December 23, 2010
Stars of the See-and-Be-Seen Upend Washington
“HAVE you met everyone you want to meet?” Jayne Sandman, flame haired and voluptuous, her pregnant belly layered with gossamer-thin tea-rose silk chiffon, asked her guests. “Is there anyone you need to meet?” echoed Barbara Martin, in a black silk dress adorned with metal chains, accessorized otherwise with a steady stream of acerbic commentary.

It was 9 o’clock on Ninth Street in Washington on an autumnal Friday night and Ms. Sandman and Ms. Martin, principals in the public relations firm BrandLinkDC, were holding court at the Long View Gallery, an art space built out of a mid-20th century Plymouth showroom. Three Porsches were parked at angles on the concrete floors; men in well-tailored suit jackets were taking turns sitting in the bucket seats, giggling like boys with toy cars.

The party — a promotional event for Urban Daddy and Porsche — was, guests agreed, a typical Barbara Martin/Jayne Sandman production: hip, unexpected, exclusive (name lists at the door handled by bubbly interns in stilettos) and yet remarkably, unusually friendly.

In the capital, Ms. Martin and Ms. Sandman have become known as reliable producers of the types of parties that draw a good crowd — and savvy executives, who have taken advantage of both the increase of luxury companies making the Washington area their home, and the heightened profile the Obama administration has brought to the city’s social scene.

Ms. Sandman and Ms. Martin are known in Washington for having beat out big-name firms to represent the W Hotel and then turning its rooftop — with its unparalleled views of the White House — into one of the premiere see-and-be-seen spots in the city. They have not only filled a hole in Washington’s social scene, they have also helped create it. On Thanksgiving weekend, when President Obama joked about how cool it was to stay at the W — the turkeys pardoned this year actually stayed at the W in preparation for their White House debut — the mention was a coup for Ms. Martin and Ms. Sandman.

That night at the Long View, the room was populated with a strange-yet-fabulous collection of Washingtonians: there were the consummate political insiders — Juleanna Glover, a lobbyist and Republican political consultant, and David O. Washington, a psychologist and former Obama aide who splits his time between Los Angeles and Washington connecting philanthropists (stars like Jennifer Lopez), business people and government higher-ups.

But there was also a cross section of distinctly nonpolitical types: television personalities and reality show stars (from “Real Housewives” and “The Apprentice”); socialites and those who document them; designers; and representatives of Washington’s 20-somethings, like Svetlana Legetic, the founder of Brightest Young Things, a Web-site-turned-events-organizing juggernaut that has become the locus of Washington’s new-cool art and music scene.

Everyone had stepped it up a bit for the event; no one wore jeans; no one wore the blue-suit-red-tie combo long associated with Washington. Previously, “a typical D.C. event revolved around philanthropic charitable causes,” said Michael Clements, executive editor for Washington Life magazine, explaining how the landscape has changed. “We’re really big on book launches, of political books, held at someone’s house in Kalorama. They’d bring in a caterer, inviting mostly media and politicians, and media in the sense of Chris Matthews, Wolf Blitzer, Ed Henry — those were D.C. celebs. It was very wonky.”

Sandman-and-Martin events bring in a sprinkling of national celebrities (like John Legend, Andre Agassi or Adrian Grenier) and cultivate a cross section of Washington celebrity (the White House assistant chef Sam Kass) that goes beyond politics (Philippe Cousteau, Tammy Haddad, Norah O’Donnell). Amy Argetsinger, who writes the Reliable Source column in The Washington Post, said there was “kind of a misperception that if you do something in D.C.” it had to be “high-minded or good cause or educational: the panel discussion after documentary film or whatever.”

“People in D.C. are like everyone: they want a free cocktail and some people around them who seem maybe cooler than they are, and Jayne and Barbara get that,” Ms. Argetsinger said.

Indeed, the Urban Daddy/Porsche event capped a whirlwind week of glitz and pop and chardonnay from Bethesda Row book parties (one with Lauren Weisberger, the other with Ms. O’Donnell of MSNBC ) to the opening event for the new Room and Board store, housed in a former Model T showroom. That evening boasted a select crowd from Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota (Room and Board is a Minnesota company) to the president of the Corcoran. Dr. Washington, the former Obama aide, says he sees the duo as “the architects of the new Washington.”

Ms. Sandman, 31, and Ms. Martin, 40, are a yin and yang pairing. Ms. Sandman is married to Jeff Dufour, Urban Daddy’s Washington editor; she and her husband are society party fixtures (Mark Ein, venture capitalist and owner of the city’s team-tennis franchise, gave them a boldface-name engagement party on the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel).

Ms. Martin, whose husband, John, works for a small consulting firm, has two children and is a bit more behind the scenes. She is known for keeping absurd hours and pummeling journalists with a steady stream of hilarious self-deprecation. (An e-mail before the Porsche event: “Spent the morning pecking away at gift-guide pitches while applying anything in all bathroom cabinets below my eyes in a futile attempt to relieve the gigantic bags under them. No luck.”)

“They are self-aware,” said Ms. Glover, the lobbyist, whose own parties are coveted invites. “They get that gossip drives the conversation, but all of that is handled with a degree of humor.”

In 2000, Ms. Sandman began interning, as an undergraduate, at Washington Life, then a fledgling magazine. Degree in hand, she became the marketing director for the magazine.

Five years later she became publisher of Capitol File magazine, which quickly became known for its glitzy name-drawing parties, especially those around Washington’s “prom,” the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Upon leaving the magazine, Ms. Sandman produced a number of high profile inauguration events, including cocktail parties headlined by Hollywood celebrities like Tobey Maguire.

Ms. Martin came later to luxe, having spent seven years as the marketing director for Nielsen Business Media working on business-to-business events managing P.R., marketing and advertising for shows like PhotoPlus Expo. On her own, she began collecting clients across Washington and used a year’s worth of vacation by commuting, over lunch each day, from Nielsen’s Virginia offices to Washington to stage an introductory party for Artefacto, the luxury furniture brand.

The incremental labor paid off. Joining, eventually, the larger national firm BrandLink, which is run by Ms. Martin’s sister, Carol Bell, Ms. Martin was able to have national backup (especially useful for celebrity placements) and local hand-holding for her Washington clients. Ms. Martin and Ms. Sandman met in 2003 while working on charity events.

THEY won the W Hotel contract before they had actually incorporated. “We looked at several agencies both locally and nationally,” said Ed Baten, general manager for the W. After meeting BrandLinkDC, “we walked away with the sense that they get it.”

With the W in their portfolio, Ms. Martin and Ms. Sandman found that others quickly followed. The two have now created events for Gilt Groupe, The Huffington Post, Apartment Therapy, the Jeté Society of the Washington Ballet, Nanette Lepore and The Week magazine, among dozens of others. Every party takes a whimsical eye to space and guest lists with an understanding of how Washington works.

“There were always events, but what was missing before was a sense of play,” said Karen Sommer Shalett, editor in chief of DC Magazine. “Where Jayne and Barbara have thrived is that they use strategy to capture momentum of a changing, thriving city but also effectively educating their clients on how to access this new culture.