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Wednesday, January 17, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aid And The Fashion Industry -- A Deadly Cloud Dims The Light Of The Clothing World's Brightest Stars

Dallas Morning News

In fashion's small world, it sometimes seems everyone knows everyone else's business. Gossip, whether innocuous or vicious, is endemic. And it used to be that everyone in the business talked of one thing: Who will be the next star?

Now they talk, often in hushed whispers, of something far different: Who will be the next to die?

The fashion industry often has been accused of shallowness, of focusing on surfaces and appearances rather than on realities. But in the 1980s, fashion has come face-to-face with a reality so harsh that it threatens the very future of the business.

That specter, of course, is AIDS.

Names come to mind: Perry Ellis, age 46. Willi Smith, 39. Isaia Rankin, 35. Angel Estrada, 31. They are but the best-known of the designers who have died in the 1980s, the ones who would have helped carry American fashion into the 21st century. There were many other design talents, almost all young, who died without achieving fame.

In the past few years, hardly a week has passed without the trade journals Daily News Record or Women's Wear Daily publishing the news of another AIDS death.

And there is the speculation and gossip within the industry.

Last year, when American-born Paris designer Patrick Kelly abruptly canceled his spring '90 runway show, Paris was afire with gossip saying that Kelly's illness was shigellosis. (That was the bacterial dysentery that felled Willi Smith in April 1987, after his immune system failed.)

Kelly, the only American ever admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, an exclusive French professional fashion organization, died Jan. 1. The public announcements have said he died of bone-marrow disease.

Still, relatively few of fashion's deaths involve names prominent enough to make the industry papers' obituaries.

The real count would include the many others who have died - the fashion retailers, buyers, art and display directors, sales people, models, makeup artists, hair stylists and fledgling designers.

AIDS debilitated fashion's spirit at a time when the trade itself underwent severe strains from an economic slump. Stores vanished overnight - and so, with alarming regularity, did the industry's young talent.

Why was fashion hit so hard by AIDS? One obvious answer is that the garment industry always has had a substantial proportion of homosexuals. Fashion traditionally has been a creative, free-spirited arena where gay people could find acceptance and community.

Bohemian lifestyles were tolerated in fashion, and in many ways even celebrated. That was especially true in the disco era of the late 1970s, when drug abuse was the stuff of ``Saturday Night Live'' jokes, and being ``straight'' (sexually or chemically) often seemed to be a euphemism for being dull.

All that changed in the early '80s, with the advent of AIDS. Suddenly, being gay or bisexual or a substance abuser again carried risks. But this time the stakes weren't social. They were mortal.

On the phone, Toukie Smith confides her happiness over the Christmas booty she's managed to funnel to ``my babies at Hale House'' - children born with AIDS. ``It's all about giving back,'' she says of her voluntarism.

Smith, an actress who stars in NBC's ``227,'' is the sister of the late Willi Smith. The designer of WilliWear had a reputation as one of Seventh Avenue's most inventive and best-liked personalities.

The Smith siblings always were close, and Toukie was stunned by her brother's sudden death in April 1987, at age 39. It's still hard for her to talk about it, but she does so because she believes it is important for people to take action against AIDS.

It isn't only because of Willi, says Smith, a former fashion model who has worked all over the world. ``I lost quite a few friends - to date, about 55. From Hong Kong to New York to Italy to London to Paris and Africa, I have had 55 people die.''

Her brother's death, of course, was hardest to bear. ``What happened,'' she says, ``was that Willi came back from India and he had a parasite called shigella.'' Shigellosis is a form of dysentery, a life-threatening illness. ``He had it for a month. He was getting better, then all of a sudden he began to get worse.

``I took him to the hospital, and three days later Willi was dead. At that time it took us nine to 10 days to get the blood work back. So Willi was gone and buried, and then we found out that he'd had AIDS. He never had any of the symptoms.

``So it was a real shock. It was beyond shock, honey . . . But there's a certain part of what you feel that has to be put aside because there's so much that has to be done. So while you're crying, you'd better sing through the tears and get it done.''

WilliWear president Laurie Mallet struggled with crises of her own after the death of her longtime business partner. ``It was so unexpected, and Willi was so much a part of the company, the image of the company,'' she says. ``It was really a big blow. There was no design team, there was nothing. I found other people, but you cannot replace Willi in a minute.''

More than two years later, Mallet finally has found Andre Walker, a young designer on whom is pinned the company's hopes.

Since Smith's death, Toukie Smith has been involved in a number of AIDS-benefit groups. She also founded Willi Smith Day, which raised $75,000 for the cause last February, and is busy planning bicoastal benefit auctions for Feb. 23.

``Willi was special,'' she says. ``If I can help one person deal with their reality a little more, that's what it's all about.''

