I’ve been going to the American Community Research Initiative on AIDS (Acria) holiday dinner for as long as they’ve been having it, which is 13 years. Originally called Cria, the organization has always been particularly strong in the fashion and arts communities, and it is known for its art auctions. You can take a look on the Web site and get a feel for its art world connections. (They maintain a catalog of donated art on the Internet at all times, and I always look after an event, even if I attend, to see if I missed anything.)
The holiday dinner was once a different beast, though. It was a remarkably noncommercial affair with a different host every year (Diane Von Furstenberg, Ross Bleckner, Carolina Herrera), often at their private homes. There were a few constants: a high dinner price (it was the first time I paid $1,000 of my own money without getting a seat at Lincoln Center in the bargain), a limited guest list with 10 tables of 10, and really clever (if modest) decor. Plus, it was a real holiday party. At Ross Bleckner’s house there was a Christmas tree. Mrs. Herrera wrapped little presents for her guests.
My favorite year was when they had an artist who made centerpiece lamps out of Christmas lights and empty beer six packs. Just like at a wedding, you looked under your plate and whoever had a card won the lighting unit of cans, and I was jealous that my guest Kim Vernon was our table’s big winner.
The event has changed, like they all do. For starters, there are way more people. Secondly, for the last six years or so the event has been held at the loft of deceased artist Stephen Weiss, who was married to co-chair Donna Karan. She and her company began their generous involvement through In Style magazine, where they are an important advertiser.
I bear some responsibility. I brought In Style’s then executive editor Charla Lawhon as a guest one year, the next year I sold them a table, and in no time editor Martha Nelson (now editorial director of the People Group) had joined Acria’s board and ushered in Donna Karan. The event grew into the organization’s biggest annual fund-raiser.
While in many ways the Donna Karan space, which now houses her Urban Zen boutique, is too good to be true, it’s a giant, rarely utilized site with bathrooms, a kitchen space, and even an upstairs outdoor deck. And she’s a real charity trooper. (I worked with her and her team on the Hamptons Super Saturday shopping extravaganza founded by Liz Tilberis for Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation; she and Next Model Management’s Faith Kates Kogan really took a modest backyard affair and turned it into a Hamptons community cornerstone with hundreds of sponsors and participants and thousands of shoppers.)
But I’ve noticed that some of the other fashion luminaries have fallen by the wayside, along with a number of regulars. I got bored with dinner in the same locale.
So on Monday night I set out for the West Village as a press guest for cocktails only, out of loyalty more than interest, and I’m pleased to report that I was wowed.
The room at the Stephen Weiss Studio, which is usually an uninteresting white box, looked amazing. For starters, it was pitch black. From the ceiling, hundreds of battery-powered candles hung at varying heights, Harry Potter-style, the darkness obscuring the filaments and occasional dead lithium. The tables, all rectangles of various shapes, were magnificently decorated with 24’ Georg Jensen art vases in polished stainless in the shape of an upside down Pi symbol. Large low wood bowls housed real silver-gilded artichokes (that, shh, I had to squeeze). There were also glass cylinders, which provided an alternate shape and texture. Décor was by Angela Giannopolus of the SC3 Group. Kudos.
But the real highlights were these giant Cannon 2.5K LCD projections in front and back done by New Version Productions. I’m guessing 36 feet wide and 10 feet tall, both displayed close-up images of burning candles, an arty version of the television program Yule Log. (Do they still air it? I hope so.)
My one quibble was that the candles on the table, large ivory pillars, were a bit big and clumsy and took away from sponsor Georg Jensen's pieces. One assumes they were there to echo the projections, but those candles were more slender and burned down, as I wish the pillars had been.
Catering was by Taste, but I didn’t stay so I can’t say. But I did notice the same porcini purée with Parmesan on bread that I mentioned here just days ago, and it wasn’t quite as mushroomy this time. But I was busy pouring over the artwork at the silent auction, rapt as always, so I barely even noticed. I just heard the auction raised $70,000, which in this economy is an impressive sum. Congrats Acria.