Unforgettable Events

by Dara Klatt

Bryan Rafanelli, one of the country’s glitziest event planners and the author of “A Great Party” shares his behind-the-scenes secrets on elegant diplomatic events and playful Kids’ State Dinners to A-list weddings and charity fêtes.

Bryan Rafanelli

Known for his exquisite style and attention to detail, Bryan Rafanelli has designed and produced some of the nation’s most exclusive and high-profile events. Over his 23 year career, his team has mounted more than 2,000 events in 50 cities, 23 states and nine countries, including the White House state dinners for China, Japan, Germany, France, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Italy; Governor’s Balls and five “Kids’ State Dinners.” He pulled off Chelsea Clinton’s super-secret nuptials and other stunning celebrity weddings as well as glamorous corporate parties for Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton.

With his debut book, “A Great Party: Designing The Perfect Celebration” (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2019) out this month, Rafanelli was happy to share his pleasures and philosophy with Washington Life in creating such artful celebrations.

You have done events all over the world.

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What do you love the most about Washington celebrations?

What I love most about entertaining in Washington is the extreme concentration of brainpower in any given room coupled with the most eclectic of guest lists. This is something I don’t believe can be truly replicated anywhere else in America, if not in the world.

How did you strive for impactful events in the White House?

As with every client, we want each event to be unique, but we’re constantly reminded of where we are—a place of immense American tradition and history.

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I worked with Michelle Obama on seven state dinners and 15 other celebrations during President Obama’s administration. Mrs. Obama had a unique love of color and we could really make our celebrations stand out when we had all the colors of the rainbow at our disposal! That also definitely kept each event vibrant and exciting, which is especially important since visiting the White House is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so the events should feel that way as well.

Describe the difference in planning a diplomatic event versus a wedding or a gala?

Japan State Dinner

There are a lot of additional considerations that go into the planning of a diplomatic event because of the intricacies with the host venue. For each state dinner we produced, I always investigated symbolism and cultural touchstones for the honored country and would incorporate into the event’s theme and aesthetics.

What was your most memorable diplomatic event?

I really enjoyed planning the state dinner in honor of Matteo Renzi, the then-prime minister of Italy. This was the final state dinner of the Obama administration, just before the 2016 election. I’m Italian American so this was a personal favorite, for not only that reason but because of the entertainment—Gwen Stefani, a fellow Italian American—and the location of the dinner in a structure glass-top tent on the South Lawn. It was such an exciting challenge to re-create the feeling of the White House outdoors.

Novel elements of the Kids’ State Dinners?

Kids’ State Dinner

The Kids’ State Dinners were especially fun to work on as the guest list included 56 children—one from each state and territory—who were each winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. These events allowed us to be a little more playful than usual, while still respecting the integrity of the house. They were said to be Mrs. Obama’s favorite events at the White House. Washington is host to many philanthropic-based balls and galas. How do you blend a great party with a purpose? When we develop design concepts for our nonprofit clients, we start with their mission statements. Just like with any event, in order for a party to be great, the guests need to feel an emotional connection to the event. What makes nonprofit work different, however, is that the emotional connection needs to yield tangible results.

Final piece of advice?

I always say, “Don’t expect the unexpected—create it.

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