In 1985, actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and America was riveted by the revelation. But the design industries across the country had already been riveted by revelations like this for several years. And it had nothing to do with celebrities.
In April of 1984 in New York, textile designer Pat Green held a meeting with various industry colleagues who were all concerned about this strange new disease and the havoc it was wreaking. They founded DIFFA New York - the Design Industries' Foundation Fighting AIDS.
Also in 1984, in Dallas, Stephen Burrus and other concerned industry colleagues met in an empty back office at celebrated interior designer Sherry Haslip's and immediately formed DIFFA Dallas, Burrus was the first Executive Director, later dying of the disease he tried to help eradicate.
1984 was also the year that the notorious Patient Zero died. So stigmatized by the very mention of it, it was a time when you coughed or sneezed and everybody automatically presumed you had AIDS. Fashionably thin meant fashionably suspect, and even if you were overweight, you didn't dare lose a single pound.
By the time design stars like makeup artist Way Bandy, clothing designer Perry Ellis, and art dealer Xavier Fourcadehad died, virtually everybody in the design communities had already been to at least one AIDS-related funeral. It wasn't the stars who had been dying, it was the design assistants, the delivery people, the event planners, the florists, the interns... an ever-growing silent majority whose voices could no longer be kept silent.
Says Carol Yeates Quist, DIFFA Dallas Board member and Chapter Secretary, 'People from all walks of life were getting it (AIDS), and that's what people didn't realize. In the beginning it wasn't just hairdressers and florists who contracted the disease. People who worked in restaurants, people that worked at Neiman-Marcus. I used to go to this really tiny little coffee shop near where the Crescent is. I used to stop by in the morning after I'd work out before work and get coffee and a carry-out breakfast. I went to New York for two weeks and when I came back I said, 'Where's Michael?' He was the owner and they said, 'He died." And it was over like that. People didn't live long with AIDS back then."
Jan Dedrie Pfeffer Strimple is Dallas' reigning queen of all things fashionable. People are passionate about Strimple and her work, whether they love her or loathe her. A stunning and successful model, Strimple took her knowledge of the runway and parlayed it into a career as Dallas' premier fashion show producer, noted for attention to details, and expecting excellence from all involved.
"I remember the first DIFFA show, I modeled in it when it was at the Anatole at a bar called Mistral. It was a bunch of local designers using donated fabric to make gowns to be auctioned off. But not everybody wants to buy a size 2 dress," says Strimple. Longtime DIFFA volunteer, costume designer John Ahrens, who has worked on every DIFFA event with the exception of two, since 1988, agrees. He says, "The first year, only 150 people showed up and we all did dresses for a model in a runway show. The aim was to sell them. We didn't sell any." The designers, included Ahrens, Jan Barboglio, Michael Ballas, Victor Costa, Christopher Fallon, and Michael Faircloth.
"Womenswear Daily had done a story on an event that was done at Barney's New York. There were 13 designers and Barney's had asked them to each make an iconic American jeans jacket and redesign it. I remember seeing a picture of Madonna on a spiral staircase wearing the jeans jacket she had designed... and that's how DIFFA began with the denim jackets, in 1989 at the Infomart," says Strimple. Ahrens again concurred, stating, "The denim jackets gave the show a new life."
Ahrens continues, "Levi-Strauss was a sponsor and they were very, very, very cognizant of their brand, and I can't tell you how many times I had to sew those little red labels on jackets that were not Levi's. They could spot them on a 100-foot runway like radar. Neiman's worked with us and asked designers such as Christian Lacroix, Victor Costa, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Bob Mackie and Oscar de la Renta to redesign and redefine the classic, iconic American jeans jacket and displayed the 123 jackets in their store. They have always been there from the beginning, providing support and contacts. In fact they have a window up downtown For DIFFA right now." DIFFA stuck with the successful denim jacket format for years.
1990's jacket auction, the Dallas Collection, attracted designer Bob Mackie. In April of 1990, People Magazine's cover story was "Fashion—an Industry Dressed in Mourning," with a tag line of, "Sweeping Through the Showrooms and Salons with Epidemic Force, AIDS Is Wiping Out a Generation of Young Talent and Spreading Despair."
Carolyne Roehm, a former dilettante designer who headed the Council of Fashion Designers of America at the time, said, "AIDS is a disaster for us, because we've lost so many tremendously talented people, and I shudder to think how many more we may lose. Ours has been an industry that does not seem to have made an organized effort to battle AIDS." Excuse me? Roehm's ridiculous statement not only showed her lack of awareness about her chosen industry, but underscores her lack of knowledge that DIFFA New York had been already around for six years.
We knew about Perry Ellis. We knew about Willi Smith of WilliWear. And designer Angel Estrada. And former New York Times Style Columnist, John Duka who was writing a biography of Halston when he died. And then Halston died. And Isaia. Giorgio di Sant'Angelo. Patrick Kelly... and so on, and so on.
"There's a finite fund of talent in any generation," says Holly Brubach, fashion writer for the New Yorker. "There is an assumption that if a great designer dies, someone else will step in to replace him. But if AIDS
keeps up as it has, we are going to be living in impoverished times. Each time a person of great talent dies, the landscape gets a little more drab." But the surprising result of the plague was the upsurge of female designers.
