Phillip Ing is more stressed than ever. No wonder. Besides a demanding full-time position at MAC Cosmetics, the creative mastermind behind the fundraising phenomenon Fashion Cares is mere weeks from his swan song as artistic director and show producer of all but one of its 20 years.
Called Two Decades Of Drama, Daring And Dreams, this year’s retrospective edition marks the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT) fundraiser’s 20th anniversary. Expectations from the fashion, social and fundraising worlds are riding high.
“I don’t want to relax by thinking I’m at the end of something,” confesses the Windsor, Ontario-born Ing. “Believe me, there’s no relaxing until this one’s over. This one especially is a bit of a trick.”
On top of everything else, a celebratory coffee-table book will be unveiled that night, chronicling the faces, memories and showstopping looks behind two decades of fashion caring.
“That did me in,” Ing says of the commemorative project (which I’m helping to put together). “I swear I know the shoe size of every model all over again. Every day we’ve relived 1993 or 1996 or 2000. Someone will ask, ‘Do you remember the dress I donated with the transfers on it?’ and the crazy thing is half the time I do.”
Retaining such minutia must be symptomatic of a wholehearted devotion to a single cause for so long; Ing effectively gave away a huge chunk of his life.
Not that he expected that back in 1986, when he and cofounders Syd Beder and Rick Mugford first created a concept to raise money for a little-known organization struggling to react to a little-known disease frightening the world and, in particular, the world of gay men.
“In my letter in the coffee-table book I talk about how we were young, how we were having a great time,” Ing says. “Then you heard about AIDS. A friend of ours already had Kaposi’s sarcoma. He was scared out of his mind. They were saying it looked like a cancer. Then they started calling it ‘gay cancer.’ You heard other crazy things, like, ‘It must have come from Haiti.’ Everyone thought you could get it from being in the same room or through handshakes.”
Fashion Cares was born as an immediate, emotional, radical response. Its name was taken with permission from Brit PR guru Lynne Franks (the inspiration behind the riotous Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous) who had created an event of the same name. Ing had been producing over-the-top theatrical fashion shows for the Festival Of Canadian Fashion when the task fell on his shoulders. “I had learned how to do a big theatrical show before I learned how to do a straight runway show,” he recalls. “I had no interest in doing a typical fashion show. So in some ways I feel they got the right guy.”
Held at the Diamond Club (now the Phoenix on Sherbourne St), the first soirée attracted 400 industry types who paid $10 each. UK singer Petula Clarke, who happened to be in Toronto, was the inadvertent famed name in attendance.
Ing helmed the show on crutches in a crow’s-nest high above the crowd; he had broken his ankle during rehearsals. “I was mess!” he laughs. Ing might have been hobbling but the inaugural Fashion Cares went full strut. “You know when a club is screaming and rocking? It was just incredible,” Ing says. “We had a huge show. Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan from MAC Cosmetics were backstage as our makeup team, and the hair teams were putting mud and glass shards in models’ hair. We spent hours putting in this glass only to find out the stage was high and no one would see it.”
Regardless, Fashion Cares had a hot reputation by the end of minute one. From there, Ing believes, it evolved in tandem with AIDS awareness. “It’s not that people didn’t know about AIDS in 1987 — the gay population started to know for sure because we had to — but mainstream it was still pretty scary. It was the moralistic period. People would say, ‘What are you involved with that for?'”
But by the ’90s it became easier to add more influential people to the team, or, as Ing terms, “socialites with great hearts and a lot of gay friends who were dying…. But when I think about its evolution there is one consistency: the designers, the modelling agents, the hair and makeup people. They have been there from year one to 20 and that’s been unwavering. Those people have been dedicated as long as I have.”
Fashion Cares took on a life of its own, creating a demand for fresh, titillating themes year after year. The first decade saw a collaborative effort but in the last 10 years responsibility fell on Ing to create a new theme. High pressure? “If there was pressure on me, it was to make it different from year-to-year,” says Ing. “But if I ever thought, ‘Top this; top that,’ I’d go crazy. All I could think about was what would make a good theme, but different.”
The event soon demanded bigger venues. Fashion Blooms and the Crystal Ball were at St Lawrence Market. Red, Hot And Blue was at the Masonic Temple. Rags To Riches took the event to Showline Movie Studios, while Arcouture — an Ing favourite — was held at BCE Place. Wings Of Life (aka the Poseidon Adventure) landed Fashion Cares on Toronto Island on a stormy night that saw many soaking wet attendees miss the last ferry back to the mainland. Settling in at Moss Park Armory, the show sashayed down a 70-foot runway, selling out a thousand tickets for years.
Fashion Cares entered the realm of larger-than-life expectations when celebrity performers became part of the extravaganza. “I knew we were heading toward the era of celebrities,” Ing notes. “I thought, ‘Once we get into this, we’re hooked in.'”
They were. Wings Of Life in 1994 signalled the beginning of MAC Cosmetics’ involvement as title sponsor, and with that came the first celebrity performance: Jennifer Holiday, from Dreamgirls. “MAC wanted it to be a surprise,” he recalls. “It was such a surprise when she came out that half the audience thought it was a drag queen.”
RuPaul, Gloria Gaynor and an 18-year old Ashley MacIsaac came on board the next year, creating a real lineup. “It is the hardest thing in the world to go after people to donate their time and work around schedules,” says Ing. “I hand it to every entertainment chair that’s ever sat in that position. Looking for people is a nightmare.”
As Fashion Cares grew, it courted controversy. Many people, from volunteers to attendees to sideline observers, have argued and continue to argue that the emphasis on a show forces the actual cause into a dark corner. When posters for Casino in 2003 didn’t even have the words AIDS Committee Of Toronto on them, some declared fashion didn’t care.
“Fashion doesn’t care?” asks Ing. “Bullshit.” Ing pays no heed to critics. “I never lost sight of the cause and I never listened to those people, quite honestly,” he says. “If I think about that then I can barely breathe. You do have to shield yourself away from it.
“We were making money and we were giving it to ACT and we were fighting AIDS. I have never once forgotten that Fashion Cares is an AIDS fundraiser.
“There’s a lot of criticism of Fashion Cares attracting a party crowd only,” he admits. “But people can support a cause and like a party at the same time. They can also be very good at putting on a party and still be devoted to what it stands for.”
Despite steering an event that has thus far raised $9 million for ACT, it must have been tempting to throw in the towel some times. “I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind,” laughs Ing. “There have been very difficult years. My job is very demanding outside of this. The plate is sometimes way too full. But on years like that you get to the other side and realize those are the best years and it propels you to the next.”
This time there won’t be a next year for Ing unless, of course, he’s attending. “I could even have dinner!” he laughs — maybe on the arm of his partner of 18 years, whom Ing calls, “one of the most understanding people in the world.”
As an era ends Ing says he’s taking much away from both an exceptional experience and the cause that started it all. “Fashion Cares stretched the hell out of me,” he says. “It stretches your imagination, it stretches your humanity, your sense of self.
“But the one thing you learn from AIDS itself is you can’t judge humanity that hard. For this reason Fashion Cares has been really gratifying. I can feel good because I made a commitment to a cause that is dear to me. I think Syd said in year 10, ‘I hope there isn’t a year 20.’
“I just hope there isn’t a year 30.”