Daring D.C. to dress

Being a woman in Washington — particularly on K Street, in the White House and on Capitol Hill — means dressing the part. The Washington woman must dress conservatively, and not too provocatively. More boardroom than bedroom, but with a reception, after-work date or cocktail party in mind.

For some, this means donning the Ann Taylor uniform, a black suit, scarf and pearls, or scouring Nordstrom’s racks of suits. For others, this now means stepping out of the mold and daring to dress with flare.

In periwinkle blue, for instance. It’s a classic, feminine color that makes you think of something pretty, a color that insists on the whimsical and abhors a boring, bland time.

At least that is what co-owners Gretchen Hitchner and Elizabeth Mason are hoping with Periwinkle, their brand-new boutique that opened Sept. 15 and already caters to the likes of Lea Berman, the White House social secretary, and several aides to Lynne Cheney — Stephanie Lumbers, Cheney’s chief of staff; Mary Beth Farr, Cheney’s scheduler; Liz Denny, Cheney’s social secretary — and many Capitol Hill aides looking to spruce up their wardrobes.

Walk into Periwinkle, in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., and it is as though you’ve stepped into your best-dressed friend’s living room — and finally, it’s time to raid her closet.

It’s the kind of place where the proprietors offer you a glass of wine, a soda or bottled water. The floors are an exquisite hardwood; the walls are, naturally, periwinkle blue. The clothes — everything from suits and dresses to jeans and sexy, sparkly tops to wear out on the town — are warm, stylish and sophisticated. The fabrics are silk, corduroy, tweed, velvet and faux fur. The colors are bright pinks and fuchsias as well as the fall’s rich browns, moss greens and deep purples — with an unexpected turquoise velvet in the mix.

The offerings include gorgeous beaded necklaces, shoes and Australian handbags that are meant to replicate those of Isabella Fiore.

If Periwinkle doesn’t feel like any store in Washington it’s because the clothing comes from a show in Manhattan. Featured designers include Anni Kuan, Irene Van Ryb, Rachel Roy, Pow Wow, Tibi, Robin Naylor, Tracy Reese and Rachelle.

“It’s like shopping at 4,000 stores, and it’s totally overwhelming,” Hitchner says of the shopping spree. Before opening Periwinkle, she was press secretary to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) for five years and to Rep. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) for five years before that.

Don’t mind Hitchner’s 8-month-old son, Mark, who may be crawling around on the carpet during a visit. It was becoming a mother, in February, that helped Hitchner decide not to return to Capitol Hill.

Hitchner’s close friend Mason worked in myriad Bush administration jobs, the most recent of which was in vice presidential operations of the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign until February this year. Before that, she was Lynne Cheney’s scheduler, and before that she worked for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Mason got into the political game in 1996 by working advance for the Dole-Kemp presidential campaign.

Her philosophy is simple: Give women something different. “I don’t know that there is anything wrong with [the existing choices],” she says, “but it wasn’t as exciting as it could be. We’re not trying to replace your basic black suit. We’re trying to add to it.”

Sift through the racks and you come across items such as a brushed lam� trench, a waist-length rabbit-fur jacket, a copper leather jacket and a pair of flaming-hot-pink velvet pants.

“We do have a few pieces that are more fashion-forward as they say,” Mason says. Clothing ranges in price — jeans cost from $88 to more than $200, suits from $350 to $700.

Hitchner and Mason, both in their early 30s, are trying to tap into the market segment they came from. They are delighted with their new work. Mason, a tall blonde, has long been admired by women friends for her sense of style. “This is like a dream since I was a little kid,” she says.

For Hitchner, a more petite blonde who says she’s not nearly as fashion-forward as Mason, it was something that ministered to her love of shopping and allowed her the convenience of caring for her son. “It was such a career change for both of us,” she says. “There are so many things to worry about, so many ways you can fail.”

Despite their political differences, the pair came together several years ago by way of a book club and because they both worked stints at Harold’s, a clothing shop at Tysons Galleria. They hold their political differences at bay for the sake of their friendship and their boutique.

“I can hear her talk about what she thinks about politics,” says Hitchner. “I know she’s very opinionated in certain areas. She doesn’t hold it against me.”

And Mason? “I’m not one of those people walking around talking about [politics] all the time,” she says, admitting that Hitchner is the only Democratic friend she has. Hitchner adds, “If I was really mad about something [politically], I would probably tell my husband, not Elizabeth.”

With politics set aside, clothes fuse Hitchner and Mason in a tight bond of female solidarity. They both took out home-equity loans to open their boutique. Their significant others — Hitchner’s husband is John Deluca, a Marine at the Pentagon, and Mason’s boyfriend, Chris Frech, is director of White House legislative affairs — built the cabinets and primed and painted the boutique walls.

It’s clear that Hitchner admires Mason’s taste in clothing: “Elizabeth is one of those people who people will stop and say, ‘Where did you get those clothes?’ She always has the cutest clothes. She is the only one I know who can take me out and put me in something I wouldn’t think of.”

Periwinkle is located at 1557 Potomac Greens Drive, just off Slaters Lane in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, Va. Phone: (703)519-5242.