AIDS has touched lives everywhere in the fashion industry. There is virtually no one in the business who has not been affected by the crisis, who has not lost friends or family or both.

``It's all we talk about here,'' says Annie Flanders, editor of Details, Manhattan's hip downtown magazine with strong ties to the fashion community. Flanders has seen a number of her friends die, and the losses have changed even her attitude toward reporting. ``When I started the magazine, I always swore we'd never write about anything serious. But we have to write about this.''

Says former Perry Ellis designer Patricia Pastor, ``It seems like every couple of weeks I'm getting another announcement for another memorial service. In fact I got one for a friend who was Perry's best friend, Jim Terrell. And I have to tell you: You think you get over it, and then this announcement came, and I sat down in my kitchen and cried all over again.''

Jim Terrell was on the national board of trustees for the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS (DIFFA), and worked to find creative ways to raise money for AIDS research, education and patient care.

DIFFA, an umbrella organization that raises funds and makes grants to AIDS organizations nationwide, got started in July 1984. Magazine publisher George Slowik Jr., who also serves as DIFFA's board chairman, says its slogan was: ``We must raise money because we can't raise the dead.''

Through Terrell's connections in the fashion industry, DIFFA was able to win the support of major designers. Donna Karan now sits on the national board, and many other fashion figures have taken an active part in fund-raising and made personal appearances on behalf of DIFFA and its affiliated groups.

DIFFA and another organization called Fashion Cares are among the groups that target the fashion industry to raise funds for AIDS.

Like all major retailers, Neiman-Marcus has lost employees to AIDS. Spokeswoman Jan Roberts says that when NM employees fall ill, ``it's like a family, and we take care of them.''

Bloomingdale's is another employer with a good reputation for taking care of its people with AIDS; the company's senior vice president, Carl Levine, is on DIFFA's board of trustees.

Shoe mogul Kenneth Cole wins frequent praise for his willingness to be identified with the AIDS issue. He is on the board of directors of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), and has committed part of his corporate advertising budget to encourage AIDS awareness. In addition, AmFAR received 40 percent of the proceeds from every pair of Kenneth Cole shoes sold on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

Designers who often are cited as prime supporters of AIDS causes include Carmelo Pomodoro, Jeffrey Banks, Ronaldus Shamask and Bill Robinson.

Has the fashion industry responded adequately?

``No, not at all,'' Kors says. ``Everyone has good intentions, but it's very difficult to get a group of people with strong opinions together in one direction. It's not just money that's needed, it's commitment, willingness to speak out . . . I feel guilty that I don't have time to do more than I do.''

Pomodoro also acknowledges that ``the industry has taken a long time to react,'' but feels fashion ``largely has closed ranks (on the issue) - God only knows, in comparison to what it was.''

``The fashion industry has protected its own, which I think is marvelous,'' says Anneliese Estrada, whose husband, Angel, died of AIDS in September. ``At the same time, it doesn't stand up and speak. The established designers donate money to AIDS, but there is more that can be done. They're not neglectful as such. They feel like they're doing a lot, because they're putting their names to something risque. But people with power could do more.''

Estrada would like to see a trust fund set up to care for those who become ill. But, she says, ``by setting up a trust fund, it's admitting the industry is being swamped . . . The industry has to wake up. Seventh Avenue will crumble, if they don't get smart.''

It has taken the industry the better part of the decade to become galvanized on the AIDS crisis. Some observers, including Flanders and Kors, are unhappy that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has given the lion's share of its charitable donations to the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute. A far smaller CFDA grant was given to the AIDS unit at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, despite the fact that fashion's most prominent AIDS casualty thus far has been former CFDA president Perry Ellis.

However, sources say the council now plans to hold a major AIDS benefit in the fall of 1990. CFDA executive director Robert Raymond confirms this, and says proceeds from the fund-raiser will go to three or four AIDS charities, with specifics to be announced soon.

Because of AIDS, many subtle changes have taken place in the fashion industry. Mandatory HIV testing, for example, is common in the garment business these days. Designer Todd Oldham comments that he has ``had many tests, and I'm fine. I don't think I would have taken it electively, but I had to, because of the insurance reasons.''

Another little-publicized change is that women seem to be filling the void left in what traditionally has been a male-dominated business. Because most of fashion's AIDS casualties are men, investors may see women designers and managers as a safer bet.

Over and over, fashion people say they want the '90s to be an era of higher social consciousness - concerning AIDS and other issues as well. They are hoping for a nation that indeed is kinder, gentler, less judgmental and more willing to get involved.

Says designer Kors, ``I'm thrilled that the '80s are ending; I think the whole tone of life in the '80s, with all the overconsumption, has not been particularly healthy. They're not experimental times; they're stifling creativity. People aren't willing to take risks in anything, and fashion's reflected that. The overhanging gloom inhibits creativity.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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