By JAMIE STENGLE
DALLAS - As the Dallas Museum of Art prepares to open an exhibit of Jean Paul Gaultier's sometimes outrageous, always head-turning fashion designs, the city's well-heeled residents are mobilizing.
Dallas is one of just three North American cities - along with Montreal and San Francisco - hosting the exhibit of works by the French designer. And while Dallas is not a fashion industry center like New York, Paris or Milan, designers and retailers know very well that some of their most devoted and fashion-conscious clientele can be found in Texas - both in Dallas and farther south in Houston.
"People take fashion here very seriously. It's not exactly the same as it's going to be in L.A. and New York ... but it's a much more exuberant style. I don't think anyone ever comes to Dallas and comes to an event and are ever underwhelmed," said Brian Bolke, owner of upscale Dallas boutique Forty Five Ten, which currently has a prominent display of Gaultier's designs for customers to choose from.
Gaultier said he has been impressed with the style of the women he'd seen since his arrival to kick off the Dallas show. "I saw some women that were very elegant, super elegant. And that were even more Parisian than some Parisians," he said.
New York City-based designer Elie Tahari, who this fall opened a store-in-a store in the Neiman Marcus at Dallas' NorthPark Center along with his own freestanding boutique at the upscale mall, called the turnout for the openings "amazing."
"It's a big market for us and it's a growing market. It's a glamorous city and that's the clothes I make," said Tahari, who added that the line's runway collection - its most expensive - is selling well in Dallas, which doesn't happen in all cities.
Retailers say their customers in Dallas and Houston are sophisticated consumers who follow current fashion, have the money to spend on designer wares and are frequent travelers.
"I don't know any designers that don't like to come to Texas. It's because they do so well here," said Neal Hamil, who worked in New York City as executive vice president of Ford Models and director of Elite Model Management North America before returning to his hometown of Houston two years ago.
Hamil serves as creative director for Fashion Houston, which brings together designers to show their collections in Houston. New York City-based designer Bibhu Mohapatra, who was among those showing collections at the event, said that during his first visit to the state he noticed residents have "a natural flair and passion for fashion."
The event honored Houston's Becca Cason Thrash as its style icon and included a show of her designer collection, which included pieces by Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior.
Cason Thrash, an international philanthropist who has organized fundraising galas for the Louvre at the Paris museum and who shops across the globe, said that women in Dallas and Houston "are really chic and they really care about how they walk out the door."
"They really turn themselves out. I have a great, great many fashion designer friends ... and they all come here and say this is the greatest market concentration and research for us to see how these women put themselves together," she said.
It's customers like Cason Thrash whom Bolke thinks of when he's searching for items that can't just be found everywhere.
"Our customers travel so much. They see everything and they have access to everything, which is actually a nice challenge," said Bolke, who added, "Women here are not scared of fashion with a capital 'F.' Here it's a kind of sport."
Ken Downing, the senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said these well-traveled Texans "become really great style ambassadors to this state."
As the home of Neiman Marcus, Dallas began its flirtation with fashion early. The luxury retailer founded in 1907 has over the decades has brought famous faces including Coco Chanel and Grace Kelly to Dallas to receive fashion awards.
"Certainly, Neiman Marcus has had an enormous impact on the style knowledge that Dallas alone has had," Downing said.
He noted that Neiman Marcus' Fortnights, two-week celebrations of the culture of foreign countries which began in the 1950s, attracted attention partly because they were held in an era when there was less international travel.
"The great thing about Dallas women is they love to experiment. They're not afraid to try the latest, the greatest, the newest and always look spectacular. How lucky to live in a city with so many gorgeous women wearing beautiful clothes," Downing said.
With a thriving arts scene and a bevy of charity events to choose from, Texas women are often searching for gowns.
"They're very chic, ladylike, feminine with an edge," said Fady Armanious, store director for the Houston location of Tootsies.
Retailers say that women in Texas like to wear colors and also like to have fun with their fashion. For instance, says NorthPark fashion expert Victoria Snee, they might pair a sequined mini-dress with cowboy boots.
"Every vendor will tell you that they sell more color and more bold accessories here than anywhere in the country," said Robbin Wells, executive vice president of the Dallas Market Center, which holds more than 50 markets each year attended by more than 200,000 buyers.
Designer Rafaella Curiel was among those from Italy who came to show her work in Dallas this fall as part of the Italian Fashion Expo at the Dallas Market Center.
"I think that women in Texas are very beautiful. They still dress in an elegant way and they like quality," Curiel said.
The Gaultier exhibit opened earlier this year at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The show opens in Dallas on Sunday and runs through Feb. 12 before going to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and then moving on to Europe.
Olivier Meslay, interim director of the Dallas museum, said that the museum is already seeing visitor numbers well beyond the usual - the day museum members can get a sneak peak of the exhibit usually attracts around 300 people, but for this one they expect about 1,200.
Among those with plans to attend the exhibit are Dallas designer Prashi Shah, who after studying at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology and working for Bill Blass returned to Texas to launch her own lines.
"Every socialite in Dallas right now has their calendar marked for that event," said Shah, adding that the exhibit has "been pretty much the talk of the town."