Where to look first?

At Ebony Fashion Fair, the show on stage is rivaled only by the resplendence of the audience.

October 06, 2002|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Fresh from a weekend of shopping in Montreal, Sally Brown is eager to show off her new wares. Pulling a pair of stiletto-heeled black boots out of her bag, she holds them up and coos: "Aren't they something?"

Made from soft leather by designer Stuart Weitzman, the boots are, indeed, something to talk about. And among the friends and family gathered in the living room of Alberta Campbell, they're also something to rival.

"How about this tie," boasts Charles McCoy, Brown's 44-year-old nephew, straightening a pink-and-silver striped tie beneath his gray suit jacket. "Gianni Versace started this striped look, and I love it. But now I'm thinking maybe I should wear it with a brighter suit."

From the far corner of the room, Sally's sister, Betty Brown, chimes in. "This coat is a lot like the dress Jennifer Aniston wore to the Emmys," she says of a floor-length leather jacket, cut out at the shoulders, that she bought at boutique in New York. "Maybe I inspired her!"

In this group, fashion is always a hot topic. But at this time of year, it's not just hot: it's pressing. Campbell's group is getting ready for the Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual extravaganza to be held here in Baltimore. For them, the event is not about who you are, but what you wear.

A week from today, the fair will take place at Morgan State University to showcase the latest from top designers including Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta. Despite its lineup of big-name designers, the fair is nothing like the typical fashion show: a 10-minute long presentation of pouty-faced models showing off one season's worth of clothes.

Fashion and fun

Instead, the Ebony Fair is an entire evening of fashion and entertainment. Throughout the two-hour show, a crop of leggy models parades the runway to music from a live band - smiling, dancing and engaging the audience. There are regular catcalls from show-goers, particularly when the few male models appear. Between collections that include swimwear, eveningwear and bridal, there are raffles and presentations by a local celebrity emcee. This year's host is Karen Parks of Fox News.

But as any regular attendee will attest, the real show is in the lobby. An hour before the fair begins, show-goers gather in front of the auditorium to socialize, take pictures, and, of course, stare.

"That's when you get to see what everyone else is wearing," said Campbell. "And you want to look good."

For more than 30 years, Campbell and about 15 friends and family members have attended the fair together. Most of the group lives on or near Campbell's block in south Baltimore. For Campbell, who works at the Nevamar factory in Odenton, it's a chance for people to outdo their Sunday best.

"People are even dressing kind of casual for church these days," she said. "So it's really exciting to put on all our finery."

To look their best, veteran show-goers begin preparing months in advance.

First, there are the tickets, sold by the fair's local sponsor, the Baltimore Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Front-row seats are hard to come by, and usually reserved for long-time attendees like Campbell's group. Doris Nash, the fair's top ticket seller in Baltimore since 1963, said her phone usually starts ringing in June. "Once one show ends, people start preparing for the next," she said.

Then, there's the shopping. "We go all over - New York, Tysons Corner - to shop for something to wear to the fair," said Caroline Matthews, who's been attending the show with Campbell's group since the 1960s. "We always want to make sure we find something different, something that no one else will be wearing."

Although they don't always shop together, the group consults each other on their outfits.

"We always get together to talk about what we're going to wear before the show," said Sally Brown, who works at Nevamar with Campbell. "You want to look your best - it's part of the tradition."

This tradition has made for some memorable outfits. McCoy, one of about 200 men who attend the show, recalled one year he raised eyebrows in a bright orange suit he bought at Neiman Marcus. "That was definitely one of my best suits," he said. McCoy, who owns a limousine service, goes to Georgetown several times a year to shop. He likes Italian suits and wears his hair in a tight ponytail, a look he said is inspired by Karl Lagerfeld, one of his favorite designers.

For Campbell, the most standout fair was in 1996, when she wore a black leather suit with a sequined collar that she bought in New York. During the show, a male model wearing a tuxedo stepped off the stage, took her hand and danced with her. "I got all the attention that night," said Campbell. "People were screaming and laughing - I was the talk of the town for weeks."

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