Fashion Victim

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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.

"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.

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."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig