Fashion Victim

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

"If you had been there at the opening, you would've seen a complete mixture of people. There were heavy-duty people there who are movers and shakers in the city. There were transsexuals, there were punk rockers, there were young people, there were old people, there were minorities, and there were people from L.A. and Tucson," he says.

Women's Wear Daily even did a write-up on the party, after Moffitt announced that she was about to collaborate with a major fashion designer to reproduce Gernreich's designs. (Later in the month, the designer was revealed to be Rei Kawakubo from Comme des Garons.)

It was the first time in memory that a Phoenix dateline made as much of a splash as anything out of Paris or New York.

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.

Countless guests told Sheflin how great the party was. But he says some of the ACI ladies, including incoming president Ginny Springall, spent the evening looking really unhappy. "It was like a line had been drawn and it was war," Sheflin says.

While the Gernreich show certainly lent itself to a glamorous party, the "Seven" show was even edgier, with creations from designers who sell their work at the revolutionary New York boutique of the same name. Sewell even had the four members of the avant-garde As Four design collective (who recently made news in a Vogue photo spread as Björk's designers-of-choice) fly into Phoenix to install their imaginative pieces themselves.

"That's cutting edge for FIT [the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York], that's cutting edge for the Met. And As Four, in New York, is a big deal. But it's such an amazing thing for Phoenix," says 25-year-old Ryan McNamara, an ASU grad and visual artist who worked as Sewell's assistant in the fashion design department from 2000 to 2001. He now lives in New York City.

But the exhibition itself was not the focus of another see-and-be-seen soiree along the lines of the Gernreich bash. "They had 23 people there total at this opening, and they thought it was a success. I thought it was a complete and utter failure," says Sheflin.

Ardie Evans says the debate over the opening receptions is easy to explain. "The support organizations have a membership that supports [the openings], versus public openings," she says. "So to think that it's closed, it's not. But normally, privilege of membership does drive any opening."

The Arizona Costume Institute stood to gain a lot of new members thanks to Sewell and Sheflin's efforts, which brought a noticeably diverse, younger crowd into the museum, says Blair Jones, a former ACI member. Although Jones says he met some nice people in ACI, he adds that the mostly older, mostly white group of women wasn't very welcoming to the new faces.

"They were not real social with the younger group that David was bringing in and Dennita was bringing in -- at all," says Jones.

Twenty-six-year-old Mikisha Ruffin, who's African American, says she got involved with ACI because of her interest in fashion and art, and because she had just moved to the Valley after graduating from college.

"I expected to be embraced with open arms, considering that we all have this mutual love, this passion. But I always felt like I was on the outside of it, so it probably had a lot to do with my age and race," says Ruffin. "All the women in the organization seemed to be really well-connected and have had a lot of success here in the city, and I couldn't even find a job."

Sewell, an acquaintance of Ruffin's father, had encouraged Ruffin to join ACI. "Lucky me to know her," Ruffin says. "She wants gay, straight, young, old, money, no money -- she wants anyone who has a love for art or fashion to be involved. It was really stressful for her for those dynamics not to converge."

While Ruffin insists that ACI is a good organization with a lot of educational opportunities, she let her membership expire, frustrated that the group didn't try to reach out to minorities or young people. "They haven't really been forced to be inclusive," she says. Ruffin recently moved to New York City, determined to work in the fashion industry.

Ryan McNamara, who was known in the local art scene for running the now-legendary (and defunct) Barlow and Straker Gallery, agrees that ACI could do more for recruitment. He remembers the "Gold Fever" opening reception.

"You know, it was fashion. It was really fun -- there were young people, there were even teenagers there who were dressed up. But I just got the feeling from some of the members of ACI that they really didn't want new members," he says.

Instead, McNamara adds, "They wanted to keep it like a closed, members-only kind of meeting of society ladies," which, he explains, created a huge rift with Sheflin.

Sheflin wanted the events to be open to the public -- like SMoCA Nights -- while some ACI board members wanted to keep the openings private, as a perk for the members.

"But then how do new people find out about it?" McNamara asks. "It's a graying group. It's not like there's a new generation putting new blood into it. And so, if you keep [the receptions] closed, well, it's just going to die off."

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