Fashion Victim

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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."

There's a light drizzle and a blustering wind on a Thursday night in January, when visitors to the Arizona Costume Institute fund-raising dinner at Scottsdale's Gainey Golf Club drive past rows and rows of new Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs in the full -- and members-only -- parking lot. Turns out that parking for non-members is farther down the hill and off to the side, making it a chilly hike back up to the main entrance.

Inside the resort's clubhouse, nearly a hundred people are heading to their seats, wineglasses in hand, in the lavishly decorated dining room. The vast majority of attendees are elderly, and nearly all are white. Well-coifed seventysomethings with silver hair (or expensive-looking dye jobs) wear flowery designer dresses or tweedy pantsuits, accessorized by jeweled brooches and distinguished-looking husbands. A number of elegant guests in their 50s look positively sexy in comparison, and the small handful of mostly female visitors in their 20s and 30s stick out like children at the opera.

Everyone is here for a lecture by Teri Agins, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who writes about fashion and retail. As dinner wraps up, Agins, an African American in her early 50s, takes the podium with a warm grin. She talks about her book The End of Fashion, occasionally laughing at herself as she fiddles with the slide projector remote control.

As Agins drops name after famous name -- and after years of reporting on the fashion industry, she's on a first-name basis with the most powerful people in fashion -- the crowd is attentive, murmuring appreciatively at mentions of legends such as Coco Chanel or Audrey Hepburn.

But when her discussion takes a turn toward contemporary streetwear's newer, hip-hop-oriented labels such as J. Lo and Sean John, it's clear from the blank expressions around the room that she's going over a lot of heads. Seated at a large, round table at the front of the room, a grandmotherly lady with white hair leans over to whisper to her balding husband, who shakes his head in befuddlement at the unfamiliar names.

At the end of the evening, Agins mingles with a half-dozen excited women, signing copies of her book and talking about her career as guests bundle up to head back to their cars.

A tall, slender woman in her 30s (who, with her pixieish bangs and geometric print wrap dress, looks a decade younger) says goodbye to a friend.

"I'm so glad I ran into you," she says. "There are so many old people here!"

On September 18, 2003, David Sheflin sent a letter to Jim Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum, announcing his resignation from the Arizona Costume Institute.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig