In couture shops throughout Orange County, cash registers are ringing. Customers are shopping in record numbers for what will be the most important society event of the season--opening night of the Performing Arts Center.
"It doesn't seem that price is an object. . . . The women want to look the best they've ever looked," said Connie Moyer, manager of the South Coast Plaza Nordstrom couture department, where policy dictates that no two customers will be sold the same dress for the black-tie event on Sept 29. "They're buying ball gowns, long silk taffetas--the really wonderful Scarlett O'Hara gowns, velvets and beaded dresses."
And no one had to remind Center supporters to start shopping early.
Center trustee Kathryn G. Thompson first discussed her ensemble with Newport Beach fashion designer Gildas in March. Since then, he's been hand-crocheting 12 pounds of crystal beads and sequins, one by one, to her strapless gown and matching beaded opera-length gloves. Gildas estimates 140 hours of work will be needed to complete the set. It must be measured to the millimeter because no alterations are possible once the beads are in place.
"I'm very picky, picky," said Gildas, who like many designers, goes by a single name. "We have four--maybe five fittings." He is equally picky about his beads, which will be predominantly green. He discards any with the slightest chip, lest they mar the appearance of the dress, or break a thread and cause a chain reaction of beads to splatter on the theater floor.
Thompson's escort, real estate developer Gus Owen, will wear a beaded cummerbund and tie, done in a wave pattern that is similar, but subtler. "It's for a man so we couldn't go crazy with the beads," said the designer. All this, of course, at a price running into the thousands, but, as is usual in the couture world, nobody is telling exactly how much.
Susan Beard Hanna chose her gown three months ago. "I bought it before I even got the ticket invitation. Then, I thought, 'what if I don't get an invitation?' I thought, 'gosh, what if they're booked up?' " As a donor to the Center, however, Hanna was among the first to receive a letter of invitation, so her original Galanos will indeed debut at the 7 p.m. concert. The gown is opulent, pleated at the bodice, jeweled at the neckline and in her own words, "really dreamy--it must have 400 yards of navy blue chiffon in the skirt."
Fashion shows have been touting opulent opening night gowns since early June, when members of all 43 Center guilds met at the Anaheim Hilton for their annual fashion show and luncheon. "We opened with glitzy opening night looks and ended with important ball gowns," recalled Kitty Leslie, fashion coordinator for the Fashion Island Merchants Assn.
Leslie alluded to opening night in subsequent shows as well, carefully distinguishing between gowns appropriate to the occasion and those to avoid. "One dress was a very form-fitting re-embroidered lace that flared out into cha-cha ruffles. In a theater it would be overflowing on your partner," Leslie said.
Local retailers have been catering to the opening night fever all summer. Nordstrom geared trunk shows to the event, while I. Magnin featured informal modeling.
"We're selling a lot of sparkle and sequins, a lot of beaded dresses. The women would not settle for just anything," offered Ana Yurkovich of Bullocks Wilshire in Fashion Island. As popular choices for opening night, she named Victoria Royal's beaded dresses, Richilene's taffeta-skirted ball gowns and Vicky Tiel's collection of "you-must-have-a-good-figure dresses."
Newport Beach boutique owner Amen Wardy said he sold Bob Mackies, Valentinos and Ungaros for the occasion. He said that women started shopping as soon as the latest collections debuted in July. "My customers don't wait until the last minute," Wardy said.
Floss Schumacher shopped early, but she still hasn't decided upon her opening night attire. Running neck and neck for the honor are a champagne-colored, silk-satin pants set and a long black and white Luiz Archer gown. She already ruled out her new calf-length Bob Mackie for the big event.
"This is a showoff night for the Center," declared Schumacher, the Center's vice president of special events. "The Center is so gorgeous that I thought I should be understated." Schumacher also considered each selection's wrinkle potential and discomfort factor. "I felt that sitting through a two-hour concert is hard on a gown. Beads or taffeta can be bunglesome. But as chairman of the post-party, I will be visible."
Leftover gowns won't go to waste, however. Schumacher has earmarked the Bob Mackie and opening night's runner-up for one of five other black-tie events that she and husband, Ed, will attend in celebration of the Center. Said Schumacher: "We have tickets to everything ."
Willa Dean Lyon, wife of AirCal President William Lyon, a major Center donor, hasn't decided upon her dress either. She purchased two white Galanos gowns.