NEW YORK--Seventh Avenue is ready to throw open the doors to the granddaddy of all sample sales, this year billed as "7th on Sale--The Return to New York." The extravaganza, at which all merchandise is priced at wholesale or below, kicks off tonight with a dinner and the first crack at designer merchandise. It's all under the mansarded roof of the 90-year-old 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue between East 25th and 26th Streets and ends Sunday. The event is sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue magazine and aims to raise more than $5 million for AIDS relief here and in 38 other cities. The rush to attract stars for table companions at tonight's gala was in full bloom even as late as Tuesday, and Ralph Lauren seems to have landed one of the biggest: Actress Julia Ormond will join him. She was up at his offices Tuesday afternoon picking out something to wear. Other luminaries slated to appear are Isabella Rossellini, who will dine with Donna Karan; Marisa Tomei, Sandra Bullock and Peter Berg, who are some of Calvin Klein's guests. Such familiar faces as Ethan Hawke, Molly Ringwald and Fran Drescher will mingle with designers Karl Lagerfeld, Gianni Versace, Tommy Hilfiger and Helmut Lang. The mood at the armory was upbeat, with the nervous backstage excitement that precedes an opening night on Broadway. Converting the cavernous building into a small department store in five days might seem daunting, but since Saturday, an army of volunteers has been building 94 booths, many with the kind of fixtures appropriate for an in-store shop. The 3,000 volunteers--students, employees of Seventh Avenue businesses and other friends of fashion--were steaming apparel, arranging accessories and furnishings, and setting up a dinner for about 800, catered by Glorious Food. Nearly 16,000 bargain-hunters are expected at the shopping sessions. As workers hauled racks of clothes and hammered together booth interiors, designers adjusted their merchandise and scouted booty they hoped to buy. At Donna Karan's booth, James Purcell and Bradley Bayou tried on jackets, while Karan strolled to the home furnishings area and declared, "OK, the first customer is here. May I buy?" To assure all shoppers at the 4 1/2-day event a fresh selection of merchandise, boxes of apparel are coded for delivery to the floor to replenish the racks before each shopping session. "We learned from our successes last time," said Karan, a co-chair of the event, who was responsible for procuring merchandise. The initial 7th on Sale was a trial-and-error experiment, she said. For this year's event, which was a year in planning, "the system was in place, and the enthusiasm from the first time was ignited. Everyone is so excited." Other chairs include Tommy Hilfiger, who coordinated the efforts and training of volunteers; Calvin Klein, who was responsible for the advertising campaign, and Ralph Lauren, who orchestrated the merchandise ticketing and sales operation. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, is dinner chairwoman. New features this year include a home furnishings department and men's wear, plus an extra day to shop and 38 cashiers, up from 18 in 1990, when 7th on Sale was launched here. "It's great to be back in New York," said sock designer Eric Smith, alluding to the fact that the last version, in 1992, was in San Francisco. "This is the way to do it," said Cynthia Rowley, who donated about 400 garments and the time of her 30 employees. "It has so much more impact than a lot of little fund-raisers. Do it once and do it big. It's tremendous how CFDA runs major event after major event and takes care of every detail." "I thought I'd never be a part of this, but now I am, and it's an honor," said James Purcell, who had a fledgling business when the first event took place. Bradley Bayou said a lot of people were flying in for the sale and added, "I guess everyone loves a discount." A ticket for tonight's party costs $1,200 for the sit-down dinner and shopping, or $200 for dessert and shopping. An auction, moderated by Rosie O'Donnell, will be staged between dinner and dessert, with such prizes as a Cadillac, seven one-carat diamonds from Henry Dunay, Louis Vuitton luggage, a Fendi mink coat and jewelry from Tiffany, Harry Winston, Piaget and Bulgari. Tickets for 2 1/2-hour shopping sessions on Thursday through Sunday are $20 each and available through Ticketmaster. At press time, there were 1,000 tickets left. The original 7th on Sale, in November 1990, raised $4.25 million. It moved to San Francisco in September 1992, where it raised $2.6 million. If this year's event surpasses the $5.2 million mark, the CFDA said it will be the biggest single jackpot for AIDS relief to date.
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