On December 17, the night before they left for vacation in Switzerland, Fashion Cafe founder Tommaso Buti and his Czech supermodel wife, Daniela Pestova, threw a "low-key" Christmas party at their palatial Olympic Tower penthouse. There was a simple buffet dinner for 50, and Pestova, attired in gray cashmere and a diamond necklace, didn't even bother to put on her shoes. While their toddler son, Yanick, padded about, babbling to guests, Buti and his wife radiated joy, adding even more light to a home graced with floor-to-ceiling windows and dazzling views. To the many modeling agents and models in attendance -- Veronica Webb and Yasmeen Ghauri among them -- there seemed an obvious reason for the couple's unabashed bliss: Early in the week, Donald Trump had announced he was opening a modeling superagency with Buti at the helm. Indeed, the evening's high point came when the bushy-browed real-estate mogul summoned his new business partner -- and Daniela, the firm's putative first supermodel client -- to his side for a champagne toast. "To the richest agency," declared the Donald before imbibing.
What none of the guests knew was that the couple had another, far more complicated reason for revelry. The previous day, without any fanfare, the 32-year-old entrepreneur had finalized a very different kind of deal: paying $350,000 to the Fashion Cafe to settle $15 million in lawsuits his partners had filed against him earlier in the year. Though the press has portrayed Buti as a savvy restaurant impresario who severed his ties with Fashion Cafe in 1997, while "the getting was good," the truth is less flattering. In fact, Buti resigned from management of the chain fronted by Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, and Elle MacPherson last summer, long after the company had descended into a financial quagmire, and only then once his partners were after him.
In late 1997, Luigi Palma, a Miami ophthalmologist who met Buti while vacationing in Monaco a decade ago, slapped his best friend with a $1 million suit alleging that Buti had illegally siphoned Fashion Cafe's assets to finance a lavish lifestyle that includes "an expensive apartment, a car collection, private jets and extravagant entertainment." The following summer, three corporate entities controlled by Valerio Morabito, the twentysomething heir to an Italian construction fortune, sued Buti for $14 million, claiming that Morabito's erstwhile New York nightlife mentor had diverted company funds and lied repeatedly to prolong the illusion that Fashion Cafe was a success. Both partners demanded that a receiver be appointed to wrest the business from Buti's control.
While the suits were pending in court, the battle spilled over into the papers. In August, the New York Post reported that Buti was resigning from Fashion Cafe management because he had sold his shares to a Mexican company and "felt it was time to move on." By September, the story had changed dramatically: With the company in crisis, Buti had simply "disappeared." "If Buti doesn't show up, he's in a lot of trouble," Palma told the Sunday Times of London. Buti retaliated by suing the paper; the Times printed a retraction, acknowledging he had never vanished.
Tommaso Buti doesn't look like the type who would find himself married to a supermodel. With short dark hair and clear olive skin, he is handsome but not exceedingly so. He claims to be five-foot-ten but appears at least an inch or two shorter. In fact, seated behind an enormous desk in his sprawling Murray Hill headquarters -- which once housed Andy Warhol's Factory -- the diminutive Buti might easily be mistaken for the boss's son. Buti says he never reads books and can recall only two he has completed: Pinocchio and Den of Thieves. Indeed, it seems fitting that both his boyhood-fantasy marriage and the financial scandal that has engulfed him are dissolving simultaneously. Just two weeks ago -- a month after the Fashion Cafe settlement was completed -- Buti announced on "Page Six" that he and Pestova are separating. The fate of his modeling agency remains uncertain.
Trump defends his new partner, saying it was he who proposed that they team up to start the agency, Trump Management Group. "I've made $5 billion because I bank on the right people," Trump says. "And I think he's a terrific, unjustly accused guy. Restaurants, with all the unions and hamburgers you got to deal with, are not for him. But Tommaso loves women and women love him back. He's a natural to run a modeling agency."