There are fundraisers, there are fashion shows, there are theater productions — and there is Fashion Week Ventura. The annual event where, in a room jammed with Ventura County’s cultural elite, theater meets fashion and art collides with compassion to produce a show that has put humble Ventura in the purview of style geeks well beyond its geographical boundaries.

Started in 2006 by hairdresser/musician Erika Harding, the event has evolved from a fun way to bring people together and do something cool, to a bona fide theater production with a full range of professional talent donating time and goods to benefit AIDS Project Ventura County.

In tandem with the event’s growth, both in scale and popularity, is the buzz its themes generate among participants and fans who are super-psyched for this year’s “Faerie Tales” production, details of which have been kept under lock and key by director Kryztofr Kaine. Because this year the show is going to be more theater- and content-heavy than ever, Kaine says people are exceptionally eager to know the details, so access to the script is being given “on a need-to-know basis. Even the actors had to turn their scripts in,” he said.

Given Kaine’s affinity for high drama, magic and whimsy, all bets are off as to the spectacle he has planned for audiences at the top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where the event will be staged for two consecutive nights. But if the promotional photos taken by a select group of local photographers are any indication, it will live up to Kaine’s promise to deliver the “show of all shows.”

2Lofty? Perhaps, but given that the event has pulled important trend watchers such as the L.A. Fashion Snob blog into its orbit, its increasing and somewhat unexpected cultural importance to Ventura should be noted. Last year, a full house forced organizers to turn away some 200 at the door. A woman who attends Fashion Week Munich annually, told Harding that Fashion Week Ventura is a better production and one of the best she’s ever seen. The city of Ventura is very much in support of the event and has given organizers space at City Hall to rehearse. “We think it’s a great showcase for our creative economy,” said Eric Wallner of the city’s Community Development Department, adding that the city’s talent pool is not limited to the fine arts but also includes hairdressers, makeup artists and fashion designers. Kaine is quick to point out that this production can only be experienced in Ventura.

Always a themed and scripted production, the idea to frame this year’s show around fairy tales was first suggested by massage therapist Shannon Mathey, who works at Harding’s Ventura salon, ArchiTexture. Harding and Kaine immediately took to imagining the possibilities, and Kaine commenced to familiarize himself with all 200-plus Grimms fairy tales. “They were terrible,” he concluded. He also learned that the brothers Grimm were collectors rather than authors of the tales that would bear their signatures. As linguists (one of them actually penned a dictionary), they became interested in the folk tales that circulated via the oral tradition and decided to document them. The project to essentially put to paper the stories that were the equivalents of today’s urban legends would eventually become what we know as fairy tales, though edgier than the kinder-gentler Disney interpretations that most people are familiar with. “They were weird, and dark — real dark,” says Kaine, “morbid dark, like the kind of thing that would not be published today for kids.”

Once he read the tales, Kaine began the process of building a show around them. He chose five stories as a framework for the production, then reimagined them for a modern audience dealing with contemporary issues. “You’ve got to play with it and go crazy,” he said. Kaine’s “Faerie Tales” bear only a slight resemblance to the Grimms and Disney’s and only a few of the original character names are retained. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, becomes Hottie Red Ryding Hood heading to Grandma’s house on a motorcycle to finish Grandma’s tattoo.

2The Fashion Week Ventura website hinted that the AIDS message has been strongly incorporated into the storyline of the production this year, and Kaine did confirm that one of the fairy tale vignettes features gay, lesbian and transgender characters. While producing a wholly unique, top-shelf, magical entertainment experience is top of mind for Kaine, the heart of the event beats most strongly for HIV/AIDS-related causes. Harding lost her brother to AIDS, and nearly everyone involved in the event has lost someone to the disease.

They are all happy to be part of Fashion Week Ventura, says Kaine. “They want to be attached to something whose sole purpose is to produce art, to raise awareness and to keep people in our own community alive. What better use of one’s skills and talents could there possibly be?”

Ventura County Rainbow Alliance Director Jay Smith has been involved with Fashion Week Ventura since its launch, but this year he brings his 25 years’ event planning experience to the party as executive producer. Having coordinated Elton John’s AIDS Foundation fundraisers since 1990, it’s a fair bet that his expertise will lend an extra air of organization to the show, while allowing the creatives to do what they do best.

Smith says that, unfortunately, AIDS is alive and well in Ventura County, where currently, “We’re seeing a lot more people coming down with HIV and AIDS at the same time.” This means that by the time they discover they are ill, the disease is advanced. Testing is crucial, but getting people to do it isn’t as easy as one might think. “We live in a conservative, faith-based community where [people find it] difficult talking about sex and sexuality,” he says. This is why education is key. Among the free services the Rainbow Alliance is offering is cheek swab testing that provides results in only 20 minutes. It also keeps a food pantry that specifically caters to the unique dietary needs of AIDS patients. “Fashion Week Ventura funds allow us to purchase test kits and keep counselors credentialed,” says Smith.

“It has become one of the most important things we do now.”

3Participants are well aware of this, and everyone, from the venue to the models and musicians, donates time and energy for the cause. “Crowne Plaza is happy we’re going to be there,” says Kaine, “but they understand the big picture. People will push their boards to get funding.”

While HIV/AIDS awareness is the chief beneficiary of Fashion Week Ventura, everyone who participates — including the audience — wins. There is no other event in all of Ventura County that coalesces every sector of the fine and professional arts community to produce entertainment of such caliber with every dollar going to benefit a cause.

“This is a product of all of Ventura’s finest artists. These people are right in our backyard,” says Kaine, “and when their arts are combined they are worth more — it’s pure magic.”

Fashion Week Ventura, Friday and Saturday, March 4 and 5, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Ventura. Tickets available online using a major credit card or PayPal. $50 VIP (a premium runway seat, access to the VIP lounge, access to designers, private bar, delicious treats, vendors and a gift bag of goodies, retreat to your private green room during intermission); $25 general (guaranteed ballroom seating, access to vendors and no-host bars). Visit www.fashionweekventura.org for details.

michel@vcreporter.com