freelance writer in Washington DC.

It's unfashionable to be too glamorous during a recession, and so it seems as if every event in Washington is tied to a good cause these days. Take the grand opening of a Guess store in downtown Washington last week. There was booze and food and gift bags. And all purchases came with a free dose of the warm and fuzzies: A portion of the proceeds went to Fashion Fights Poverty, "an organization dedicated to raising awareness for initiatives that encourage sustainable means of challenging global poverty." Whatever that means.

When I arrive at the address, there's a line down the block and a girl with a clipboard shaking her head at two annoyed young women. I, however, am on the list and with "the media," so I get in fast. I find Michael Dumlao, the co-founder of Fashion Fights Poverty, standing next to a display of distressed men's jeans.

"This is a very political event," he tells me. Dumlao, who was born in the Philippines 28 years ago and then raised in Sydney, looks like a rakish cowboy, with a blue gingham cowboy shirt and a yellow bandanna around his neck. His organization fights poverty by throwing parties like tonight's grand opening. Attendees can get 20 percent off their purchase if they donate $5 to a charity called Nest, which gives loans to businesses owned by women. Fashion Fights Poverty's main event is its annual gala, and last year's, hosted by Parker Posey, raised $10,000 for Nest, Dumlao says. When I ask why FFP hasn't registered with the IRS as a 501c3 charitable foundation, he insists that his "is not a company; it's a non-profit." Dumlao also co-founded, with Kadrieka Maiden, a PR firm called Style and Image Network, whose biggest client is Fashion Fights Poverty.

So, what makes the Guess grand opening so political? Dumlao says the party is political because it addresses the indefensible "lack of commerce in philanthropy." He rattles off a list of other goals--"exposure, contributing to fashion, culture, politics, humanitarian development, job creation"--but I'm distracted by all the commerce. There are long lines into the dressing rooms and plenty of strawberry bellinis floating around to loosen things up. One rail-thin girl seems to have had too many of the pink drinks, and collapses under a rack of mini skirts. A Wackenhut security guard, one of many, hustles her out of the store on his shoulder. A pretty George Washington University transfer student (who refuses to talk about her hair, which is ratted into one giant snake-like dreadlock) asks me if the waiters are carding. The clothing seems decidedly un-DC: cargo cut-offs embossed with gold peace signs, see-through shirts with zippers up the front, no khakis in sight. I stop to talk to Katherine Kennedy, a young socialite who often appears on the host committees for fund-raising parties. She's excited to start promotions for her part in the DC-based reality show, "Blonde Charity Mafia," which will run for six weeks on Tuesday nights this summer on the CW.

Charity events have long been part of the self-perpetuating machine of the Washington elite--and most of the people I talk to have no idea what Fashion Fights Poverty does. Many of them came just because they were on FFP's list. The special events coordinator from Saks Fifth Avenue, a petite woman in a nubby wool blazer, spends most of the evening just observing, drooling over the demographic. "We don't get anything like this," she says. Shopkeepers tell me sales have been brisk. And it's for such a good cause!

--Angela Valdez