As the story goes, when the family of fashion icon Ann Bonfoey Taylor called the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to try to donate pieces from Taylor's incredible wardrobe, the Taylors were sent packing. To Phoenix.

Phoenix? This place is hardly the fashion capital of anybody's world — here we glue crap to T-shirts and call it haute couture. Ah, but we've got Dennita Sewell, who has curated the Phoenix Art Museum's fashion collection since 2000.

And that's how scruffy Phoenix came to have one of the year's sleekest fashion-based art exhibits, lauded everywhere from Elle to the New York Times.

Born and raised on a farm in Missouri, Sewell developed a passion for clothing early on. Both her mother and grandmother were expert seamstresses, and she majored in textile management at the University of Missouri. After that, she headed to Yale University for an MFA in costume and set design and eventually became the Collections Manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

And then she came to Phoenix, whose namesake art museum has a 5,000-item fashion collection — one of the best in the country, thanks to donations over the years from rich and famous vacationers.

Talk your way into a tour of the museum's underground, and you'll see a original 1966 Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit, a handmade footman's livery (circa 1830s), and flashy platform boots formerly belonging to the band Steppenwolf.

Items are chosen for "how they're important for telling the fashion story of the era," Sewell says.

The vault is temperature- and humidity-controlled — and under tight security. No mothballs or chemicals are used to preserve the materials. Twentieth-century items are arranged alphabetically by designer, and everything before that is stored in chronological order. Accessories are grouped by type.

"Storage is a big undertaking and a huge endeavor, and it's very time-consuming and expensive," Sewell says, picking her way amongst tall columns of shelves stacked with long, flat boxes, each labeled with a picture of the garment within.

Inside the boxes, clothes are wrapped and stuffed with tissue paper to protect their form and thwart dust. Shoes are carefully arranged on shelves. Clothing made of heavy textiles rests on hangers in closets. Repairs and cleaning are kept to a minimum and only happen after a consultation with a local conservator in order to keep the items as true as possible to their original forms.

Turns out modern textiles are the hardest to keep. While their 18th- and 19th-century predecessors were made of pure, natural fibers that tend to be highly durable, the plastics and chemicals introduced in the 20th century have proved to be a challenge to preserve. Some items, like vinyl shoes, are essentially self-destructing — becoming brittle and losing their color over time.

"There's nothing you can put on them to preserve them; consistent temperature and humidity is the only thing that helps them survive," says Sewell, who refuses to name a favorite piece — even when pressed.

Times are tough for the fashion industry; the mass production of clothing has made couture less and less accessible to regular people and has put a strain on designers competing for an ever-limited clientele. Nevertheless, Sewell remains optimistic about the perseverance of the industry. "The wealthy will always seek ways to define themselves from other people," she says. "Couture is never going to die."

To see more photos of the Phoenix Art Museum's fashion collection, visit

It's tough to spend a lot of time in any of the galleries along Roosevelt Road or Grand Avenue on any given First Friday — and that's no fault of the artwork. Thousands of Phoenicians travel downtown for the monthly artwalk, and they move quickly through the galleries and streets. If you're looking to find a spot to discuss the work on the wall with a few local artists (or just a couple friends), try Bragg's Pie Factory. The space is huge, the artwork is always surprising, and there's usually a spot to park in the back alley. Bragg's typically opens its month-long shows on First Fridays (while more and more galleries now opt for Third Fridays) and it welcomes all media — from installations, sculptures, and design conferences to paintings, protest art, and piñatas. You might catch a few funny stories from the venue's owner and arts maven Beatrice Moore, and you're guaranteed to find yourself in the company of dozens of art fans and artists (some of whom have studios down the hall) who are more than happy to hang out.
The world may not be a black-and-white place, but when it comes to photography either you've got skills or you're no better than a 5-year-old with a cheap, disposable plastic camera. All the artists at Tilt Gallery fall into the former category. We love that owners Melanie and Michelle Craven (twins who graduated from ASU's fine art program) focus on vintage, hands-on techniques such a Victorian ambrotyping and hand-tinted sepia printing rather than the flashy digital media that's saturated the market. Guest artists also host classes on everything from portraiture to infrared photography — so even if your Facebook pics are all missing heads and you think that bichromate has something to do with hermaphrodites, there's still hope for you at Tilt.
So, you've got an hour or three to kill at the damn airport and you're sick of people-watching and drinking yet another cup of coffee. You've hit all the stores in Terminal 4, but you're not quite ready to go toe-to-toe with the TSA. We've got the solution, and it's art. The folks at Sky Harbor really have it going on culturally, especially in sprawling Terminal 4, where the 24/7 galleries always have something for the most discriminating and the simply bored to enjoy. In the past year, we checked out a photographic exhibit of our state's magnificent saguaros, as well as atmospheric landscapes by Ellen Wagener and a trippy exhibit of outstanding artists who work with fiber in various ways. But our recent favorite was a multi-media tribute to baseball's spring training in the Valley. The black-and-white photos of the San Francisco Giants (with the Hall of Fame Willies — Mays and McCovey) working out in Casa Grande in the early 1960s were priceless and helped us lose ourselves for a few moments without reaching for our wallets. Art for the masses, indeed.

Who doesn't have a picture of themselves in front of the Love sculpture on the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall? Visitors to Scottsdale flock to the sculpture because it is one of only a handful of them in the country. It is large and, unlike most pieces of art, you can touch it and climb on it. This makes for a perfect picture-taking opportunity. We can't wait to see your Valentines.

Evie Carpenter
Joerael Elliott's well known in the Phoenix area for his incredible large-scale murals on the sides of Way Cool Hair Salon and The Caravan, but his latest (very) small-scale work has us hooked on lattes and cappuccinos at Lola Coffee. Between mural gigs and canvas projects, the local artist has a part-time barista gig on weekday afternoons, when you can catch him doodling on coffee bags with sharpies. But the real magic happens on foam — backgrounds and intricate faces emerge as Elliott chats about the local art scene while drawing with his milk thermometer. We've never been so inspired or over-caffeinated.
Dominique Chatterjee
Desert at Lux
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Manhattan has the Hearst Tower, the first truly green skyscraper in the country. In Los Angeles, it's the Audubon Center at Debs Park, with more than half its materials locally manufactured and the first building in the United States to receive a platinum rating under the renowned Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. Here in the Valley, though, we're greener than green, thanks to the forward-thinking, desert-loving developers who built DC Ranch, Scottsdale's preeminent golf course community. The developers approached the McDowell Mountains as an asset by integrating walking roads and bike paths into a landscape that embraces the desert, rather than trying to obscure it with bearing walls as so many desert-centric developments do. We say, if you're going to live in the desert, live in the desert — which means being able to look out your window and see cactus and sand, not brick walls and pavement.
It's not often that a building turns out looking exactly like the architectural drawing that inspired it. But somehow, Optima's location just north of Scottsdale Fashion Square materialized into a modern version of the famed hanging gardens of Babylon, chock-full of lush climbing plants and beautiful flowering bushes with blossoms the muted orange and purple colors of an Arizona sunset. The multi-tiered complex — which houses condos, restaurants, shops, and an art gallery — boasts a massive central courtyard, with gorgeous fountains and plush sitting areas dotted with colorful couches. The bottom floor of the open expanse offers an amazing view of the whole building, and it always makes us feel as though we're vacationing in a tropical paradise, without ever leaving the desert.

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