How often we've enjoyed the talents of Florence Smales and Kitty Leslie, the great commentators. Their fashion productions have raised millions of dollars for Orange County charities.
Smales stood at the microphone for 40 years. Some of those years, she also operated two modeling schools and a modeling agency while producing fashions shows for hundreds of Orange County organizations.
Leslie launched her fashion career 25 years ago as a fashion and publicity director with Bullocks. She went on to lead the fashion parades of Neiman-Marcus and the merchants of Fashion Island. Now she's a free-lancer.
"There's not a single charity group I haven't worked with," she said.
Fashion flair came naturally to these women. Smales cultivated her style sense from her fashionable mother while growing up in Iowa. "I was always into clothes. I used to fight with my father _ he was a doctor _ about wearing long underwear in the winter. So ugly."
Leslie, the daughter of a Hollywood agent, said she was fashion-conscious, even in high school.
But commentators need more than flair. They need stamina. Putting on fashion shows is a tough business. Few survive. These women work with charity groups and merchants from clothing boutiques all over the county. They spend hours booking models, back-stage assistants and dressers. They line up the fashion parade, select accessories, choose the music and design the staging, lighting, backdrops and props. Finally, they must transport all the merchandise, then return it in tip-top condition.
Has it been smooth sailing for these local fashion icons?
When we caught up with Leslie at the Four Seasons after a recent show, she recalled some fashion fumbles. "We had so many. Once, at the Disneyland Hotel, one model walked down the runway, which we had extended into the audience, and she just kept right on going. Right off the end of the ramp.
"Another time, after doing a show at The Ritz, I was hauling racks of furs in the back of my husband's pickup truck and made a sharp left turn and they all flew out the back. I paved the street in mink, sable and linx. Furs were everywhere."
Smales, recently retired at age 79, has forgotten much of the early days of begging for shops to participate in her productions, of model no-shows and missed cues, of 12-hour days and endless phone calls. "My phone bill was so high," Smales said from her Newport Beach home.
Smales will be honored by Women's Outreach at the Disneyland Hotel on Dec. 2. The benefit show, expected to draw 1,000 supporters of the Christian counseling agency in Orange, is the first in 18 years that won't have Smales at the microphone.
Clubs no longer clamor for fashion parades peppered with chatty commentary. What happened?
"It's no longer trendy," Smales said of her era of no scripts and feisty ad-libs.
Leslie agreed. "Fashion shows have become show biz, more entertainment today. Commentary has fallen by the wayside. It's no longer chic. I'm one of the last to use commentary. But I have to because I use several stores and must name them, plus I mention the designer and give a reason for wearing the garment. I do it all with humor. I call in tongue-in-chic."
What are common fashion blunders?
"Women don't know how to build and put their wardrobes together. And they should keep accessories simple, simple, simple," Smales said, simply attired in winter white.
Leslie, in a tweed Guy Laroche, cringes over women wearing glitzy gold lame. "Where are they going looking like that?
Equally awful _ dressing like a plain Jane. "Get some style. Experiment. Learn from the sales people. Buy separates and interchange. The jacket I buy this year works with a skirt from last year."
Should aspiring models attend modeling school?
Smales doesn't recommend a modeling career, period. "It's too phony, and there are so few jobs. But schools are good for teaching charm and manners and how to walk, for instance. Some people have two left feet."
Leslie said courses in modeling and makeup are essential for aspiring models. "You have to learn the tricks of the trade. Just don't believe the school will get you work. Our show models come from professional modeling agencies in Los Angeles."
Both women prefer lean and lively professionals, 5-foot-9 and taller. Smales was one of the first to use petite and larger-sized mannequins. Neither coordinator enjoys working with nonprofessional club members.
"They're too fussy," Leslie said. She makes exceptions. Leslie is immersed in planning an Olympic-themed Gentlemen's Haberdashery, the annual showstopper for the Sisters of Sacred Heart, featuring an all-male cast of Orange County movers and shakers.
Working with charity groups is always a pleasure, Leslie noted. "For the chairwoman of the event, it's her big thing. It may be one of 30 per year for me, but this is her one. Of course, they try to tell me what to do. I shake my head yes, and then go off and do it my way."
Carol Humphreys covers social news for The Orange County Register. Her column appears regularly in Accent.