Shayla Simpson tugged nervously at her gray satin bathrobe in her dressing room before the Ebony Fashion Fair at the Kennedy Center yesterday. Although the traveling show has been presented 35 times (in almost as many cities) since September, the Washington audience was a tough one.

"It's a sophisticated city and a refined city," said Simpson, commentator for the show. "Our models need a really relaxed audience to be their most theatrical."

It was also Simpson's debut as commentator in her hometown. A graduate of Roosevelt High School and Patricia Stevens modeling school ("I was so much taller than the boys in my class, it straightened me up"), she had appeared as a model for two seasons.

The Ebony Fashion show has been traveling for 20 years as a fund-raising handle to local communities as well as the best view of top designer creations from all over the world. The clothes are chosen for their fashion importance and showmanship without regard to price. The most expensive design in the collection was Yves Saint Laurent's velvet and taffetta dress at $12,000.

Many in the audience made it clear they had brushed up on their fashion trends before dressing for yesterday's two sell-out shows. Harem pants and jodphurs, blousons and blazers, pierrot collars and huge shawls made the pre-show gathering in the grand hall, a fashion show in itself.

"I come as much to see what the audience is wearing as to see the models," admitted Rose Brown, a Head Start teacher who has been attending for five years.

But if the audience sat on its hands at times, it couldn't resist cheering when the men danced on stage. "I loved everything the men wore in the show," said Marcy Bowie, a computer aide. "Maybe because there were so few of them with an audience of so many women."

What they also liked were the items that did tricks: the blouson mini-tunics that, with the release of belt, became a long dress: the fur stole that reversed to silk: the Mongolian lamb jacket that could also be worn on it's suede side.

One knit costume by Pierre Cardin was converted into at least a half-dozen sihouettes by dancing model who ended up tieing the jacket as a scarf around her neck.

"The versatile outfits were for me," said an exciting Clarence Rush, a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office at Inkamissiona. Spiffily dressed himself in a velvet blazer on contrast vest, Rush added. "You can get so much more wear out of anything that is reversible."

The names of the designers were largely unfamiliar to the audience, a seemingly large proportion than usual selected from the couture and ready-to-wear houses in Milan and Florence. Stephen Burrows was a designer named always cheered, but the audience missed the name Jeff Banks, a Washington-born black designer who earlier this month won a special Coty award for his furns for Alixandre and a Coty nomination for his designs for Nik Nik.

Black models are the great success in European as well as New York shows, said Simpson, because "they take more chances, they are more flamboyant." Twelve of the 13 models in the Ebony show are black.

This was the 17th year the Ebony show has been a benefit here for the Washington Chapter of the Continental Society. The show is expected to raise about $18,000 for the Black Student Fund, the Student Shoe Fund, Foster Child Care and other beneficiaries.