“Make It Your Own,” coos a glossy 12-page advertising section in October editions of select Condé Nast magazines. The insert—tucked into the centers of Architectural Digest, Condé Nast Traveler, Gourmet, the New Yorker, and Vogue—is a multibrand promotional effort backed by Saks Fifth Avenue, filled with photos and text exploring the lifestyles of two fashionable women, “Susan” and “Caryn.”

Despite differences in age and race, the models display similar affinity for a bundle of luxury brands: Dana Buchman clothing. Jenn-Air Attrezzi kitchen appliances. Kahlúa coffee-flavored liqueur. And Washington, D.C.

That’s right. At first glance, Susan and Caryn appear to be hanging out somewhere in New York City, as they finger digital cameras, jacquard jackets, blenders styled like hurricane lamps. But Pages 4 and 5 of the insert bear a tiny logo reading, “Washington D.C.: The American Experience.” Some of the accompanying photos are actually of familiar District sights: Caryn, sporting a tumble of curls and a zebra-striped miniskirt, laughs into the receiver of an Adams Morgan pay phone, in front of a painted mural. Susan, with her short, smart haircut and conservative black jacket, “finds respite” in Upper Senate Park on Capitol Hill.

The fashion spread is part of an attempt by the Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp., the private, nonprofit organization charged with marketing the city as a destination spot, to upgrade the District’s image and establish it as a brand name. “They’re re-branding themselves,” says Evan D. Gotlib, travel manager for Condé Nast Traveler, who approached the tourism board about participating in the ad campaign. “They’re pushing D.C. beyond the monuments—the culture, the art. They’re trying to sex up the destination, so I thought [the campaign] was perfect for them.”

Sex, in this case, equals money. Gotlib’s magazine approached the District after the tourism board had placed large advertisements in its March and May editions. To join the current campaign with the luxury department-store chain and the highbrow magazine publisher, the Convention and Tourism Corp. paid just under $200,000. In exchange, the District received the two-page spread in the magazines (and a “gimme shot,” elsewhere in the section, of Caryn walking through an unlabeled Georgetown), more exposure through a mass mailing of the insert to 500,000 names in the Saks Fifth Avenue and Condé Nast databases, access to those names for a future mailing, and a role in Saks’ “Make It Your Own” in-store promotional events.

Vicki Isley, vice president of marketing and communications for the Convention and Tourism Corp., says it was a small price to pay for the privilege of standing alongside the well-established creamy smoothness of Kahlúa, the smart business chic of Dana Buchman, and the techno-cool of Canon. “With the value of the insertions, the events, and the direct mail, and the half-million names from the Saks database, it adds up to a value of $3 million,” says Isley.

Earlier this month, at Saks stores in New York and Chicago, chefs from Zola and Sushi-Ko offered shoppers samples of local delicacies while editors from Condé Nast Traveler distributed tourism literature and held forth on the attractions the District offers upscale visitors.

Kristi Lafrenz, director of marketing for strategic initiatives for Jenn-Air’s parent company, Maytag, says she finds it “inspiring” that the city would decide to market itself right alongside her company’s new line of modern-design mixers and blenders called Jenn-Air Attrezzi—”Attrezzi” being Italian for “tools.”

“We feel like we’re in very good company—everyone plays into the theme in their own way,” says Lafrenz. “It’s interesting to see Washington, D.C., promoting themselves in a different way. As a marketer, it struck me as innovative.”

Lafrenz says that she views the District as possessing the same characteristics as the luxury goods her company manufactures. “I love the city. I definitely think of D.C. in that vein, partly because I know Washington, D.C., outside of the monuments—I’ve personally had a chance to explore it with family and friends.”

Michelle Fernandez, assistant manager of digital-camera marketing for Canon USA, on the other hand, initially thought the decision to use the District in the ad spread a strange one.

“I was envisioning more like a Bermuda, a more luxurious type of area—the Bahamas, a resort,” says Fernandez. “I was surprised, but, in retrospect, it made sense with the customer. If you think about the affluence of people who shop at Saks, and the people who buy Canon digital cameras, and the people who live in Washington, D.C., it fits the upscale look and feel of the whole piece.”

On 18th Street NW, where the pay-phone photo was taken, the marriage of the neighborhood with nationally recognized luxury brands is a source of bemusement. The photo shoot took place over Labor Day weekend, at the mouth of an alley in the 2400 block. Bill Butler, owner of Archival Art Services Inc., walks through the alley every day to get to his business’s rear entrance. The sign directing customers there is legible in the shot.

But Butler says that as far as his framing business is concerned, the image hasn’t translated into actual customers. “We’ve gotten tons of calls,” he says. “People in New York, Massachusetts, Seattle have seen the ads—maybe 15 people have called in the last couple weeks. People who have contacted us say, ‘Hey did you see…?’ but I can’t say it’s brought us business.”

Butler and his employees also say that the final image looks much cleaner and shinier than the street they know. “We think they Photoshopped it,” Butler says. “There’s graffiti on that phone booth, and we clean that alley once a week, but it doesn’t ever look like that, really.” CP