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Bitch at Us: Sandy Safi of Dîner en Blanc

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When Dîner en Blanc launched in Washington, D.C., last year, I was ecstatic. I had witnessed the event the year prior in New York City, by chance, when I was having a glass of wine with a friend at Bryant Park Cafe. I’ll never forget that evening: Suddenly thousands of people, dressed in white, poured into the picturesque park, immediately setting up rows of gorgeous place-settings for a dinner under the stars.

Vanity Fair satiated my curiosity the next day, and confirmed that the international society hosts similar glamorous events around the world. Events where you join thousands of other diners, dressed all in white, for the classiest of outdoor dinner parties—the locations of which are always top secret until the last possible moment.

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Last year’s event in Washington was held at Yards Park, and we dined overlooking the water, drinking Moet, and dancing the night away. The next D.C. event is happening in late August, and the first wave of invitations just went out yesterday. This year, I’m in New York, and I’ll be donning my white dress on Tuesday evening with my favorites.

In anticipation, I reached out to the co-founder of Diner en Blanc International, Sandy Safi, who now runs 60 Dîner en Blanc events around the world. She gave me the scoop on its international popularity—and what’s to come.

Sandy Safi

First of all, how are you? I’m sure you are super busy with everything coming up.

Yes, we are super busy. We are running 60 events this year around the world! It’s growing like crazy and the requests are coming from everywhere. We are trying to adapt to different cultures and ways of welcoming people into a city and ways of setting up an event. All the way from Vietnam to Brazil to the U.S. It’s been one great ride and a learning experience to go through all of this. So yes, busy learning, and busy adapting.

So 60 cities around the world! What is your ultimate vision? 

We are living the dream. This is awesome! I think the highlight is meeting people from all over the world and getting to work with them and getting to learn how things are done everywhere and how events like this are welcomed. The common ground that we have, as well as the differences we might have on the ways of welcoming such an event into a city. The dream is definitely being lived on a daily basis.

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Is it the same formula in every city?

The concept is the same because the essence of people getting together and enjoying being with friends and just having a dinner outdoors in a public space is definitely present everywhere. That’s the good side of it: the fact that it’s the same and that there are no differences in people getting together and enjoying a meal with friends, outdoors. It doesn’t matter how old you are, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is, it doesn’t matter where you live in the world, everybody can connect to that.

Each and every event adds its local flair. Like in New Orleans, you’ll get that vibe in terms of food and in terms of music. And then you go to New York and you get the vibe of fashionistas, the people that go all out with their clothing. It doesn’t matter where you go, people add to it and make it what it is and give it the flair and the flavor of the city.

I know you get this question a lot, but we would love to hear from you about how this got started. Where did it all come from?

It all started in France as a gathering of friends and friends of friends in 1988. It’s been 26 years since the first gathering. My partner and I created Dîner en Blanc International based in Canada in 2012. Up until then, it was mostly this French gathering, but it happened in other countries as well in France and in Germany.

It was only when we brought it to New York in 2011 that it really became a global phenomenon. I think the location was right. Everybody is looking to New York to see what’s happening and what the next “thing” is. Once we brought it to New York, that’s when requests from all over the world started coming in. We had hundred of cities all over wanting to host an event, but we couldn’t be running around organizing in every city, so we decided to create something that is unique in a sense that I believe it’s the only event licensing format in the whole world.

I’ve worked for plenty of productions. Usually we set it up, and we tour with it. Here, what we’re doing is giving the tools, the values, the guidelines and the guidance to create their own event with their own local flair and local flavor, and then we’re bringing them all together under one network, the Dîner en Blanc network.

We are getting the foodies who love the fashion, who love outdoors, who are proud of their city; that’s the demographic we’re getting. The love of all of those things has no barriers in terms of age or culture, so the events are very diversified.

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How many events have you been to?

I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few. We went to Singapore, which was a great experience. We’ve been to events throughout the United States: New York, L.A., Houston. Mexico, Montreal, Quebec. We’ve stayed more involved in a couple of events and collaborated with others to give them the rights to set it up, and then I have an awesome team here that is dedicated to teaching them how to do it, how to set up those beautiful lines of people that attend the event. How to make it come together so seamlessly as a pop-up. It looks like you set up dinner for 5,000 people, but you didn’t, they were all participants in setting up dinner for 5,000 people.

Of all the events you’ve attended or organized, are there any truly special moments that you remember?

I think the reason why I do it, personally, is  working with amazing people from all over the world. It’s what keeps me going. It’s not a particular moment at an event. It’s the relationships and the pleasure of seeing them succeed and putting something together that they’re proud of, that represents their city that people are having a great time at.

That said, how can you beat sparklers under the Eiffel tower with 15,000 people? You can’t beat the first time we came to New York and people were like, “What do you mean you’re going to take over a park and set up a picnic; that’s now how things work around here!” To be able to make them understand what it is, make them understand what’s behind it, why we’re doing it and get the support of the city, the people, to make it happen and to see it together when you’re breaking ground, essentially. I think those are great accomplishments.

Of all of the locations that you’ve held it in New York, what has been your favorite?

Now that’s not a fair question! Do I have to answer?!

I actually witnessed it in Bryant Park, and I thought that was just such a beautiful location.

Bryant Park is great; it was fantastic. But if I have to choose, and simply because I come from the arts background—I used to be a ballerina when I was a child—I think in front of the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, the plaza there. For me, it was an amazing moment. It’s such a beautiful place, the cultural hub of New York City. I think that was a great moment.

Now, I know you can’t say where this year’s event is, but of all the places around the world, where do you think the most unique place to have an event would be? Where’s the dream location?

Wow. I have never thought about that. I think that in New York City, at least, there’s a beautiful white bridge, the Washington Bridge, which would be an amazing place to be and to be able to have the dinner on the bridge, in the middle of the heart of New York.

My coworker’s wish is the moon. I’m still on Earth, but the moon is white, so it would work.

What can you tell me about the white? Why is that and why is it so special?

Its history stems from the fact that when the event was created, François Pasquier’s backyard was too small, so to recognize who was part of the dinner and he told people to bring a friend, and to recognize that everybody was part of this, he told them to dress in white. It’s simply a way of recognizing attendees. It’s the color of the year I hear, so we’re in fashion!

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For you personally, has this always been a dream for you?

It’s a dream every day. And I live it every day. I wake up happy to be here, happy to have an amazing team of people to work with. To be up there creating and developing this concept around the world, it’s a daily dream and I’m fortunate enough and grateful to have the opportunity to live it every day and to work with people who see the growth and support in making it happen every day.

I recently heard that people showed up with a minister and got married at the event. They said that they’re dressed in white, their friends are there, there’s a nice beautiful location so, let’s get married! They didn’t even let us know, we just turned around and there they were, getting married. I think the element of what people bring to the event is a pleasure, just seeing it all unfold in front of you is amazing. These moments will stay in people’s memories forever.

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