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Tents strut their stuff at Fashion Week

Project Briefs | June 1, 2009 | By:

Fashionistas flock to the Great White Tent for a week of couture events.

Music with driving percussion and dissonant notes, spontaneous bursts of clapping and occasional whoops filled the black-veiled tent. All eyes focused on the catwalk and the stone-faced models strutting the runway: down, U-turn, back; down, U-turn, back.

When the show ended, the crowd of 700 erupted in applause for the haute couture of Juan Carlos Obando—a triumphant cap for Fashion Week El Paseo’s Great White Tent.

A week earlier, executive director Susan Stein hit the deck in that same tent. On March 22, the eve of Fashion Week, what meteorologists called a “downslope wind event” brought gusts up to 60 mph to the city of Palm Desert’s fashion boulevard. Stein was in the tent alone checking on final preparations when the gusts peaked.

“I was literally lying on the ground for fear,” she recalls. Tent walls flapped out of control. Fortunately, help arrived shortly. While they were not concerned with the integrity of the structure, rated to withstand 90 mph winds, Stein says, “We were afraid mannequins would be knocked over, so we laid them down.”

The wind died by 10 p.m. and stayed away the rest of the week. Ultimately, the problems facing Stein were crowding at the runway tent doors and stains caused by guests who placed wineglasses on platforms displaying matching apparel and chair fashions.

“You definitely need numbered seats,” Stein says, “and we needed more doors for the entrance. We had two and could have used four.” Instead of circulating in the lounge (a 40-by-60-foot “antetent”), guests — eager to get good seats — massed by the doors to the 25-by-35-meter main tent. As for wineglass stains, Stein says in hindsight she would have covered the platforms with black material.

Organizers were happy with two changes made for the fourth annual event: lowering the runway from 30 to 24 inches and adding a photographers’ platform at the end of the runway, both optimizing views.

The week began with The Great Fashion Cut-Off Event, a hair-cutting fundraiser that required 20 stations for 40 makeup and hair stylists and attracted 100 guests in the main tent. Hours later, the tent had to be reset for the opening-night martini party/runway show that attracted more than 500 guests. The next day, rows of chairs on either side of the runway were replaced with 30 60-inch round tables for a luncheon and silent auction. By midafternoon, work crews began breaking down the tables and returning the seating to rows.

Events included the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Project Runway competition among local interior designers creating fashions made with the standard materials of their trade and a show of collections by students at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. Just as the runway styles of each show had their own flavor, so did the setting, with an appropriate selection of music and lighting. But the real drama came with the Saturday night finale.

Obando wanted a dramatic setting. Tent walls, the backdrop and runway were covered with black velon. Only runway lights were used, in addition to the two lights on armatures that moved over the room. Fog diffused the light and created even more drama.

Although Fashion Week ended on Saturday night, the tents remained on the site for another day to accommodate a bachelor auction fundraiser. “They wanted to be part of [Fashion Week],” Stein says, “but we didn’t feel it fit in.” However, Fashion Week organizers rented them the tent and reaped even more reward.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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