With a well-dressed crowd, a sharp designer with a sparkling wit, and a style icon who was moved to tears, the Passion for Fashion Luncheon at the River Oaks Country Club was one of the longtime event's most memorable outings.
Meeting fashion designer Rubin Singer was a great start to the week for the 220 guests who attended the luncheon, which benefits Houston Community College's fashion and interior design programs. In fact, as emcee Neil Hamil described him, Singer is downright charming.
As the featured designer this year, Singer flew in from New York City for the annual event and also debuted his evening-inspired fall 2017 ready-to-wear collection at Elizabeth Anthony. The line focuses on what Singer does best: draping, bold color, beautiful fabrics and corsetry. And women familiar with his work know it.
“When I wear his designs, it makes me feel really special and beautiful,” Melissa Mafrige Mithoff said. “I think he has an incredible flair for that.”
Introduced by event co-chairs Courtney Hopson and Elizabeth Petersen, Mithoff received the HCC Design Society Fashion Icon Award. Mithoff, who recalled that she first got involved with the luncheon in 2012 when she co-chaired with Rosemarie Johnson, was visibly moved by the heartfelt tributes from good friends Hopson and Petersen.
HCC announced a study trip to New York will be awarded in Mithoff’s name to an outstanding student in its fashion program. “I love supporting our future and knowing that those students today are going to be the trendsetters and style setters of our future,” Mithoff said.
She wore a gray and white print dress with matching cape from Singer’s fall line that was instantly met with loud applause when the same look appeared on the runway during the fashion show portion of the program. More than 30 looks racheted up the drama, with the biggest “oohs” and “aahs” coming in reaction to the gowns in rich jewel tones while a dance remix of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” pumped through the speakers.
Well, Marvin, luncheon-goers hadn’t even heard the half of it yet.
Background and Beyoncé
Following the fashion show, Singer sat down with CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh for an on-stage interview, something that has become a tradition at Passion for Fashion events.
Singer shared stories of his background, with a moving remembrance of his grandfather (for whom he is named) who escaped from the Nazis in Poland at the start of World War II only to be captured in the Soviet Union, where a commanding officer gave his grandfather a needle and thread and asked him to make a suit. Shortly after that, his grandfather ended up in Moscow where he would go on to become a leading couturier in the Soviet Union. He passed those skills on to Singer’s father who became director of the Bolshoi Ballet.
Singer’s family history of design led to a story about a woman with a dynasty of her own: Beyoncé. Singer designed the Houston native’s bodysuit for the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show and he revealed that when it came to creating the fiercest outfit, he and Queen Bey were on the same wavelength.
“The concept was based on Valkyries, the Norse mythological goddesses who decide who wins and who dies in battle,” Singer explained. “I gave her this whole explanation, and she said, ‘Have you been living in my head?’ and I said, ‘No, have you been living in mine?’”
The Super Bowl piece, he added, is what took his career full throttle. It shifted into another speed earlier this year when Singer became the first designer in the industry to do a runway show 30,000 feet in the air on a commercial Lufthansa flight.
We know airplane bathrooms aren’t exactly suited for, well, anything, let alone a model quick-change. Singer said the second floor of the 747 jetliner was reserved for models and clothes but getting them ready for their in-flight catwalk required more creativity. “We couldn’t bring any blow driers or steamers or any of the things that you need to pull off what you just saw happen here, so we were doing hair with all types of different utensils they could find on the plane,” he exclaimed.
The interview closed with 10 brief questions modeled after a segment on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Among the fast facts: The other profession Singer would attempt is dance and his least favorite word is "basic." Judging by the groans and laughter in the room, quite a few people would have to agree on the latter. He also drew some gasps and loud applause when he unveiled his favorite curse word in his best New York accent.
The buzz around Singer continued when his collection was placed in the lobby for everyone to see and feel up close. You could hear design students gushing over the textures as they hustled to get a picture with Singer, who was standing on the other side of the garment racks, greeting guests.
Meets with HCC students
The day before the luncheon, Singer stopped by HCC to talk to students, something he said is one of the most rewarding parts of his career.
“This particular business is so specific and so complex and dynamic that my biggest focus in speaking to them was to make sure this is what they wanted to do, and if this was truly their calling, then to follow it without any doubt,” Singer said.
He wasn’t the only well-known name throwing his support behind the designers training at HCC. Also at the fundraiser were Jeff Shell, Ally Shell, Gina Gaston, former Passion for Fashion icons Kelli Cohen Fein and Phoebe Tudor, Kay King, Passion for Fashion founder Julia Anderson Frankel, Elizabeth Anthony owner Julie Roberts, Susan Sarofim, Ceron, Jeanne Ruberti, HCC division chair of Lifestyle, Arts & Design Careers Suzette Brimmer, HCC Foundation interim executive director Robert King, and gospel singer Yolanda Adams.
Adams has partnered with Passion for Fashion every year after Merele Yarborough, a former Passion for Fashion icon, got her involved. “I started investing in some of the students to let them know that you don’t have to leave Houston to be a big deal,” Adams said.
At the luncheon, it appears she liked what she saw. Adams checked out the HCC fashion students’ collections featured in the lobby and gave them rave reviews. “I love everything from the purses to the interior designs to the jackets to the faux furs,” Adams said. “I mean everything you want they basically have it here.”
Kitty DuPas, a fashion merchandising student at HCC, was one of the designers who talked to Adams about her work and the chance to put it in front of some of Houston’s most stylish women. “The opportunity to be here is great because the sponsors get to see what the students are doing and where they’re putting their money,” DuPas said.
Interior design portfolios at the luncheon showcased a healthcare project created through a partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
This semester, HCC’s Commercial Interior Design Studio class conceptualized and designed 25,000 square feet of MD Anderson’s Mays Breast Cancer Clinic. The project ended with 14 student presentation boards that will be installed at the clinic this month for public viewing.
Those floor plans, complete with the inspiration for areas such as the nurses station and examination room, drew just as much attention at the event as the student clothing designs on each side of them.