Fashion Victim

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

Then he brought it up with Bruce Kurtz, who was the museum's contemporary curator at that time.

"Bruce said, 'They'll never call you back. They don't want a man down there, and they certainly don't want a gay man,'" says Sheflin. Kurtz wasn't just out of the closet; he was also one of the founders of the Phoenix chapter of ACT Up. (He died last spring.)

It was nearly a decade later that Sheflin finally got involved with the museum's fashion design department. In 2000, Dennita Sewell was the new curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Art Museum and a recent transplant from New York City, where she worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

As Sheflin recalls it, Sewell crossed the street from her office and walked into Vintage Modern Gallery. "She introduced herself and said she was working on the 'Way Haute West' show, and I told her I had this Diane Von Furstenberg dress that would be perfect for it," he says.

Their collaboration went so well that in 2001, Sheflin not only helped Sewell curate the next exhibition, "Sophisticated Moderns," but helped arrange its funding as well. The show focused on modern fashion and furniture design from the post-World War II era, pairing clothing by Claire McCardell with furniture by Edward Wormley.

People like Brent Fuller, a local architect, who hadn't been involved with the museum until then, took notice of the exhibition.

"It brought tons of architecture and design people into the building who had never been there before, and I still get comments -- 'Is there gonna be another show like that?' -- from the architecture community here," Fuller says. Sewell's embrace of diversity -- and how it was reflected in her fashion exhibitions -- was what put Fuller "on the bandwagon" to join the museum and ACI.

Sheflin agrees that "Sophisticated Moderns" gave the museum lots of great exposure. But he also remembers that the opening reception, which attracted more than 200 people, annoyed some Arizona Costume Institute members.

"They were so upset because all these people they didn't know came, and one of them said, 'We don't want them eating our food.'" Before that, Sheflin says, the openings usually drew only a couple dozen people.

Around that time, Sheflin says, Sewell lobbied for him to be included on the ACI board. "As far as I know, I was the first man to be on the board," he says. "They asked me to do PR." He publicized and designed invitations for events, and lent or donated items to the fashion design collection.

For the rest of 2001 and into 2002, Sheflin says his work with ACI proceeded without incident, but in June 2002, around the opening of the major exhibition "Garden of Eden," Sheflin noticed his relationship was starting to fall apart with certain members of the ACI leadership.

Sewell asked Sheflin to work with fellow ACI member Ardie Evans on "Eden Rocks," a fund raiser, so he used his connections to bring Holly Woodlawn -- one of Andy Warhol's Superstars made famous in Lou Reed's song "Walk on the Wild Side" -- to perform with a rock band at the event.

The turnout was phenomenal. But the presence of Woodlawn, a transsexual, raised some eyebrows among ACI's more conservative members. "I don't think these ladies knew who she was. When she showed up, these people's faces cracked," Sheflin says.

Sheflin claims that by using his personal contacts, he was able to get 90 percent of the expenses comped for "Eden Rocks." Since Evans was out of town when Sheflin was working on the planning, he says she agreed to oversee the cleanup.

"But when I went to leave that night, she shot me the look of death," he says.

Evans declines to comment specifically on her experiences with Sheflin. "The arts -- period -- are very welcoming to all people," she says.

Not even two months after "Eden Rocks," the "Mariano Fortuny" exhibition, a display of goddess-like gowns by the famous designer, opened quietly. A year ago in March, "Trompe l'Oeil Style," a witty collection of clothing that uses an artistic device to "fool the eye" into seeing details like pockets or buttons, debuted to a fairly diverse crowd.

Then in June, Sewell was making final preparations for "Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton," an exhibition featuring groundbreaking clothing from the late designer and photographs of his iconic muse. After New York fashion designers had just offered myriad versions of the mod look for fall 2003, the show couldn't have been timelier. Nor could it have been a better excuse to throw a party.

Nevertheless, says Sheflin, "ACI did not want to do anything for the Gernreich show, because these women usually leave for the summer."

With the financial help of several friends (some of whom, like Kelly Ellman and Marsha Till, were also ACI members; neither woman returned calls from New Times), Sheflin managed to pull off an opening reception without any formal help from ACI, bringing in Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton from Los Angeles to appear that night. Sheflin says 400 or 500 people came.

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