Sometimes beauty—true beauty—comes where and when you least expect it.
I’m on the board of Hollywood Arts an organization geared at helping young people out of poverty. At our Hollywood facility we offer classes in everything from fashion design, to acting. Only two years old, we’ve already enrolled eight of our students in community college on scholarship.
We were brainstorming at a recent meeting about how we were going to handle the decline in donations in light of the horrible economy. I came up with the idea of having a Wine and Cheese/Clothes Exchange party at my home. The idea was to have everyone bring one high-end, great condition, item from their closet, put it up for sale, and then buy from each other—with proceeds going to Hollywood Arts.
I invited ninety women in all. I contacted about thirty of them (all fit in the “best dressed” category) in advance and asked if they could come up with a great item they no longer wanted. More than half of them came through, donating, not one item, but several. Throughout the month, I picked up the loot.
Although my call for donations was well received, the invitation to actually come to the party was not. A couple of days before the event, only fourteen of the ninety ladies who I’d mailed invitations had RSVP’ed yes. My heart dropped. I knew we’d have more people at the event, as I wasn’t the only person extending invitations, but still, it wasn’t looking great from a fundraising standpoint.
Was it the economy? Was it a reluctance to have any involvement with a charity? Many of the invitees didn’t even bother to RSVP. One friend said, “Oh I won’t come. I’m just not into wearing used clothes.” Wow, she didn’t get it. Maybe the others weren’t either. This event wasn’t about clothes. It was about giving hope to someone who is sleeping on concrete.
On the morning of the party, Dylan and Jessica, who so selflessly run Hollywood Arts, brought a fashion student, Maria, to help set up. Maria and I chopped and chatted throughout the day. I was surprised at how upbeat she seemed for someone who was homeless.
At four o’clock, our forty-five guests quickly streamed in. My lovely friend Beverly brought her daughter and together they worked like the dickens to price all the items that were brought. SheSez’s style writer Linleigh Richter focused on pricing the many donated evening gowns, and offered advice to gals trying on items.
At one point, we asked our student, Maria, who Hollywood Arts just enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise, to speak. She began by telling the crowd that she didn’t want to sound like a sob story, but as a former foster child she didn’t have family, except a sister. It really struck her, she said, at times like her first day of college. Everyone else arrived with parents, while she sat alone. She paused and struggled to regain composure. Silence. Then, she couldn’t help it, and tears began trickling slowly down her face.
Suddenly, a ten-year-old girl in the crowd, the daughter of a friend, spoke up. Cecilia, as it turns out, is also an aspiring fashion designer—and owns not one but two sewing machines. Cecilia offered to donate one of them to Maria, who desperately needs one for college.
But the most poignant moment was yet to come. Earlier in the day, when Maria had arrived, she looked through the rack of evening gowns and pointed at a pink Christian Lacroix with a black tulle skirt. It was a statement dress—ornate and decadent. She nonchalantly said, “If I could have anything, it would be that gown.” I so desperately wanted to say, “Take it!” But I couldn’t. I knew, that particular dress, delivered by the well known philanthropist Liz Levitt Hirsch, was, at $5,000, the most expensive item donated.
After Maria finished speaking, I told the crowd that if anyone doubted that Maria had an eye for fashion, they should know that she handily picked out the most expensive item as her favorite. Liz, upon hearing that, shouted, “She can have it!”
Maria was stunned. She glanced at Jessica and Dylan for guidance. They nodded. We took her up to my closet and she slipped on the dress. It was at least a size too big, but I got out some pins and we pinned it. We took her outside and a photographer began shooting. The site was beguiling. I had noticed earlier that Maria was beautiful, but at that moment, it also became clear that Maria also had the poise and confidence to carry off such a gown, qualities that came not from her outward appearance, but from deep down inside. She looked in the mirror and you could tell that she noticed it too. The look in her eyes appeared to convey that she felt alive, not with opportunity—but simply with possibility.
Later, after everyone had gone home, we all looked at the photos in my kitchen. They captivated me with their aching beauty. Maria had experienced a kind of beauty she never dreamed she would. Me too.
Photo courtesy of SheSez