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ON VENN FREDERIC Dress by Zoe Arku Designs; ring by Dani Barbe; vintage bracelets.


Women of Style

By Michael McCarthy

Photography by Greg Powers | Hair by Michael Gulley and Kait Ruzic, Logan 14 | Makeup by Gabriela Kim, Logan 14 ( | Shot on location at The Bartlett, Arlington (


Fall brings out fanfare for fashion, along with the local disciples of all things stylish. Our class of 2016 represents a range of professions—from culinary to business consulting—and they have one thing in common: exceptional taste.

Desirée Venn Frederic
Desirée Venn Frederic is the great transformer. Watch her at a gallery opening or a midweek soiree around town. Her presence, akin to Hollywood glitterati, instantly changes a room. It’s not merely her 5-foot 10-inch frame. Nor is it her voice, at once soft and commanding. Instead, no matter the occasion, Venn Frederic showcases some of the most remarkable vintage couture and custom dresses in the city. The Sierra Leone native and owner of the boutique Nomad Yard Collectiv is drawn to works by Zandra Rhodes, Selro, Ossie Clark, Pucci and Gianfranco Ferré. “As an African woman, I’ve always found it necessary to create space for myself in this world through the way I dress,” she says. “[I’ve] developed an approach that appears impractical to the observer, yet whole and self-assured. That’s my understanding of fashion.” Venn Frederic has plenty of fashion heroes, including Dera Tompkins, Leigh George and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller fame. But it’s the woman who understands herself in relation to fashion that draws Venn Frederic’s loudest praise. “I applaud women who dress for themselves and make the choice to engage and participate in crafting their own narratives. Fashion attests to the human capacity to change, and a woman who is self-aware possesses an irrefutable confidence,” she says. “I’m particularly drawn to women with stories to tell. The world wonders how she does it because they expect—and some want her to be—weak and destroyed. But even in the face of adversity, she’s put together and stands tall. Those are the women who inspire me. On my worst days, I must look good. It makes the seemingly bad more tolerable.”

Courtney Banks Spaeth
Courtney Banks Spaeth knows the buttoned-up world better than most. She sees the proper suits, the conservative heels and make-no-aesthetic-waves accessories. And through it all, the CEO of growth[period], which provides tailored business-development and strategic-merger acquisition support for clients in commercial and federal markets, has been a beacon of style. She wears lots of Giambattista Valli, Alexander McQueen and Michael Kors, but Dolce & Gabbana is her designer of choice, especially for big events (“They really design well for my figure,” she says). “I’ve always loved fashion,” says Spaeth, who has also worked for the Clinton administration and holds a master’s degree from Georgetown in national security studies. “My grandparents used to watch old movies from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and I always loved the clothes the women wore, especially anything Edith Head designed.” Accessories, while not an obsession for this auburn-haired entrepreneur, are certainly a passion. “Maison Margiela has made a great leopard-pattern pony-skin bag I’m eyeing for fall. For jewelry, my accessories tend to be classic: always my wedding rings, a small vintage diamond bracelet during the day with diamond studs. At night, the jewelry really depends on my outfit and what the event is. If we’re going all out for black-tie events, I get more adventurous. Lately, because I have a 5-month-old baby, I find a lot of pacifiers in my purse. I’m not sure if they count as an accessory or not!”

ON BLAKE Jone assymetrical top by Club Monaco; pleated wide-leg pants by Vincetta; Elsa cuff by Sophie Blake; Margot cuff by Sophie Blake.

Peggy Sparks
If there’s a more effervescent or charming person in the arts community in Washington, he or she would need to overtake Peggy Sparks, owner of Georgetown’s Artist’s Proof gallery. Maybe one of the reasons for her cheery vibe is the fashion freedom she experiences every day. “One of the greatest job perks in the art business is that I get to wear just about anything I want and get away with it,” says Sparks, a Singapore native who worked in cities like Shanghai and Dubai before settling in the District a few years ago. “I can get away with wearing a razorback form-fitting dress with ballet flats [one day] and distressed denims with 4-inch stilettos [the next]. And then I’ll wear a formal white suit to a client meeting, and no one questions the appropriateness of all three styles.” Sparks, who admits she was a geeky kid, supports smaller design boutiques such as Collate The Label, and she’s always had a soft spot for Comme des Garçons (“I love the deconstructed and androgynous haute-couture appeal of the label,” she notes). “I recently had a ring designed by Dino Lonzano of Market Street Design,” she says. “The five-band ring is clean, symmetrical and therefore timeless. The man is brilliant.” Her take on accessories comes down to two essential elements that she never leaves home without: “My watch and my car,” Sparks says, laughing. “My J12 Chanel watch and my BMW i3 are my constant companions. I’ve always been a BMW kind of girl—I watch the UK’s version of Top Gear religiously—and moving on from the 5 Series to the all-electric i3 was an easy enough move for me. I didn’t quite realize that I would enjoy driving as much as I do now.”

