When it comes to New York City’s charity circuit, there is one standout star—Jean Shafiroff. She’s an award-winning philanthropist who sits on seven charity boards in New York City and the Hamptons, and is photographed extensively wearing gowns by Carolina Herrera, Oscar De La Renta, and a number of other designers. Shafiroff is known as “the first lady of philanthropy,” and is the author of a book called Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life By What You Give.
Today is National Philanthropy Day, which is basically every day to Shafiroff. “Anyone can be a philanthropist,” she said. “If you don’t have the money, you can give your time and knowledge. But if you have the money, you have an obligation to give, even if you prefer to be an anonymous giver.”
Shafiroff is currently working on her first fashion-focused book around her gown collection and is in talks with museums about donating them. For the second time, one of Shafiroff’s gowns is a highlight in an exhibition called Endless Summer: Palm Beach Resort Wear, which opened November 8 at the Richard & Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s a red Oscar de la Renta gown she wore to a gala hosted by the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation in 2014.
Her extravagant gowns are a way to draw attention to a cause. “I love fashion; it’s an exciting way to make the event look beautiful,” said Shafiroff, who owns over 150 gowns, which she started buying in the early 2000s to attend charity galas. Her collection includes gowns by Mary McFadden, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Wes Gordon, Zang Toi, Zac Posen, not to mention Victor de Souza, Ese Azenabor, Malan Breton, and B. Michael.
She isn’t afraid to wear the same dress repeatedly, either. “You can’t only wear your clothes once, it’s very wasteful,” she said. “If Kate Middleton can repeat her fashion closet, so can I.”
This summer, she started archiving her couture collection in the Hamptons with the help of a Vogue writer and a curator from the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I look forward to donating my gown archive one day,” said Shafiroff. “My whole collection is mostly American and Latin designers.”
You can spot Shafiroff wearing brightly colored gowns—from yellow to bubblegum pink—and floral prints, at galas. “People like to see color, it uplifts the spirit,” she said.
Her Instagram account has grown over the past few years, garnering over a million followers. In an era where anyone can buy followers, you can tell she has true fans by the attention she garners at events; fans lineup for selfies with her. “I have three things I focus on Instagram; fashion, philanthropy and positivity,” she said.
From the fashion side, there’s a whiff of fairytale sparkle to her style, which feels almost Disney-esque. She wears enormous gowns you couldn’t imagine fitting into a SUV (never mind a cab), and often wears Cinderella-like white gloves. Each photo she poses in has a purpose, and focuses on giving to charities around women’s rights, education, health care, and animal welfare.
These organizations include the Mission Society of New York City, the Southampton Hospital Association, and the New York Women’s Foundation, which Shafiroff says “empowers women out of poverty and works for an equitable world for all women and people.” She is also on the Couture Council of the Museum at FIT, and last night, she was one of 21 honorees at the Women’s eNews Annual Fundraiser alongside Carolyn Maloney, founder of the Equal Rights Coalition, and Tiara Parker, an anti-gun violence activist.
Shafiroff (born Jean Lutri), grew up in a middle-class household in Hicksville, NY, graduated with an MBA at Columbia Business School, and is married to Martin D. Shafiroff, the founder of the Shafiroff Group, and former managing director at the Lehman Brothers. When the New York Times profiled her in 2017, she was called a “new breed of hands-on philanthropists,” and has uplifted fashion designers along the way. Some might say she has helped shift the idea of the Upper East Side socialite—something seen as pure privilege—to a power position as a philanthropist. Many young women look up to her, and Shafiroff believes the future of philanthropy lies in the hands of the younger generation.
“It’s key to get all the generations involved, but especially the junior committees; to welcome them, mentor them, encourage them,” said Shafiroff. Her daughter Elizabeth Shafiroff is the co-founder and president of Global Strays, an organization that funds animal shelters. Her older daughter spends most of her time in Africa doing volunteer work.
She also hosts a TV show called Successful Philanthropy, which airs on LTV East Hampton six days a week, and has interviewed over 150 people, from celebrities, to business leaders, heads of charities and philanthropists, among others.
“I always encourage all juniors to be welcome, and I like to say, ‘If you can socialize around a good cause, it’s a great thing,’” she says.
It isn’t just socializing but getting donors to write checks. Shafiroff is accustomed to asking for help on behalf of a cause. “It’s difficult work,” she said. “People don’t like being asked to give money, though I do have a way to do it. You can never be rude to people and if they say no, they say no. You just thank them for their consideration. Some say ‘no’ now and ‘yes’ later. I have a whole chapter in my book about that.”
As a philanthropist in the limelight, she receives an overwhelming number of requests. “I’m not a billionaire but I do what I can,” she said.