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San Diego Union Tribune (Jennifer Goodwin)

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<-- Back to Fashion Week 2008 Press


Paris, Milan and ... Escondido?

Fashion Week to show city's glamorous side By Jenifer Goodwin

STAFF WRITER May 5, 2008



On Friday nights, classic cars and hot rods roll down Escondido's main drag for an event called Cruisin' Grand. The city's annual Grape Day Parade showcases school marching bands, homemade floats and blacksmithing demonstrations.

SCOTT LINNETT / Union-Tribune
Amelia Brubaker (right) and Lisa Molina helped transform a vacant furniture store into the home of Escondido's Fashion Week.

Americana still has its place in Escondido, city leaders say. But a group of local movers and shakers has designs on showing off the city's more glamorous, urban and – dare we say it? – snootier side.

Today through Saturday, Escondido will join Paris, Milan and New York as host of its very own Fashion Week.

During six days of shows, professional models will strut down a 45-foot runway in a vacant furniture store draped in 1,500 yards of white organza, meant to look like a big-city fashion week tent.

Local designers Miriam J and Susanti will show original gowns and sportswear, artists will craft dresses and accessories from recycled materials, and Ricky Lizalde of “Project Runway,” an Escondido High School graduate, will jet in from New York to offer a peek at his spring lingerie line.


Escondido Fashion Week

Where: The former H. Johnson building at 131 S. Broadway

Tickets: $20 to $45

More information: fashionweekdowntown.com or (760) 745-8877

“At first I was thinking, 'Wait a minute. This town has probably never seen a fashion show,' ” said Lizalde, 35, whose chemises are in Neiman Marcus, but he may be better known for frequently crying on the past season of Bravo's reality show.

“Then I realized the energy behind it. I thought, 'You know, it could be great. I think it could happen. Let's give them a show.' You can do that in Escondido or Milan or New York.”

Organizers concede that this homegrown event is a few pincushions shy of a full-blown metropolitan fashion week, when the Versaces and Pradas of the world unveil their latest creations.

Still, Escondido's organizers have big dreams. They hope their event will draw tourists and shoppers from throughout the county to the growing number of boutiques, sidewalk cafes, high-end salons and eclectic furniture stores that have revived downtown Escondido's tree-lined streets.

They also are hoping the cosmopolitan panache will burnish their city's image, which has suffered because of periodic clashes between the City Council and a swelling Latino immigrant community – including a short-lived ordinance that would have severely penalized landlords for renting toundocumented immigrants.

“That's why Fashion Week is such a tremendous idea,” said Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, who voted against that ordinance. “It will show we can be sophisticated and cosmopolitan. . . . I do not want to be known for trying to solve the immigration problem. It doesn't give us a good image.”



In towns across the nation, women's groups put on community fashion shows for fun or charity.

SCOTT LINNETT / Union-Tribune
Art galleries will be among Escondido Fashion Week's attractions at a vacant building at Broadway and Second Avenue that was home to a furniture store.

A fashion week in Paris, Milan or New York is an entirely different, exclusive event for high-end department store buyers, celebrities, the very rich and the fashion media.

Although a local fashion consultant is trying to bring a fashion week to San Diego this fall, she is having trouble finding sponsors. Even Los Angeles Fashion Week has struggled to draw top designers.

So Debra Rosen wasn't surprised when business owners met her idea for an Escondido version with skepticism.

“A lot of people at first didn't think we could pull it off,” said Rosen, who designs and sews the suits she wears as chief executive of the Downtown Business Association of Escondido.

Realizing the downtown district's handful of boutiques and Old Navy wouldn't fill a week's worth of shows, she added a day of pampering and a runway show about home decorating, which will feature models swathed in upholstery and drapery fabric.

SCOTT LINNETT / Union-Tribune
Downtown Business Association of Escondido Chief Executive Debra Rosen, with Escondido City Councilman Ed Gallo last week, said her idea for a Fashion Week was met with skepticism.

“We're trying to project class and high image all the way,” Rosen said. “Escondido is edgy. It's up-and-coming.”

“Edgy” is certainly not the image the city's founders had in mind in 1888, when a group of investors bought what was once a Mexican land grant, subdivided it and enticed Midwesterners to move there.

Over the next 100 years, Escondido changed from an agricultural town where farmers grew Muscat grapes and citrus into a city with a thriving downtown business district anchored by Sears and J.C. Penney.

