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When Saks Fifth Avenue staged a fashion show on a Lake Tahoe beach 40 years ago, organizers thought the event was a lark, although a lot of fun, for the 100 guests and designer Bill Blass, whose fall collection was modeled on a runway of wobbly plywood placed on the sand. Boxed lunches were eaten at picnic benches on the exclusive Rubicon Bay beach in front of John and Catherine Jane Metcalf’s house, which became the models’ dressing room.

“I had never met Bill Blass before and I was greatly impressed when he appeared on the beach barefooted in white ducks and a blazer,” said Dolph Andrews, who has helped guide the fashion show over the years as a fund-raiser for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “Tickets were $35 then. We made enough to pay for the lunch and put a little in the bank. I was so relieved to have it over with. It never occurred to me we would do it again.”

This story first appeared in the July 31, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the combination of fashion, the lake’s azure waters and a backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains proved to be irresistible for the league and for Saks, which could court its San Francisco customers summering a three-and-a-half hour drive away on the California-Nevada border.

This Saturday, the event, now featuring Oscar de la Renta and his fashions, bows under the sugar pine trees at Mara Fritz’s lakeside estate in Sunnyside. About 630 are expected, with tickets costing $350.

Over the years, the show has grown gradually and has never been rained on. At first it was held intermittently, then every other year, before becoming an annual affair in 2002. “It really is the highlight on the Tahoe calendar,” Andrews said.

In 1995, after Blass stepped down, his friend de la Renta picked up the Tahoe mantle with just one tweak: Instead of his fall collection, he showed resort, which seemed a better match with the Tahoe setting.

“This is quite a unique event,” said de la Renta, who stays at Dolph and Emmy Andrews’ lakeside home in Brockway where he plays bridge and boats to the fashion show, which has a smart-casual dress code dictated by the usually hot temperatures. “Wear a hat or carry an umbrella,” said de la Renta.

One year, Nan Kempner, who spent summers as a child waterskiing on Tahoe, arrived in distressed Christian Lacroix jeans with embroidered cuffs and her trademark white tailored shirt tied at the waist. “In the early days it was truly a casual event,” said Sally Debenham. “Now it’s getting dressier. There’s a new, young group attending wearing heels.”

Jeanne Jackson, a childhood friend of the late Kempner, said she has a standing league fashion show wardrobe. “We come by boat clear across the lake from Glenbrook, so everyone wears pants, a hat, shirt and a sweater around their shoulders. That is the look, the old look,” said Jackson.

In the history of the event, $10 million has been raised for the league from ticket sales, sponsorships and an auction. As for sales generated for Saks from orders taken at the show and during a three-day trunk show afterward in San Francisco, the company declined to give a total. “The fact that the show is in its 40th year is testament to the store and the bond it has formed with the people of San Francisco,” said Joseph Boitano, Saks’ group senior vice president, ready-to-wear.

De la Renta said he’s looking at the Tahoe show as an economic indicator. “I will be very curious to see the reaction afterward with sales of the collection, because as you know, business all over the country has been very soft,” the designer said. “Tahoe will probably be a good barometer of what is going on in the rest of the country.”

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