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COMMUNITY: 
After 25 years battling the ravages of AIDS, Fashion Cares goes out with a glittering, star-studded bang

 

Phillip Ing is the Cher of gala fundraisers — his farewell tour from six years ago isn’t over yet.

Ing resigned in 2006 after two decades at the helm of Fashion Cares, Toronto’s ritziest and boldest AIDS fundraiser, leaving many to wonder if the event would ever be the same. The gala in 2007 — only the second Fashion Cares without Ing as artistic director — was an outdoor burlesque-themed show titled Peep in Toronto’s Distillery District that, even to this day, connotes the word “disaster” among those who attended. It was too cold — temperatures dipped to single digits, freezing those fashionistas who were scantly-clad (which, if you’ve ever been to Fashion Cares, accounts for many). Tickets were expensive and the terrain was tough — the Distillery’s cobblestone roads didn’t wear well with high heels.

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But in 2008, with Ing again in charge, Fashion Cares staged a successful comeback — an Alfred Hitchcock-themed bash coinciding with Halloween, dubbed Fashion sCares. The event returned to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, entrepreneur Michael King was appointed co-chair and Katy Perry, who had just broken onto the scene, performed her breakthrough single “I Kissed a Girl.” The whacky costume party raised nearly $1 million for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT); to date, Fashion Cares has raised approximately $12 million for ACT.

Now, after a four-year hiatus for the event, and with Ing still in artistic command, he faces what could be the biggest challenge in Fashion Cares history — staging the event’s 25th anniversary, which also happens to be the last Fashion Cares. Ever.

“You get mixed emotions about the whole thing,” says Ing. “To have the opportunity to give back has been incredible, so it’s fulfilling that way. But it’s been horrifying at the same time. A few years ago you thought HIV/AIDS would consume the world.”

The MAC Viva Glam-sponsored event, titled Fashion Cares 25: A Night of Glitter and Light, will be spread across three locations, starting with a VIP dinner (for those who write the big cheques) at the Royal York Hotel, followed by an open-bar reception and celebrity-studded show at the Sony Centre. An after-party will be held at Maison in the Entertainment District.

The main show, hosted by supermodel Linda Evangelista and Toronto-born designers Dean and Dan Caten of Dsquared2, will feature headliner Sir Elton John (whose husband, Scarborough-born David Furnish, is also a Fashion Cares co-chair).

“It feels like the closing ceremonies of the Olympics.”

 

Previous Fashion Cares have boasted celebrity icons, from Geri Halliwell to Pamela Anderson, but as far as organizers are concerned, the Rocket Man is the biggest headliner they’ve ever had. “People always thought he was going to pop out of a cake over the past years, but this is the real thing,” says Michael King.

John will play a 30-minute set alongside separate performances by the Scissor Sisters, Janelle Monáe and Sky Ferreira. The two-and-a-half hour show will end with a “dazzling” grand finale featuring a star-studded list of Canadian talent, including Billy Newton Davis, Carole Pope, Jully Black, Kreesha Turner, Diamond Rings, Keshia Chanté, Shawn Desman and more.

“We have a runway segment, but it’s not on a runway, which is a huge change for me,” says Ing. “It’s a concert. That’s the big change.”

That’s not to say fashion won’t play its part. The show includes an extravagant runway presentation of 25 dresses by 25 designers, including Pink Tartan, David Dixon, Greta Constantine, Hoax Couture, Gareth Pugh, Manish Aurora and DSquared2.

“It feels like the closing ceremonies of the Olympics,” says Kirk Pickersgill of Greta Constantine.

King says the show contains nudity and may generate gasps from the audience. “It’s not meant to shock, but live up to the tradition of Fashion Cares by taking you to places most people don’t get to go very often.”

Another highlight is the pre-show party, where 20 of Elton John’s most memorable outfits will be displayed in the main and upper lobbies of the Sony Centre. King calls them museum-quality pieces that “most would probably never get to see.” There will also be a 25-year retrospective of opulent garments (and models) from past events — historical pieces donated by some of Fashion Cares’ longest supporters, from Susan Dicks to Vivienne Westwood.

The glamour guns are loaded. But will it work? The last time Fashion Cares changed locations, well, you know the story.

“The team considered returning to the convention centre, but it didn’t make sense,” says King. This year’s Fashion Cares runs at the same time as the Toronto International Film Festival, which would have made it difficult to rent equipment for a large-scale event. And, King adds, the space had to be “acoustically correct” for Sir Elton’s show.

Ing, who started planning two years ago with a team of some 100 volunteers, agrees. “We’re in a real theatre,” he says.

It’s a huge leap from where Fashion Cares began — the humble settings of the Diamond Club (now the Phoenix on Sherbourne) in 1987, a grassroots event that drew 400 people and raised about $40,000, says Ing.

“The community was amazing that night. Everyone cheered and went crazy,” Ing recalls.

There was a sense of urgency then to curb the death toll of HIV/AIDS. “Nobody knew what it was. All you did know is that if you had sex, you could spread it through bodily fluids. That alone was horrifying enough,” says Ing.

ACT benefitted from the start. For two decades the organization has relied on Fashion Cares to fund its programs and services for those living with, and affected by, and at risk for HIV/AIDS. As of 2008, Fashion Cares supported a quarter of ACT’s operating budget.

But times and the economy have changed. Organizers feel it isn’t necessary to give the finger — a glamorous finger — to death anymore. “The disease has changed,” says Ing. “HIV/AIDS has become a controllable disease, it’s treated differently compared to when there was a sense of urgency. We had to recognize that the event would change as well.”

King points to tough economic times and the changing landscape in philanthropy to explain why massive galas are going out of fashion. “The big spectacle is gone,” he says, noting the demise of Toronto’s Brazilian Ball. “The trend is to go back to grassroots events.”

So you might as well go out with a bang.

Daniel Knox, director of development at ACT, says the organization will survive, even if Fashion Cares folds. “It has had a great run over the years, outlasting many other large gala fundraising events,” writes Knox in an email.

Since the last Fashion Cares, ACT has focused on increasing revenue from its other fundraisers, such as the AIDS Walk and the SNAP! photography auction — efforts that have translated into annual increases upwards of 10 percent per year, writes Knox.

This year ACT will share proceeds from Fashion Cares with the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). The New York-based organization is “creating a special grants program that will make funds raised from Fashion Cares 25 available to AIDS service organizations in Canada through an application process,” states a press release.

For Ing, Fashion Cares 25 is about hope — “a light at the end of the tunnel” — and recognition of the intense battle waged against a disease once considered a death sentence.

“It’s a reaffirmation that, as a community, we’ve come together to support a cause,” says Ing. “You have to celebrate that.”


FASHION CARES 25 Sun, Sep 9. Dinner. $2,500. 6pm. Royal York Hotel. 100 Front St W. $500-$1,500. VIP cocktails (5:30pm), pre-party (6:30pm) and show (8pm). Sony Centre. 1 Front St E. After-party. 10:30pm. Maison Mercer. 15 Mercer St. fashioncares.com. ticketmaster.ca.

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