Like so many other downtowns, Escondido's declined with the advent of malls. Sears left in 1971 for a shopping center east of downtown. In 1986, J.C. Penney, joined by Sears, headed for inland North County's first regional mall, North County Fair, now called Westfield North County.

Determined to restore their downtown's luster, civic leaders set up a downtown redevelopment agency and in 1994 opened the $85 million California Center for the Arts, Escondido, which includes a 1,500-seat concert hall, an art museum, a conference center and a Children's Museum.


Today, locals stroll among bistros and coffeehouses, galleries and antique shops. There's a 16-screen movie theater, and the council has approved plans for a Marriott Hotel.

Despite the charms, downtown businesses still struggle to draw the same interest as nearby attractions such as the mall, located near the gated communities of south Escondido, and the Wild Animal Park. The performing arts center labors under poor ticket sales and complaints about lackluster lineups.

Inflammatory moves by the City Council haven't helped.

Escondido has undergone a seismic demographic shift since 1990, when Latinos made up 16 percent of the city's population. Last year, Latinos comprised 44 percent, according to the San Diego Association of Governments.

Despite large swaths of affluent neighborhoods that have grown up around the city core, the median income lags behind coastal cities.

Rapid change, especially in the older neighborhoods near downtown, has led to tensions. A furor erupted after the City Council passed a 2006 ordinance setting fines for landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants. The ordinance, rescinded after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, prompted a state law prohibiting local governments from taking such measures.

Since then, immigrants rights groups have complained that other decisions – such as police checkpoints for unlicensed drivers and a proposed City Council resolution blaming illegal immigrants for rising crime, overcrowded schools and crowded emergency rooms – are thinly veiled racism.

Not the sort of image sought by an out-of-the-way inland city of 142,000 trying to portray itself as a destination for high-end shopping and culture.

“In the view of many Southern Californians, Escondido is emerging as a very intolerant place, one that is not welcoming, a city that is in pain, hostile and divided,” said Bill Flores, an Escondido resident, retired assistant sheriff and spokesman for El Grupo, a network of Latino organizations.


Downtown makeover

Rosen, a cheerful civic booster, avoids talk of politics. Right now, she is more interested in getting the organza to billow just right and helping choreograph how models in voluminous gowns will pass each other on the runway without tripping.

In the past several weeks, Rosen and her committee have transformed a vacant, 10,000-square-foot building at Broadway and Second Avenue that was once a hospital, then the Sears and finally the H. Johnson Furniture store, which closed about a year ago.

They used Fashion Week banners to hide the plywood that covered broken windows. Volunteers from the Fellowship Center of Escondido, a drug and alcohol treatment center, hauled out trash, cleaned and painted. A local carpet cleaner got the stains out of the floors, and city workers pulled weeds.

“The event started off little; it has just become so huge,” Rosen said.

On opening night, they'll roll out a red carpet, set up velvet ropes and park Mercedes-Benzes wrapped in big red bows at the door. Mercedes-Benz sponsors New York's Fashion Week. Mercedes-Benz of Escondido is the title sponsor here.

Rosen's enthusiasm aside, not all are convinced that an edgy Fashion Week is what downtown Escondido needs. The manager of Draper's & Damon's, a women's clothing store that caters to the 60-plus crowd, said she was happy to provide a few items for the show but didn't see much benefit to her store.

“Our ladies don't really come downtown at night,” manager Marian Rodittis said. “Mother's Day will be big for us.”

But for some chic young Escondidans, Fashion Week is a lot more thrilling than checking out old farm equipment at the Grape Day festival.

“At first I was like, 'Escondido?' ” said Jesse Moya, 31, a hairstylist. “A lot of people who live here in Escondido go to La Jolla for art, or Hillcrest and downtown San Diego for shopping. But there's a lot of talent in Escondido.”

Fashion Week could bring together Escondido residents who love shoes in the same way the Friday night car cruise draws those appreciate the rumble of a well-built engine.

Karla Diaz, 24, moved to Escondido from Mexico six years ago and has watched the immigration backlash with dismay. Now Diaz is a community college student and a sales clerk at the Everything $5.99 clothing store east of downtown.

She tried out to be a community model for Fashion Week but was not chosen. No matter. She has saved her money and can't wait to attend Friday night's fashion show using recycled materials.

“You can make a masterpiece from things you're about to throw away,” Diaz said. “Fashion is for everybody.”

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