1991's DIFFA event was Something New Out of the Blue; and 1992's was the Dallas Collection.
In 1993, DIFFA Dallas had partnered with DIFFA National to do an 8-city tour. Ahrens says, "We were at the Anatole and there was a terrific thunderstorm. Chunks of plaster began falling in great chunks from the ceiling onto the runway, tables and floor. Then the entire ballroom ceiling collapsed. 30 minutes before showtime. While the guests were enjoying their pre-show revelry in the next room. The show was immediately postponed and that might there was a flood of tuxedoed men at the gay bars that night."
1994 brought more denim jackets. Says Quist, "It was the first time I went to one as a guest. I was blown away by the whole event. I thought the concept of the jacket auction was fabulous, and the show was spectacular. It was one of the most entertaining, rewarding and special evenings that I can remember in my life." The event was part of an 8-city tour of other DIFFA locations; and that was repeated in 1995.
House of DIFFA 1996 was called Revival, heralding the reign of Jan Strimple. Sponsored by Old Navy, it also featured a denim jacket collection. Recalls Quist, "It was held in a magnificent, huge white tent in the parking lot of North Parkadjacent to Neiman-Marcus. The weather was much colder that night than this and we were not allowed to use the heaters until the afternoon of the event. We had dancers, performers, and the Turtle Creek Chorale and another choir performing, and a lot of the entertainers were not in the best of health either."
Quist says, "One of the dancers, a young man, we had to take him to the ER the afternoon of the event. And he came out of it and performed that night. It was beautiful, meaningful, and that white tent and the crystal chandelier... it was glorious." Says Ahrens, "Jan helped out on the early shows but came back with a vengeance in 1996. That show was done in collaboration with Neiman's at North Park in their parking lot. It's their highest-grossing store." But a cold snap nipped the event in the bud and it was poorly attended. Quist says that despite the dramas, it was her favorite show. Strimple agrees. So does Ahrens, but only when pushed. When asked earlier what he thought was the most spectacular DIFFA show, he replied, "That's too political for me to answer."
Art Rageous was 1997's offering, followed by 1998's spectacular Greatest Collection on Earth. Quist recalls, "My favorite House of DIFFA moment was back in 1998. It was a circus theme, a take off on the Greatest Show on Earth. It was held at the Dallas Apparel Mart, where it was held for many years. With the circus theme we had two performers from Cirque du Soliel, a male and a female performing as painted statues. They were in full body makeup as marble statues that have come to life. It was magnificent and awe-inspiring. Everybody asked us how we could afford to pay Cirque du Soliel stars, and I told them that we paid them the same thing we paid every volunteer: with a handshake, a sandwich, and a thank you. It was early on for me, but - wow - it was amazing moment."
The new millennium brought 2000's Legendary; and 2001 spaced us out with 2001: Odyssey. 2001 also brought Greg Haynes Johnson, now Chairman Emeritus, having served for 14 years, 11 of them on the Board. Ahrens jokes, "Greg knows where the bodies are buried in the front of the house, but I know where they're buried behind the scenes."
2002's Pure featured Johnson's handiwork, the very successful Style Council, working as DIFFA ambassadors, and personally persuading their connections to attend. Among Johnson's other improvements was to restructure and revise the auction packages to make them even more lavish and exclusive, adding to the allure... and the price.
In fact Johnson added a vast amount of business acumen to DIFFA, Unafraid to try new risks. And they always paid off
Nuestra Familia was 2003's event, followed by 2004's Evolution, 2005's Dream, 2006's Live, Laugh, Love, 2007 was Upside Down, 2008 was Cinema de la Vie, and 2009 was Utopia. There was no DIFFA 2010, but 2011 ushered in Dramatically Different, even though 2012's Smoking Haute ushered in truly dramatic differences when Strimple did away with the now-stale denim jacket format by asking designers to reinterpret Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking. This tore down the last vestiges of any trace of the old DIFFA and blew the donation field wide open for designers to create what they wanted to create.
2013 was technically the first DIFFA event to be called House of DIFFA, though it's been expanded to includes all of DIFFA's previous efforts, most known as the Dallas Collection. 2014 brought House of DIFFA: Masquerade, withoutStrimple at the helm. Says Strimple, "How many people over the years that I know felt that they were in such a warm, loving environment, that they, through tears, came out,, with their HIV+ status... at the DIFFA events Which is huge because that they get rid of a dark cloud and begin to take proactive steps to maintain their life and give themselves a future. That's probably the most proud I am of anything, is that we created that warm and loving environment."
And if there's anything that DIFFA does well, it is creating a warm and loving environment. And paying it forward.
"House of DIFFA 25 is a review of the past, concentrating on the present, and looking forward into the future," says Quist. Part of the fun will be the display of the original denim jackets from 1989.
House of DIFFA 25 is this Saturday, March 7, 6pm at the Downtown Omni Hotel. See DIFFADallas.org for tickets and further information. Follow DIFFA Dallas on Facebook as DIFFADallas.