Fashion Victim

David Sheflin is absolutely the most fashionable man in town.

Sheflin runs his high-end, vintage boutique in central Phoenix like a weekly salon, mingling with discerning customers and influential friends as though he's Diana Vreeland presiding over Vogue.

On the side, Sheflin deals in top-name mid-century furniture. He's also a stylist; Tiffany & Co. recently hired him to match their rare jewels with vintage gowns.

His own style is studied casual. Typically, Sheflin makes his way around the Valley in flip-flops, jeans and tee shirts, hardly a fashionista, at first glance. If he took his sunglasses off indoors -- which he seldom does -- you'd even say he was unassuming.

Until you noticed that the sunglasses are Gucci. Ditto the flip-flops.

If there's an insider party going on at the newest nightclub or the chicest restaurant, Sheflin's on the VIP list.

This is a guy who could easily star on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. In fact, when a local TV station produced a Phoenix version, he did.

Open just a few hours one day a week, Sheflin's Vintage Fashion Inc. is the only place in these parts where you can find mint-condition Halston or Von Furstenberg -- except, perhaps, the Fashion Design Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Chances are, such a piece would have made its way to the museum via Sheflin, who for two years sat on the board of the Arizona Costume Institute, the nonprofit support group for the museum's fashion design department.

The intersection of the worlds of fashion and art should be the safest place in the world for a gay man -- particularly one with impeccable taste -- but David Sheflin resigned from ACI late last year, claiming the senior citizen set that runs the nonprofit support group discriminated against him. At least two other gay men and an African-American woman have left ACI as well, saying they were "uncomfortable" with the way the ladies-who-lunch treated them.

Clearly, the young folks fell into a generation gap. At 40, Sheflin is hardly a child. But some of the women on the ACI board are nearly double his age, and more eager, Sheflin says, to talk about floral arrangements for their luncheons than cutting-edge fashion shows or ways to attract younger, more diverse members.

It might have been a hint to Sheflin, when he joined the ACI board in 2001, that he was the first gay man on the board in the group's nearly 40-year history.

For their part, the ladies say Sheflin was a troublemaker. The politics aren't much different from those you'd encounter on any nonprofit board -- a tempest in a Manolo Blahnik, perhaps -- but the stakes are as high as the Italian designer's stilettos, because Phoenix is finally on the verge of having a real fashion scene.

In the past year, dozens of young fashion designers have emerged here. Every week, you can find runway shows at local nightclubs and art galleries. Suddenly, girls and guys who used to be nothing more than good-looking scenesters are getting regular (albeit unpaid) work as models. Hair stylists and makeup artists are getting exposure for their weirdest ideas. Passage, a boutique stocked exclusively with locally made clothing, debuted last summer in central Phoenix. A purse-size glossy called LabelHorde showcases local fashion.

And hundreds of style-conscious twenty- and thirtysomethings are eager for more.

That's a crowd that would certainly knock the support hose off the ladies of ACI, who keep their parties invitation-only.

The irony is that, in contrast to its staid support group, the Phoenix Art Museum boasts one of the best fashion design collections in the West. The museum's fashion curator -- who comes straight from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the fashion/art mecca -- is one of the most progressive in the country.

ACI, Sheflin says, is holding the Phoenix Art Museum back -- way back. There are rumors of bad blood between curator Dennita Sewell and certain ACI board members, to the point where some worry Sewell will quit or be fired. (Sewell refused to comment for this story.)

Sheflin is quick to point out that not every member of the institute was resistant to change. But he and others say the ladies who've controlled the group for years wanted nothing to do with them.

"They really resent people showing up that they don't know," Sheflin says. "It's not just if you're a man or you're gay. It could be if you're young, if maybe you're dressing a little alternative, if you're not wearing a St. John Knits suit -- they don't like that."

If you want to mingle in the Valley's edgy fashion scene, you won't likely have any luck at the Phoenix Art Museum. Instead, head to downtown Scottsdale for a SMoCA Night.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig