Ken Downing, Nina Mariano, Wendy Krimins, Tomoko Yamagishi-Dressler, Ippolita Rostagno, James Mischka, Margaret Hayes

CHICAGO — The fashion set turned out for Fashion Group International of Chicago’s “Night of Stars.”

The fund-raising gala, which took place at the Ritz-Carlton, honored seven luminaries with Stargazer awards. More than 200 guests attended the event and more than $25,000 was raised for scholarships.

“Chicago is the preeminent region, certainly L.A. and Dallas are powerful as well, but this is absolutely my favorite ‘Night of Stars’ event outside of New York,” said Margaret Hayes, president of Fashion Group International, before the awards ceremony. Hayes presented the Fashion Oracle Award to Ken Downing, fashion director and senior vice president of Neiman Marcus.

Carrie Lannon chaired the event and the night’s honorees included retailer Neiman Marcus, Badgley Mischka, Ippolita, Clé de Peau Beauté, Nate Berkus and Nina Mariano in addition to Downing — who stole the show with his hilarious account of growing up in Seattle.

“I was not popular in high school for the right reasons. I was popular for all the wrong reasons. I was too tall, too thin, my hair was too long, I had supergroovy clothes, I spent too much time in the sewing room with my mother and grandmother who made everything they wore,” Downing said. “I really don’t remember high school. I remember how people were dressed. I remember how peoples’ homes were decorated. I remember when I walked into someone’s living room and a painting was too high above the sofa and my mother would say to me, ‘When we walk into their house, do not make a comment.’”

Downing said fashion found him and he believes the purpose of the industry is to deliver beauty. “This is something my mother taught me: pretty over peculiar. No one wants to look weird,” he said.

A self-described wallflower as a child, the fashion director said he was shocked to be called an “Oracle.”

“I was raised at a time when you were seen and not heard. We were beautifully seen because we were perfectly dressed,” Downing said. “I believe that because you have great influences in your life, be it your parents; be it wonderful individuals like Rose Marie Bravo, who actually brought me from Seattle’s I. Magnin to San Francisco and realized I had an eye and a vision, an ability to make beautiful things more beautiful and realized I had the ability to tell a story that engaged people. I thank her enormously and I thank Karen Katz, our chief executive officer at Neiman Marcus, who understood that it takes more than just selling clothes. You have to sell a dream and you have to sell a fantasy — because that’s what fashion is all about.”

While accepting the Platinum Award for Badgley Mischka (Mark Badgley could not attend the gala), James Mischka recalled the duo’s first fashion show — which had its own set of snafus and dose of serendipity. “We started out with a little bit of savings and a lot of borrowing from our families. Our first collection was spring 1989, which we decided to show in a loft in SoHo. We had a collection of pretty, frothy dresses, but we had no idea how to produce them,” Mischka said.

“The show was going to be beautiful.…Beautiful, until the ceiling cornice fell off and hit the Nordstrom buyers and narrowly missed Marylou Luther. Thank God it missed her,” he continued. “Mark and I got stuck in traffic and actually missed the beginning of the show. They started it without us. We saw it from windows on the street — is someone doing a fashion show in the same loft we’re using? It was our show. We got up there in time to send out our favorite new model, Naomi Campbell. It was her first New York show, and she has been good luck for us ever since.”

In 1996, Hollywood came calling.

“We were doing fine, doing what we do and we got a call from Winona Ryder’s ‘people.’ Would you do a dress for her for the Oscars? It sounded like a good idea — this is when actresses were designing their own gowns, and nobody really cared so we said ‘yes,’” he said. “We made her a lovely, beautiful ivory lace gown with crystals and pearls, and she loved it — until four days before the Oscars. She thought, and rightfully so, the color wasn’t right for her. So we dyed the dress to a pretty shade of peach for her, but it shrank five inches. Did you know that if you sew full cans of Campbell’s soup to the hem of a dress, and put it in the first-class closet on Pan Am for six hours, it will all be OK? It was.”

The most heartfelt moment of the night went to Nina Mariano, community relations manager at Mariano’s grocery store, when she accepted her Philanthropy award.

“As Dominic’s [DiFrisco] daughter, I experienced firsthand the importance of blending love with commitment. I learned that all you need is one person to see you through. To be there in triumph and tragedy. He raised me on his own. He was my protector, my encourager and remains my greatest role model,” Mariano said.

Before accepting her Jewelry award, Ippolita Rostagno, designer and founder of Ippolita, said being recognized at an event like “Night of Stars” is always wonderful.

“Creative endeavors are very hard. You’re not only trying to create a business, but you’re advocating all the time for things that in large part by many people are considered superfluous,” she said. “I almost never take it as a personal recognition, but a recognition for the community as a whole.”