The scene in the ballroom of Manhattan’s New Yorker Hotel was not, at first glance, much different than that of many other New York City charity events. Glamorous women in cocktail dresses posed for the paparazzi that snapped their every move. Guests quaffed champagne and nibbled at canapés while electronica music played in the background.
Yet there, near the bottles of wine and sumptuous food platters were bone-shaped biscuits, gleaming silver water bowls and an array of dogs trying to angle their way into one of several custom canine bed baskets. This gathering, the Big City Little Dog fashion show, was as much about canines as about their human companions. And many of the coolest dogs in the country wanted to be part of it – or at least that’s what their owners seemed to think.
The fashion show, held just before the beginning of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, raised money for Angel on a Leash, a therapy dog organization. Next month, Critters for the Cure will host a similar event at Bloomingdale’s in Chevy Chase, Md., to raise money to fight breast cancer. Dogs will walk the runway with cancer survivors. Both will be wearing the latest spring outfits.
But raising money for good causes isn’t the only goal of the events. They also give dog clothing designers a chance to show off their wares.
“Fashion isn’t just for humans anymore; it’s for dogs, too,” says Melissa Gampel, owner of Doggie Couture, a store in Long Island, N.Y., that sells bespoke clothing for dogs. “There are a lot of dog owners out there that treat their dog as their child. They are not just pets, they are part of the family.” Gampel, who stocks designer garb from all over the world, including Brazil, Spain and Australia, sees fashion for dogs as a necessity. “Many parts of the country have really harsh winters, and smaller dogs, thin dogs and those with little or no hair can really suffer. Items like boots keep their paws warm and dry,” she says.
While people have been dressing their dogs for centuries, it’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the current obsession for dog fashion. As with so many fashion trends, it may have started in Paris. French designer Marie Poirier was creating outfits for dogs to match the attire of their owners as early as 1988, according to an article that year by United Press International. Japanese dog owners have also shown an affinity for walking the runway with their pooches modeling the latest canine couture.Necessity or not, pet fashion is big business. According to the American Pet Products Association, spending in the pet industry has reached over $45 billion, with more than one in four dog owners purchasing designer products for their dogs. Students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York can take courses on pet apparel design. At last year’s Fashion’s Night Out, New York’s biggest-ever public fashion show, dog styles were the central focus of Bergdorf Goodman’s event, with designer Monique Lhuillier judging the show. (One lucky pooch was accessorized with a Swarovski crystal leash.)
The Big City Little Dog fashion show attracted over 300 people — many of them with canine companions. “NYC is so pet friendly, but it’s still hard for us dog lovers to have to leave our pups at home,” says Elly McGuire, producer of the fashion show and designer of the New Yorkie line of dog clothing. Her Yorkie, known as Schmitty the Weather Dog, modeled a bright yellow rain slicker and sported “Schmitty Shades.”
No authentic fashion show would be without celebrities, and this one did not disappoint. Screen legend Celeste Holm, who won an Oscar for her role in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” walked the runway with her rescue dog, Barker, a Maltese. Aged 93, Holms drew a few admiring glances — as did Barker.
Famous dogs were on hand, too.
Eli, known as the celebrity Chihuahua, has his own business cards, website and agent. He also stars in the cable TV show “Doggie Moms” on the NYC Life network with his “mom” Karen Biehl.
Biehl was inspired to get a dog after seeing the movie “Legally Blonde.” “I realized that Chihuahuas were portable, so I thought it would be fun to have one,” she says. Biehl eagerly advertises Eli’s successes: He has been a model and an actor — appearing on the cover of a MilkBone biscuit box. For the fashion show he wears his trademark black and white tuxedo with silver diamante tie.
Does Eli enjoy his role at these events? “I don’t think he minds it,” says Biehl. She certainly seems happy. As they prance down the catwalk, Biehl holds Eli, and he high fives with his paw— performing the trick like a seasoned pro.
Another seasoned pro, 4-year-old Maltese Tasha-Bella, sports a purple tutu for the show. Tasha-Bella will appear in Tower Heist, an upcoming movie with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. Her owner, Susan Godwin, can’t bear to bring Tasha-Bella in public without the latest fashion accessories. “At my first real meet-up with other dog owners in New York, the other dogs were all dressed and she was naked,” says Godwin. “I was so embarrassed. I spend way too much money on dog clothes.”
Tasha Bella is wearing a canine couture outfit created by Christina Janssen. Janssen’s label, Lady B, was named after her Maltese, Beignet. Lady B’s collections include dog lingerie, swimsuits and even bridal wear.
The Lady B “Wedding Masterpiece” gown will set back the discerning dog owner an eye-watering $1,200. To showcase the bridal wear, Janssen is throwing a wedding for Beignet and fellow canine Georgio. “We’ve even organized a minister,” Janssen says.
As the fashion show neared its conclusion, the master of ceremonies bellowed over the blaring music: “Are you having a great time?” Audience members gave some enthusiastic whoops. The dogs, however, didn’t look entirely convinced.