3 supporters since the beginning reminisce on the changes over the years at North Texas’ premier AIDS benefit
After 20 years and countless thousands of couture creations, several of those who have been part of DIFFA Dallas since the beginning can’t recall how they first became involved.
But they remember many details from its storied history. And they certainly remember why they have supported it for so long.
"I’ve had my ups and downs, been more and less involved over the years," says John Ahrens, a 20-year veteran of DIFFA who, this year for this first time, serves as the co-chair of the organization’s premier event, Dallas Collection, which shows at the Hilton Anatole on Saturday, May 2.
"But I keep coming back."
Also coming back is Jan Strimple, the legendary supermodel who began her role with DIFFA on the runway before producing the show for seven years.
Looking back, they see many changes over the years.
"It was more grassroots at the beginning," says Strimple. "It was about people looking for a desperate, quick response to a desperate situation — the loss of their friends. They couldn’t provide anything more than companionship through all the loss, but they could fundraise so others could provide medical help."
"It was mostly just members of the gay community," adds Joe Pacetti, another face with DIFFA since year one. He and Ahrens remember when board members would don jackets and go down to the clubs along Cedar Springs to sell $20 tickets to the patrons.
Salesmanship has become more sophisticated than that over the years. Pacetti was one of those who suggested putting together packages — travel, meals, etc. — to get other businesses involved and to make the purchases more appealing.
It also ramped up the fundraising. During the first decade or so of the event, DIFFA raised $1 million; in the last decade, that number has risen sharply.
"The money raised has grown significantly: We’ve granted more than $4 million over 20 years. The need has changed: The money we raise stays here in North Texas though it has extended beyond just DFW. And the production has grown: There are over 100 jackets now — it’s a behemoth. But the mission has always remained the same," says Ahrens.
But the growth has also led to a bit of disconnect. In the early days, AIDS was "the gay disease," which largely limited its interest in mainstream society. As that has changed, so has the target audience of the event.
"We never dreamed we’d have $25,000 tables, but I never want it to get so expensive that those who want to go, especially people living with AIDS, can’t afford to," Pacetti says.
"This year we have stressed living with HIV and especially aging with HIV, which never existed," Ahrens adds. "We never thought we’d become these fat, bald men."
The show has evolved since the early days: moving from small hotel ballrooms to the InfoMart while it was still under construction; over to a tent in the NorthPark Center parking lot and, in recent years, back to the Anatole where it began.
Although it really began in a much smaller space.
"Sherry Haslip, a very high-profile designer, had a showroom and a back office where we could meet. This all started in a tiny back room," says Strimple.
That is where people like Haslip, Steve Burrus, Ahrens, Strimple and Pacetti met to plan out the first show — which, remarkably, had nothing to do with denim jackets at all.
"At the very first gathering, we made dresses," Ahrens says. "We probably had 12 designers that year. Michael Faircloth did a dress."
But they discovered that dresses didn’t sell that well. "When you make something in a sample size, not everyone can fit in it," Ahrens says.
"DIFFA’s roots were not in the fashion industry but in interior design," says Strimple.
"Fabric makers said, ‘Here’s fabric,’ and those in fashion said, ‘We’ll design something’ and the girls at Kim Dawson said, ‘And we’ll wear it.’ But the concept of what’s more universally sized was the next challenge," she said.
Other ideas were discussed — pillows were an option. No one can say for sure who came up with the idea of designer denim, although Strimple recalls reading in Women’s Wear Daily about a similar show at Barneys in New York, where Madonna and other celebrities designed jeans jackets.
It seemed like something that would work in Dallas.
"Jackets were really an inspired choice — an icon of American fashion, basically unisex," Ahrens says. "It helped us."
Pacetti alone estimates he has purchased 18 jackets over the years — "some years several, some nothing" — although he has kept none of them. Instead, he gives them away with the caveat to the recipient that "every time you wear it, share what DIFFA does with someone new. Spread the message about what we do."
The event itself has become equally celebrated for being "a spectacle — the most fun black tie event of the year," says Pacetti.
"DIFFA had a broad reach — edgier, sexier — than other shows," adds Strimple. "Bob Mackie taught me; there’s a very different line between vulgar sexiness and glamour sexiness."
"You could always do outrageous things at DIFFA," says Ahrens. "I’ve said it before: We’ve performed everything but human sacrifice on the runway."
There is a passion present in everyone who has worked with DIFFA over the years. But whenever you have a volunteer organization that taps into the movers and shakers of Dallas society, there will be egos and personalities to contend with, and DIFFA was no exception — indeed, it may have been more intense.
Pacetti, who travels the world for his fine jewelry business, has never missed a collection, and has purchased at least one table (and as many as three) every year. At one time, he was reportedly the 13th-highest contributor to DIFFA nationwide.
But even he has had sore spots with DIFFA. He resigned from the board in a fit of pique several years ago after a tense confrontation with another board member.
Strimple had her own high-profile break from the organization.
But mostly, the memories are strong and positive.
Strimple remembers when a Dalmatian named Baxter, who was her co-model on the runway, got loose; Ahrens recalls a moment when Strimple, modeling "a hoop skirt the size of a Buick," brought the house down; Pacetti is proudest that his daughter became the youngest-ever Style Council member and the first legacy at DIFFA Dallas.
Perhaps the strongest legacy, though, is that of the charitable work done by DIFFA.
"DIFFA has stepped in to fill in the gaps where federal funding had been available but is not now," says Ahrens. Many lives have been affected by the efforts of the organization. But there is still a long way to go.
"There is a concept that HIV is a manageable illness," says Ahrens. "Yes, we’ve made incredible progress but I also think we have failed miserably. When I see the young people in their 20s turning up positive, we have failed."
But that just motivates Ahrens — and Strimple and Pacetti and many others — to keep on trying for another 20 years.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 1, 2009.
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