Fashion Victim

A dressing down of the geriatric crowd at the Phoenix Art Museum

Dressed in asymmetrical cocktail dresses or tight designer jeans with colorful, pointy stiletto heels, the women are far more glammed up than the men, who wear jeans and button-down shirts over tee shirts or under skinny, vaguely mod suit jackets. This isn't the stereotypical Scottsdale nightclub crowd; if anything, tonight's scene is more representative of the downtown Phoenix First Friday mix, with plenty of artists, photographers, writers, musicians and assorted free-thinkers in attendance.

For a Thursday night, it's a substantial turnout for any event, anywhere in town.

In a small side gallery, where the throbbing, primal beats grow stronger, dozens of people stand and watch the Sour Patch Dance crew wrap up its performance of experimental urban dance. Everyone's focused on the dancers' impressively athletic stunts, and no one seems to find it unusual that this animated team is basically break-dancing in the museum, surrounded by watercolor paintings.

David Sheflin
Jeff Newton
David Sheflin
William Claxton and Peggy Moffitt made news in 
Women's Wear Daily with their appearance at 
David Sheflin
William Claxton and Peggy Moffitt made news in Women's Wear Daily with their appearance at PAM.

Later, the highlight of the night: a fashion show with clothing made by nine local designers.

A rush of loud, relentlessly pulsating DJ music from another gallery signals that it's time for the show. A couple hundred people cram into the brightly lighted space, where Robert Indiana's famous LOVE paintings color the walls, and a long, narrow platform divides the room. Between the lights and the number of bodies, things are really starting to heat up. A few lucky people sit in chairs lined up along each side of the runway; many more stand at the back of a six-person-deep crowd, craning their necks to see if anything's happening.

Soon, models start sashaying from one side of the room to the far end of the platform, where flash bulbs go off from every direction. Hair teased and lip gloss gleaming, the young women mostly keep blank faces as they march out in a steady parade of outfits. But every so often, a male model struts by with a smirk on his face, looking like a mischievous kid. One after another, a female announcer describes each outfit, and the looks are as varied as the faces in the room: some elegant and romantic, some retro and blatantly sexy, some artsy and futuristic, some downright puzzling. After every few models, a different designer walks out to take credit for his or her work -- waving, smiling, and sometimes hamming it up for the applause.

Between the DJ's booming, upbeat mix, the spectacle of showy clothing and the crush of onlookers dressed like they might've just stepped off the platform themselves, the event marks the undeniable growth of a scene that's really started to jell in the last year.

Across town, approaching midnight, the lights are off at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Giorgio Armani got it all wrong.

The superstar designer's gloomy declaration several years ago -- "fashion is dead" -- couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, fashion is in a constant state of resurrection and reanimation. Designers these days pluck inspirations from the past, present and future, remixing ideas into the latest runway looks the way a world-class DJ samples tracks from obscure vinyl albums to come up with a new sound. How else to explain Tom Ford's successful run at Gucci or Marc Jacobs' impressive tenure at Louis Vuitton?

Fashion thrives on a steady diet of youth. Zac Posen, one of New York's newest design darlings, is only 23.

Diversity, too, is an essential engine of fashion's evolution. Think of Dior's John Galliano, who's taken cues from ancient Egyptians, geisha and homeless people, or Jean-Paul Gaultier, who created haute couture inspired by Hasidic Jews. And in fashion, the notion of homosexuality isn't just tolerated -- it's celebrated. People like the fur-swaddled, larger-than-life Vogue scribe Andre Leon Talley or the cheeky photographer David LaChapelle give the design world its flamboyance.

In this booming Western metropolis, where cowboy hats are still considered a fashion statement, David Sheflin was one of the first to bring a cosmopolitan sensibility to the Valley's design community.

Because Sheflin is so well-connected, he's a natural leader within Phoenix's gay hipster scene, bringing subculture luminaries to town whenever he can. Last year, in conjunction with the Phoenix Film Festival, Sheflin arranged for the cult film director John Waters to appear at Vintage Fashion, where middle-aged queens, indie rock boys and teenage girls alike lined up to have their Polaroid taken with Waters and a cartoonish costumed Easter Bunny.

And David Sheflin was the first man -- and almost certainly the first homosexual -- to serve on the board of the Arizona Costume Institute of the Phoenix Art Museum.

A Phoenix native, Sheflin grew up near the museum in the Willo District, and often spent many afternoons wandering through its galleries. He lived in San Francisco during his 20s, and when he moved back to Phoenix in the '90s, he opened Vintage Modern, a mid-century furniture store, across from the museum. (The building was later razed to make way for an Osco.)

Sheflin also decided he wanted to get more actively involved with the museum, and the Arizona Costume Institute in particular.

"I made calls about getting involved with ACI, but never got the courtesy of a return phone call," he recalls.

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