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Fashion Cares gets chilly reception

Organizers look forward to next year

TOUGHING IT OUT. With temperatures hovering in the single-digits, models at this year's Fashion Cares prove their dedication to the cause. Credit: Anna Pournikova

The AIDS Committee of Toronto’s (ACT) annual fundraising gala, Fashion Cares, was held May 12, but changes to the venue and programming left some attendees feeling disappointed.

Under the bold new vision of first-time Fashion Cares producer Chip Quigley, the event moved from the Metro Convention Centre to the Distillery District, and entertainment programming was tailored specifically for television broadcast instead of for a live audience.

At a press conference before the show, Quigley dismissed criticisms of the changes.

“I’ve only heard excitement about the change, the location, and I think subsequent to selling out, lots of people have come to the party saying they wished they had a ticket,” he said. “From my perspective, I’m just trying to put on a great party.”

ACT board member Karim Karsan tells Xtra that the change was in response to calls from the public.

“The community sent us the message that the event needed to be refurbished, and a comprehensive analysis was done of fundraising events in the city and across North America comparing product offering and ticket price,” he explains. “Our sponsors and donors were canvassed, and it was felt that the new ticket price would adequately address the need to raise funds and assure attendance.”

Ticket prices were up threefold over last year for the gala dinner, show, and afterparty. Although 2,000 fewer tickets were available this year, ads in the Toronto Star and a blast through Fashion Cares’ e-mail list offered half-price admission.

“Ticket prices weren’t slashed,” says Karsan. “There was a $500 price offering to friends and family and supporters of ACT, and general admission tickets for $175 to ensure that the event was accessible to people of all means. The discussion extends beyond a value for money. It’s a fundraising event and people understand that.”

But some in the community still felt the higher prices made the event inaccessible to too many.

“I understand that ACT was executing an event that they intentionally planned would be exclusive,” says Pamala Beavis, director of development and communications at the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation. “For our staff and clients it wouldn’t matter what the price of the tickets was. Our constituency, our stakeholders, are just not in a position to attend last year or this year.”

Fashion Cares host Jay Manuel suggests that this year’s Fashion Cares was even more accessible than in the past.

“I don’t think this is so exclusive, this year especially,” he told Xtra the night of the show. “Chip and his team, and everybody here, are producing this show for television. It’s more of a national show, so it’s going to reach everyone, which is the most important thing.”

Among other changes, this year’s boutique featured a smaller number of local designers in contrast with previous years, and the gala didn’t include a fashion show.

“A fashion show is nothing without a runway, period,” says Fashion Cares attendee Enza Anderson. “When you talk fashion, you talk runway, that’s what was missing.”

Karsan concedes there was more of a focus on entertainment this year, but claims that a planned fashion show had to be cancelled at the last minute because of wind conditions in the open air venue.

The Distillery District location prompted other changes in the program as well. Rather than serving dinner in a single large banquet hall with live entertainment as was done in the past, guests were given set menus at restaurants and art galleries throughout the district.

“In past years you had the chance to mingle in the big gala area, and a lot of people missed that this year,” says Anderson. “That was the best thing of Fashion Cares: all the socializing with big media types, watching what people were wearing, talking about who was there, going to individual tables and connecting.”

The open air venue made temperature a factor, too. With the mercury dipping to six degrees, the slow trickle of guests leaving during the opening live auction grew to a steady stream by the time Rock Star: INXS runner-up Suzie McNeil took the stage halfway through the program. By the time headliner Kelly Rowland was introduced, only a few hundred of the approximately 3,000 attendees were left.

“It was obvious that it was a complete change from the years past,” says Anderson. “I think they wanted to try something different, but it may have backfired. What I really missed was that whole theatrical presence, that mystifying transition from one show to the next.”

Karsan rejects the complaints but offers that next year’s Fashion Cares — already in the planning — will take into account what the organization learned from this year’s party.

“Fashion Cares has always strived to reinvent itself and be fresh and innovative, and part of that process is to reflect on past events and make the event better every year,” he says. “Every year we leverage our success from prior years and think about how we can make the event better.”

VIDEO: Check out some highlights of Fashion Cares 2007: