SAN FRANCISCO — This city’s first fashion week came and went, leaving participants tired but exhilarated amid questions about whether California’s apparel industry, which has a fledgling fashion week in Los Angeles, needed the same kind of event.

Several of San Francisco’s designers seem to think so. The program at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater that began with an opening-night party last Thursday and ended Sunday showcased nine local lines, offering items from ballgowns to bikinis. Several more, mostly accessories and jewelry, offered products for sale in the auditorium lounge where sponsors Nars Cosmetics gave makeovers, Jet Blue invited guests to fill out raffle tickets and Vespa showed off a trio of scooters customized by participating designers.

There were also senior student presentations from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and the Art Institute of California, San Francisco.

Overall the event, created by Erika Gessin of Mystery Girl Productions, a boutique promotional and production firm, went off without a hitch. “It really exceeded my expectations,” an exhausted Gessin said. “We were just testing the waters with this one. We’ll probably do another one a year from now, then make it a biannual event.”

Backstage, there was no screaming, no chaos, no panic attacks. The shows, staged one to two hours apart, all started on time.

Several hundred people, who had either received complimentary tickets or forked over $25 each day, politely moved from theater to lounge, where they shopped and sipped wine, locally made, natch, until the next event. This was a well-dressed crowd primarily made up of the friends, family, fashion students and supporters and strangers who thought it might be a fun thing to do on a weekend night.

But what about the commercial point of having fashion week? This was more about celebrating the local design community. Organizers said buyers were there, although they were tough to find. More obvious was the handful of reporters from local and regional newspapers.

While Gessin hopes that having the program precede MAGIC in Las Vegas and even New York Fashion Week will encourage attendance by outside buyers and media, an already extended global fashion week calendar has stressed attendance at Los Angeles Fashion Week, which is scheduled Oct. 25-30.

This story first appeared in the September 1, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It left some people wondering whether the state’s designers wouldn’t be best served by combining their efforts. But the dearth of buyers didn’t appear to concern designers who were getting the chance to show their work for the first time on a runway and on models — even if the local mannequins frequently did little to complement the clothes.

“Hopefully, we can show the world that even if we’re a small industry in a small city, we do have fashion in San Francisco,” said designer Colleen Quen, whose cocktail and ball confections have a dedicated following of opera-loving women in town.

Quen, who showed Friday and Saturday nights, was among the best of the weekend, from the jewel-colored chiffon knee-length dresses to her charcoal-colored wool looks. Like most of the shows, many of the seats in the almost full house the first night were her longtime customers who visit her atelier for made-to-measure dresses.

Also in that company is Christina Hurvis, another designer with a social clientele for colored duchess satin columns, A-line party frocks and bridal gowns. Yet rather than be at odds, Quen and Hurvis are such pals that they served as each other’s “zipper girl” backstage.

The city’s theater supporters also tap Lily Samii for her special-event looks, although she rounds out her decade-old company with more contemporary day dresses and suitings.

Priya Saraswati and Yugala Priti offer plenty of printed, asymmetric dresses for dining out, along with long jackets and wide-legged trousers in reds, camel and black with their contemporary line Saffron Rare Threads. The São Paulo, Brazil-born designer Flavia tends toward a younger sensibility for her Zilda by Flavia line, particularly the sweet blouses with gathered sleeves, A-line skirts and a strapless, full-skirted cotton dress.

And Evarize designer Erica Varize’s glamazons channel the Forties by way of the Seventies with red and turquoise flowing trousers and skirts, fitted halter tops, wide-brimmed hats and gloves.

It wasn’t all urban chic contemporary and made-to-measure eveningwear, however. The City by the Bay has its downtown, more exposed side, too. Swimwear designers Liz Bang and Melissa Kuehn emphasize color in their bikini basics under the Liz Bang label. Paris Hilton would be right in her element wearing Albania-expat Besnik’s hopped-up Euro-trash jersey and lamé club wear.

Unfortunately, some of the weekend’s standout shows belonged to brands outside of San Francisco. New York-based retro lingerie line Loungewear Betty rolled out a big band swingin’ parade of Vargas girls. There were corset-detail briefs, ribbon-trimmed maxi bras and street-ready slips.

Italy-based Fornarina previewed some of its spring 2005 collection, specifically denim — pedal pushers, short-shorts and a cropped tux jacket with shrunken tails. Adrienne Weller, director of U.S. publicity for Fornarina, whose office is based out of the Los Angeles flagship, said she was encouraged to participate by a friend associated with the program.

“We thought, why not do it? It’s not something we normally do, but we figured it would get our name out to customers here.”

That, too, was the motivation for Rock & Republic, whose closing spectacle Friday night summoned images of the movie “Fight Club,” with its roughed-up boys and girls in the Los Angeles brand’s signature jeans and T-shirts.

The weekend program, in fact, could have survived just fine by headlining the likes of Quen or Hurvis instead of importing outsiders. And noticeably missing were local stars such as Nice Collective, Deborah Hampton and Lemon Twist.

The latter two are carried at MAC, a boutique in the neighborhood known as Hayes Valley, which champions fledgling designers from here to Stockholm. Neither of MAC’s sibling owners, Chris or Ben Ospital, attended the shows. Yet like every other local asked about the relevance of a fashion week here, they talked in supportive terms.

“It’s a great experience for designers here,” said Ben Ospital. “One thing about San Francisco, it’s equal parts Paris and Mayberry.”

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