How fashion struts the line between altruism and ego

The "Doyenne of Philanthropy" was one of Brooke Astor's many monikers, as was "Aristocrat of the People" and "The First Lady of New York."

By Malwina Gudowska / Photographs by 3ten

She earned these titles through years of donating her inherited millions to charities before her death in August at 105. Never wishing to look dowdy, even when visiting the disadvantaged in Harlem, Astor was always impeccably dressed in Chanel suits, pearls and diamonds. Although she was a socialite, and perhaps one of the last true ones, her attitude was one of genuine concern for the causes she devoted herself to.

More than 70 years Astor’s junior, Tinsley Mortimer is a textbook modern-day socialite. An “it” girl in New York, Mortimer’s descriptors run towards “bitchy,” “conniving” and “self involved.” Usually attired in pretty, girly frocks (her favourite colour is pink!), Mortimer reportedly borrows dresses to help promote up-and-coming designer friends. It’s questionable, however, whether she actually has altruistic aims or simply attends charity galas in designer gowns for the photo ops and props.

Despite their differences, it’s hard to deny that both women make the act of giving more appealing to the masses. From an outsider’s perspective, fashion and fundraising may seem like polar opposites. One is innately selfish, the other selfless. Yet when combined, they can ring up a year’s operating budget for a non-profit in a matter of hours. Whether it’s in the Big Apple or Cowtown, tout your charity fashion event as a New-York-style runway show and you’ll get a big turnout – and a mixed bag. “There are certain people who are philanthropists who just love to donate money and don’t want to be part of a scene,” says Kelly Streit, the president and CEO of Calgary-based Mode Models. “And then you get people who are doing it somewhere so they are getting a profile. It’s a whole culture. It’s the committee meetings, it’s what you wear to the committee meetings and what you’re doing this weekend.

“The way the fashion business is run and the way the not-for-profit business is run is very different,” continues Streit, who also produces fundraising fashion shows. “But when you marry the two, it’s a great chance for people who can afford designer fashion to spend their money for a good cause.”

In Toronto, Fashion Cares has raised nearly $10 million for the AIDS Committee of Toronto since its inception in 1987. Edmonton’s Fashion with Compassion, held annually since 1997 in support of Sorrentino’s Compassion House for women with breast cancer, nets more than $100,000 in one day. In Calgary, Bella – an annual collaborative between the Calgary Health Trust, Mode Models and Holt Renfrew in support of women’s health – raised more than $240,000 last March, and $600,000 over the past three years. Seats on the catwalk cost $1,000, regular tickets $150, and the show usually sells out two months ahead of time.

Each gala features designer clothes, top models and celebrity guests. “Fashion is one of the governing elements in our social culture, as is film and music,” says Calgary designer Paul Hardy, who has participated in both big Alberta shows. “Everyone wears clothes. They might not necessarily be designer, but it’s a basis of understanding that everyone has to some degree.” Yet Hardy, like Streit, is realistic about who attends such shows, and why. “For a lot of people,” he says, “the main purpose is not to support the charity. It’s to be seen, to wear an outfit, to be entertained, to engage with their peers. I think that anyone who says their sole motivation for going is for the financial benefit of the cause is probably few and far between.”

Still, the right blend of ego and altruism raises both money and awareness. “It would be far easier to identify a major supporter and ask them for the same amount of money for the same net revenue,” says Darlene Frampton, executive director of the Compassion House Foundations. “We do this to keep the cause, the issue, the profile, the need, in front of a large number of people.”

Mo Fraser, who owns the Calgary boutique Cha Cha’s House of Hats, attended Bella in March for a different reason: it’s an excellent networking opportunity. “It’s great to be in a room and see other people who are fashion conscious and see what they are wearing and see media,” she says. “You don’t feel so selfish and indulgent because this party also supports a good cause, which gives it a balance.”

And it’s not just attendees who have an agenda. Edmonton fashion designer Bridget Smatlan, 27, participates in fundraisers because it’s the only way she can get her clothing in front of the public. Entry fees can run from $500 for a group show to thousands of dollars for an individual gig. “All the shows I’ve ever been a part of have been 100% for charity,” says Smatlan, who designs a line called Fridget. “Funnily enough, we young designers are charity cases as well. Promoters who put on shows for us rarely charge because they know we cannot afford to put on fashion shows of our own.”

Then there are the models. At fundraisers, some are amateurs, strutting for the practice, but others are international stars in a position to give back. Calgarian Heather Marks, one of Mode’s top models, can make more than $10,000 a day. She recently gave $20,000 to charity, money she made walking in a Victoria’s Secret show, and makes a point of showing her famous face at Bella and Fashion with Compassion. Kelly Streit, in fact, says he tries to teach his young models about the role of community work. “After something like New York Fashion Week, the girls can get very self-absorbed and they can get caught up in their own world,” he says. “It’s important to instill good values.”

Few fashionistas will follow in the footsteps of sincere philanthropists like Brooke Astor. Most have more in common with glamour girls like Tinsley Mortimer, existing in a gray area between good and greedy. But even if the charity cause disappears with the hangover the morning after, they’ll remember the party – and want to go back next year. U

Her: striped cardigan (L.A.M.B., available at Holt Renfrew, $215); silk belted top (Club Monaco, $99); tweed mini skirt (Nanette Lepore, available at Holt Renfrew, $235); shoes (Objects in Mirror, available at Gravity Pope, $280). Him: dress shirt (Junk de Luxe, available at Holt Renfrew, $225); striped tie (Paul Smith, available at Holt Renfrew, $150); dress pant (Club Monaco, $129); faux gator belt (Club Monaco, $89); leather Oxford shoes (Kenneth Cole, available at Gravity Pope, $185)

Her (left): pleated bowtie dress (Marc by Marc Jacobs, available at Holt Renfrew, $525); black stretch boots (Calvin Klein, available at Gravity Pope, $240). Her (right): knit jacket (Theory, available at Holt Renfrew, $525); knit skirt (Theory, available at Holt Renfrew, $250); black silk top (Club Monaco, $109); patent leather belt (Club Monaco, $79); red tartan shoes (Angeli Inquieti, available at Gravity Pope, $275). Her (back): black Olga dress (Club Monaco, $199). Him (back): printed dress shirt (Club Monaco, $89); diamond tie (Paul Smith, available at Holt Renfrew, $150).

Her (left): plaid dress (Marc by Marc Jacobs, available at Holt Renfrew, $565); feather band (Canadian Hat, available at Headcase Hats, $34); buckle ankle boots (Sigerson Morrison, available at Holt Renfrew, $475). Her (right): teal wrap shirt (Diane von Furstenberg, available at Holt Renfrew, $285); tapestry skirt (Diane von Furstenberg, available at Holt Renfrew, $310); leather worked pump shoes (Audley, available at Gravity Pope, $240); black cloche hat (Canadian Hat, available at Headcase Hats, $60).

All jewelry provided by the stylist.

Models: Samantha Ypma, Chad Helm, Lesley Swerdan, Mariah Tang (Mode Models)
Stylist: Erin Payne (Mode Models)
Hair and Makeup: Nickol Walkemeyer (Mode Models)

Location: Chateau Louis Hotel, Edmonton
Flowers donated by Save-On-Foods. Medical supplies provided by Healthcare Solutions.
Special thanks to Fiona McNair from Mode Models, Finnuala Pollard-Kientzel of Holt Renfrew and the accommodating staff of Chateau Louis.

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