Sophie Blake
Making the world a prettier place has been Sophie Blake’s passion since she was a child. The renowned New York jewelry designer, who now calls the DC area home, says her fashion sense has changed over time. “I used to experiment a lot more when I was young, and I’d always buy trendy pieces,” says Blake, whose exquisite jewelry has been featured everywhere from Glamour to Vogue. Her eponymous shop resides in Fairfax. “I’ve evolved to more staple pieces with unique cuts. I wear what suits my body type and the core of my style, which is more minimalistic and chic.” Blake adores Rag & Bone, Vince, Shaina Mote and Club Monaco, and she plays up the accessories in her life, including her go-to ombre gold Gucci bag. “I was on my honeymoon in Hawaii, and it was a gift to myself for graduating from diving school in three days,” she explains with a laugh. “It was a big milestone for me because I was terrified of being under water!” Blake also says her outfits aren’t complete without the almighty shoe. “I love Giuseppe Zanotti and pretty much anything with Italian leather.” The jewelry demigoddess possesses a strong romantic streak, so she won’t leave home without her wedding band and the rings she designed, Elodie and Denisa. “Fashion should be effortless and comfortable—you want to be confident wearing pieces that let you move about your day as you want.”

ON CARROLL Dress by Love and Lemons; shoes by Elle Laurie.

Jennifer Carroll
When millions of people have scrutinized your every move in the kitchen on national television, the act of being in the fashion spotlight every day might not seem quite as daunting. And Top Chef contestant Jennifer Carroll would agree. The DC transplant, who recently teamed with Mike Isabella to open Requin in Fairfax, Va., says one of her favorite pastimes is to hit boutiques and “try on a million things, [including brands] I know I’ll love and clothes I think are silly or out there,” she says. “I’ve always been into fashion. The way I dress expresses how I feel at certain times—[it could be] comfy or happy—[so you might see me in] heels, black, gray, skinny jeans or a sexy dress.” Carroll wears conventional chef’s garb during the day, but she pushes the boundaries of her look once the dinner crowd thins for the night or when she has days off. She favors Elle Laurie, Rachel Roy, LAMB and Marciano. “With accessories, I like mixing big statement pieces with wispy delicate ones. [And I love] vintage handbags, fun heels, belts and the diamond earrings I wear every day.” For many gourmands in DC and beyond, Carroll is a culinary hero, so it’s heartening to know she has heroes of her own, including those who boldly punch holes in fashion boundaries. Carroll gushes over Gwen Stefani. “She pushes the edge sometimes with her style, which I like. She also tones it up and down perfectly: She looks [amazing] in jeans and sweats, and then superdramatic in dresses. I love it.” And it’s safe to say that Carroll’s adoring fans feel the same way about her sense of inimitable style.

Sonya Gavankar
It’s safe to say that Sonya Gavankar has forged one of most interesting careers of any former Miss DC winner. The media dynamo has hosted programs on PBS and CBS affiliates, among other national networks. In addition to hosting live discussions with newsmakers at the Newseum, she also has provided voiceovers and on-screen appearances at the Pennsylvania Avenue museum space. She jokes that her personal style is stewardess-meets-whimsical punk. “I love structure that shows off the feminine form and a hint of uniform,” she says. “I have almost no black in my closet. When your hair and eyes are dark and your skin is brown, your crave the colors of the crayon box.” Gavankar favors Ted Baker and Byron Lars, though she’s not led by labels. “When I was a kid and begged for the jeans everyone else had, my mom handed me a piece of leather and asked if I wanted someone else’s name on my butt!” Gavankar’s current fashion choices follow a simple formula: Style should be a visual representation of one’s identity. “My current fashion muse is Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife,” she says. “I refer to season three as “When Diane and Alicia Discover Neiman Marcus.” Somehow, I also seem to buy the same outfit as the wife of our presidential candidates—it’s going to be interesting to see how my style is affected by the upcoming election!”