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Haute Couture & Health-care Annual fashion gala highlights designers, HIV/AIDS awareness.

with the holiday season approaching, calendars are filling with company parties, Christmas activities, and family gatherings. This year, Memphians have another event to include in their December plans, as the Annual Designer and Retailer Fashion Gala returns to downtown Memphis.

The gala is a three-day event culminating with a fashion show at downtown's Central Station on December 12th. The weekend is sponsored by L.R. Clothier owner and Memphis Live! talent-show founder James Davis. This year, Davis has expanded the gala to include more designers. Previous galas only highlighted local African-American designers.

In addition, Davis has included HIV/AIDS awareness in the three-day event. "The entertainment aspect is great, but from the beginning my goal has always been to help the community," says Davis. "The fashion industry has always been one that has been typically associated with behaviors that are many times causes for the disease -- homosexuality, drugs, partying -- so this was just a natural subject for us to get involved in." A partnership with Friends for Life and the newly formed grassroots organization Black AIDS Memphis will provide onsite testing and educational materials. The event, which occurs 11 days after World AIDS Day on December 1st, also functions as a promotion for National Black HIV/AIDS Day on February 7th.

Since his first show in 2002, Davis' mission has been to expand the show into a fashion week, similar to those in Milan, New York City, and Paris. This year's event has progressed to include an industry forum with professionals discussing their trade and hints on breaking into the business.

As an independent designer and retail professional, Davis, along with other small designers, created the show to highlight their fashions and educate shoppers about alternative apparel. Attendance for the first two shows reached about 500 people, and more than 700 are expected this year.

What has kept the gala so successful has been its creativity and authenticity. Each aspect of the gala is styled after industry events. For example, models are taller and slimmer than the models typically seen in local shows. Instead of dividing the show into evening wear, casual, and business attire, models showcase fashions from individual designers. While traveling fashion shows like the Ebony Fashion Show include narration for an entertainment flare, the gala features prerecorded music, audio sound bites, and voiceovers for a more professional feel. Even makeup is different, with gala models wearing the dramatic styles seen in runway shows like those in America's Next Top Model.

"We are trying to move Memphis into a more mainstream-type modeling city," says Davis. "What we see here most of the time are fashion shows with church-type entertainment featuring 'Southern-size' female models. With this show, we hope to portray actual runway modeling."

Fashions will include Davis' luxury collection inspired by the ever-changing fashion icon Prince. In addition, models in a special HIV/AIDS segment will don Grim Reaper-style capes as they walk the runway to a somber musical accompaniment and hold placards of local and national disease statistics.

Since last year's event, Davis has received several requests for help from other groups interested in producing similar activities. As part of the effort for continued expansion and exposure, Davis is working with city officials to designate a fashion week in Memphis.

"We know that we are moving in the right direction with this show because the interest increases each year," says Davis. "We always measure the success of the gala according to feedback from the audience. What we are doing is making a mindset change, and we are getting there more and more each year." ¥

Fashion Gala events are open to the public, and spaces are still available for designers to participate in the runway show or as vendors. Events begin on Friday, December 10th, with the Designer, Model, and Martini Pre-Party and end with the fashion show on December 12th. For more information, call 864-7196.

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