Celebrity stylist James Cornwell and filmmaker Elaine Mensah discuss where they like to dine—and the high points of DC style.
Fashion veterans James Cornwell and Elaine Mensah enjoy a night out at Farmers Fishers Bakers
James Cornwell sports a natty ensemble that includes a silver plated antique skeleton-key necklace by James Cornwell Styling and spiked boots. He stands out, but his attention is on Elaine Mensah, founder of the creative and strategic fashion firm Svelte and the mind behind the new fashion documentary The Politics of Fashion: DC Unboxed. She looks chic herself in H&M knitwear and KedemSasson trousers, acquired from the DC boutique Upstairs on 7th. As the two sit in a private booth at Georgetown’s Farmers Fishers Bakers, Cornwell tucks Mensah’s hair behind her ears periodically, ensuring that she looks lovely in photos. As they discuss their food and Mensah’s film—which includes appearances by Robin Givhan, Lynda Erkiletian, AbaKwawu, and even Cornwell himself—they laugh together all night.
You two are close now, but did you always get along this well? Elaine Mensah: We met in early 2007 at a photo shoot for Fashion Fights Poverty. Funny enough, when we first met, James was so mean to me. [Smiles] James Cornwell: I was not. What? [Laughs] EM: There was a male model, and I wanted James to put black eyeliner on the model. And James said, “Black eyeliner is so overdone.” [Laughs] And then Beyoncé played on the radio, and [ James] dropped it like it was hot right in the middle of the set. And I was like, On second thought, he’s cool. The rest is history.
Gnocchi with shrimp scampi and leafy greens, accompanied by guacamole made tableside.
Fast-forward. elaine, you wrote, directed, and produced your film. how long was the process?
EM: The film, from inception to when I released it, took two and a half years. I wanted to put a spotlight on DC in a way that hadn’t been done before. JC: Anything Elaine does, I say yes to. I love fashion in DC. And I knew it was going to be very special. EM: I didn’t feel scared when I was doing it. I felt scared when I had all the footage and had to put it all together. I had never made a movie, and it is a process. I had 50 hours of content to whittle down. It was 100-percent self-financed. JC: It’s been an amazing journey. When you get a few creative minds together that really want to do something great for the community—and the industry we’re in—the sky’s the limit. EM: This, for me, is like my ode to the city.
Diners pack the restaurant for its sustainable fare, including seared tuna with farmers beans and heirloom tomatoes.
Speaking of the city, you’re both fans of Farmers Fishers Bakers. Why do you keep coming back?EM: I love the food. It’s so fresh. It’s so light. I’m a relaxed chick. [Smiles] This place suits my personality. As you can see from my bowl [she looks at the empty vessel and laughs], I thoroughly enjoyed it. The shrimp was cooked to perfection. JC: Everything here is conscious of our environment, even down to the details in our handmade guacamole on the table. The guacamole is really the best I’ve ever had.
Where else do you dine? EM: As a byproduct of the film, I am way more locally aware. There’s so much great food in this city. I love Oya. I love Co Co. Sala; they have that signature chocolate, and it’s also a cute place to have meetings. JC: I stopped at Malmaison before I came here because of their amazing cold-brewed coffee. I have never tasted anything like it. It’s extremely bold and flavorful without being bitter.
James, you’re sipping Champagne now. Is that your favorite? JC: I’m a bubbles guy. You can sip, enjoy over dinner, even party with it. I have two favorites: VeuveClicquot and one that [singer] Myýa gets for me, Moët & ChandonRoséImpérial. EM: I’m a nondrinker. But this Pineapple Scratch soda [which has pineapple syrup made in-house with fresh pineapples, mint, and lime] is amazing.
The DC food industry is booming. Is fashion next? EM: The success of the food industry is like a template for the fashion industry. Washingtonians are really savvy about how they eat—about lifestyle in general. Fashion looks at food and says, “We can mirror this.” JC: They absolutely work together…. I hope people as a whole can take a look at themselves as being fashionable and stop looking at DC as “not a fashionable city.” Fashion is here. EM: We shouldn’t try to be New York or LA— JC: We shouldn’t try to be anything more than we are.