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Gala Preview

Send In The Gowns!

by Jennifer McCullum

San Francisco doesn’t clean up any better than opening night at the symphony and opera. Both galas make for some of the year’s most anticipated fashion watching. We spoke with the opening night chairwomen (and one man), and they shared just a few of their top style secrets for the upcoming 2014 gala season.

galapreviewFor the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala on September 3rd, the music will literally set the tone for the evening’s dress code. “The buzz word is glamour,” says opening night gala chair Lisa Goldman, “The elegance of this event will mirror the elegance of the music. The soulfulness of Bonnie Raitt and the timelessness of Michael Tilson Thomas will create their own trend.” In terms of wardrobe, Goldman says stilettos are her secret weapon. “I’m five foot three,” says Goldman, “and as Marilyn Monroe once said, ‘I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot!’”

Symphony supper co-chair Paula Blank also referenced old Hollywood style icons, including Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, and Lauren Bacall, as her inspiration for the approaching black-tie season. In contrast, supper co-chair, Rebecca Saroyan, referenced modern day beauties, including the Duchess of Cambridge and Sarah Jessica Parker, as her red carpet role models. “[S.J.P.] in Oscar de la Renta at this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala was just phenomenal,” says Saroyan of the star’s custom black and white ball gown featuring Mr. de la Renta’s embroidered signature on the train. “It was youthful, but elegant; just a stunning gown.” Both Blank and Saroyan tell us that they are still shopping for what they’ll be wearing. “If I could find the perfect red dress, I would wear it. I’m not sure if I will,” says Saroyan. Blank added, “I have no idea what I’m wearing! I could decide on something in July and in August select something completely different.”

In a city in which the tradition of dressing up remains time honored, the search for the perfect opening night evening gown can take the gala chairs anywhere between six to nine months. “Start in January if you’re serious,” says co-chair of this year’s San Francisco Opera Ball, Teresa Medearis, and extend far beyond the shops of the Bay Area. Whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, even London,” she says, “It’s very challenging to find something unique.”

Symphony Patrons’ Dinner co-chair, Gorretti Lo Lui, says she will be traveling to Asia next month in the hope of scouting something unusual. “As I understand it, the buyers for Louis Vuitton, Valentino, and all luxury goods there buy differently than they do in the U.S. [so more is available],” says Lui. “I’m crossing my fingers that I can find something interesting.”

For other chairwomen, certain high fashion designers have become their sartorial staples for opening night. President of the San Francisco Opera Guild, Karen Kubin credits Chanel and Carolina Herrera as her top picks for red carpet wear. “I wore a white silk Chanel gown to the Symphony’s Opening Night several years ago, and a Carolina Herrera look to the Opera Ball last year—I think the gowns are just gorgeous. Beautiful fabrics, beautiful lines; just timeless and feminine.” When questioned about whether Karl or Carolina would be her selection for this year’s opera opening night on Friday September 5th, Kubin revealed that her gown is currently being custom created in New York. “I’m not going to give you any hints, but I think it’ll be pretty spectacular,” she teased. “It’s going to be a very fun gown to wear.”

Opera Ball honorary chair Dede Wilsey met American design legend Oscar de la Renta in 1963 when the designer was creating looks for Elizabeth Arden. More than 50 years later, de la Renta remains Wilsey’s dear friend and go-to couturier for black tie affairs. “I love his ball gowns and have had many ‘fairy princess’ nights in his clothes,” says Wilsey.

For the princes, Symphonix co-chair Blake Pearson also follows a standby fashion formula. “A tuxedo is not rocket science,” he says, “It’s black and white; simple and classic.” The San Francisco realtor was given an early introduction to fashion as a former model for Ralph Lauren. “I’ve always been a big fan of Ralph Lauren because of his clean lines and classic designs,” says Pearson.

Once the designer decision has been made, each chairwoman has her own set of style guidelines to apply to the gown from color to cut to accessories. “I think there’s nothing drearier than black,” says Wilsey. “It’s safe for a dinner party and we all do it, but at night we all need a boost of color. I don’t care how old you are, nothing perks you up better than a bold, beautifully colored gown. It’s better than any blush you can put on!”

For opera co-chair Cynthia L. Schreuder, it still stands that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. “I have a beautiful Tiffany & Co. diamond bracelet that I just love,” she says, “It’s a timeless piece that goes with everything. I usually wear that.”

With complementing event themes of Red Carpet Glamour at the symphony and Passione at the opera, this year’s gala guests and their gowns are sure to offer award-winning performances.


Jennifer McCullum is a contributing writer whose work has appeared in publications including Harper’s Bazaar, C Social Front, and San Francisco Magazine. She is also an instructor at the Academy of Art University School of Fashion in San Francisco.

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