Fashion Victim

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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.

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.

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.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig