Audience at Ebony Fashion Fair show is a designer's dream

The gold lamŽ dress was outrageous. So was the full-length red coat spangled with glittering beads. And not to be missed: the dramatic winter white ensemble with the matching hat. The looks were fantastic Ñ perfectly pulled together and worn with miles of attitude.

The most interesting thing about the looks, seen at the Ebony Fashion Fair show at the Oregon Convention Center on Friday evening, was that they were all worn by members of the audience.

The show, an annual event in Portland, is known for its electric, over-the-top presentation Ñ an onstage energy that's matched by the enthusiasm and sartorial splendor of a spirited audience.

'This is the only time in Portland that you get a lot of minorities to come out, kick back and enjoy a lot of incredibly beautiful people and clothes,' audience member Gerald Brown said of the show's merits.

Produced by Johnson Publishing Co., the force behind Ebony magazine, the Ebony Fashion Fair show is a touring event that will visit 179 cities during its nine-month tour of the United States and Canada.

Portland is No. 158 in the lineup, which began in September and will end next month in Montreal.

This is the 44th year that the Portland chapter of The Links Inc. has hosted the show. Four graduating seniors in the Portland area will receive scholarships generated by the sale of approximately 1,200 tickets.

More than 200 looks were featured in the roughly two-hour show. And although most of the looks were fall and winter styles, the audience didn't seem to mind. Alternately sexy, artful or indulgent, the one-of-a-kind nature of the clothes puts the show in a class by itself.

Buttery leather pieces mingled with colorful furs, and cozy knits looked appealing for still-chilly April evenings. A short tweed suit shot through with metallic threads was an audience favorite, as was the lingerie scene, steamed up by the sexy stylings of the three-piece band that travels with the show.

But it's the onstage talent that elevates the Ebony event above all others. Unlike other shows, where stony-faced mannequins walk the runway with all the enthusiasm of sleepwalkers, these models seize the catwalk with high-stepping gaits and wide smiles. Selected for their ability to wear Ñ and work Ñ the clothes with confidence, humor and a generous dose of drama, the show's 13 models know that they're fortunate to have been chosen for the tour.

'It's a very competitive process,' said Chavvon Chamble of Queens, N.Y., now in her second year of the tour. 'A friend told me she was going to try out and suggested that I send in my photo, too.' (Alas, the friend didn't make the cut.)

The presence of a commentator underscores the show's Old School nature. Perched on a director's chair onstage, the show's Jada Jackson delivered commentary in a sultry, singsong voice that was as entertaining as it was informative. A leopard print gown was accompanied by the phrase, 'Face it, ladies Ñ it's a jungle out there, and only the best-dressed survive!'

For the predominantly female audience, one of the highlights of the show was the two male models, who teased and vamped throughout. The women's delight was particularly vocal when a bare-chested model paraded the runways in a pair of tight leather pants.

Eighty-four-year-old Harrie B. Paris assessed the men with understatement and a smile.

'The boys are nice,' she said.

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