Dwight Byrd is to a fashion show what Yves Saint Laurent is to a bolt of fabric and Michael Bennett is to a chorus line. He takes something that could be humdrum and turns it into a spectacular event.
That's what he is doing in town this week as producer and generator of the energy that separates the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses fashion show from most runway shows. In the four years he has produced the show, he has made it such a hot ticket that a sold-out midnight event yesterday was added for the spillover crowd. Today's brunch show at the Washington Hilton also has long been sold out.
Byrd, who one year sent a remote-controlled helium-filled Mylar blimp nose-diving onto the runway, will float several equally splashy gimmicks this year, including 10,000 mechanical birds to fly off for the grand finale. ("It is no accident that my name is also Byrd," he laughs.)
The show also will have a 10-alarm fire, complete with red flames leaping from a dream machine, models in D.C. Fire Department coats and hoses shooting out confetti--all to show off some great red evening dresses.
Because of high insurance costs, Byrd thought he wouldn't be able to have a mountain lion in the segment with fur coats from Gartenhaus. But by the midnight show, a bargain had been struck, and the Lincoln-Mercury cougar Goldie, on a red leash, was to parade down the runway with his trainer. But Goldie balked at the top of the stairs; the models didn't and the audience screamed its approval nonetheless.
"A fashion show should be entertainment . . . it should help you keep your mind off other things, like the economy. And it should make people enthusiastic about the clothes, and want to buy them," explains Byrd. All through the show the male and female models interact. "I imagine a woman watching the show might say, 'If I buy that dress I might look that good in it and get the reaction from men the models get.' "
Byrd remembers twisting the gooseneck lamp on his desk when he was a boy in Wilmington, Del., to shine on his mother, a former model. He always liked clothes as much as she did. In fact, he discovered in college that down deep, his real reason for wanting to become an Episcopal priest was because he liked the robes. "They had big shapes with a lot of color," he says.
He dropped his athletic scholarship (for running) at La Salle College and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and got another degree from the Pratt Institute.
Byrd has made several trips to Washington to prepare for this $100,000 production, which has been underwritten primarily by Johnson Products Co. Of the 40 models in the lavish show, 20 have been flown down from New York, the other 20 chosen from 100 or more who came to his models' call.
He also mixes the work of several Washington designers among the 200 totally accessorized garments presented in the show. "There are lots of young people here with good ideas, only they don't know how to execute them," says Byrd. He liked the two suits created by a Howard University student, Nancy Butts. Byrd encouraged her to reline the jacket. "She did it perfectly," says Byrd, who put the suits into the show's lineup.
The shows include many clothes that are not to Byrd's personal taste. He was wearing a Giorgio Armani blazer and Ralph Lauren lilac socks and kiltie moccasins to lecture to drama students at Howard University this week, black leather jodhpurs and black and purple snakeskin Vittoria Ricci boots when he arrived from New York. "I've learned not to be a snob about clothes," he says. "Just because something is not to my taste, that doesn't mean it doesn't have merit."
Byrd produces industry and designer fashion shows across the country. For the 20th anniversary of Mary Kay Cosmetics earlier this year in Dallas, his production may have been attended by one of the largest audience for a fashion show--8,000 for each of three presentations.
During the Black Caucus shows, Byrd stays out front with a headset, calling out directions to the lighting and sound engineers. While it keeps him in control of the show, there are constant surprises he can't control. Like the model in the last show who was wearing a fur coat over nothing but pantyhose, and when she made a turn on the runway it revealed the pantyhose--"all of the pantyhose," admitted Byrd.
In the same show a male model came down the runway wearing a Jeff Banks suit and high-heeled rain boots.
There will be at least one part of today's show that won't be choreographed by Byrd. He will receive the "Order of the First State" from Gov. Pierre du Pont of Delaware for his achievements in fashion.