See what's in style during Winter Park's annual Fashion Week

by Libby Boren McMillan

Are you the style setter among your friends? Do the words “Bryant Park” make your heart race a little faster? Have you ever ignored the phone during an episode of Project Runway? Then you should make plans now to visit the lovely tree-lined city of Winter Park, Florida, during its third-annual Fashion Week, the perfect place to escape the doldrums of autumn in the Sunshine State.

The excitement takes place this year between September 27 and October 3. Boutiques along the city’s Park Avenue hold trunk shows throughout the week, at which representatives from designer clothing lines are on hand to debut the season’s newest fashions and answer questions. “And there’s always a possibility that designers themselves will be in the store,” says Jess Cearley, the co-chair for this year’s event and manager of the boutique Tuni’s.

Capping Fashion Week is an all-day spectacular on October 3, when two runway shows unfold under the giant tent at West Meadow in the city’s Central Park. On the catwalk, to the delight of ticketholders, are the latest high-end looks, available immediately in the boutiques lining Park Avenue. It just might lead to a pricey day of purchasing, but it should still be a far cry from the credit-card charges generated by the shopping sprees that take place in New York City each fall.

Both shows feature clothing for men and women. The daytime show focuses on sportswear and day wear, while the nighttime show highlights evening wear, cocktail dresses, and gowns.

“The clothes in [last year’s] runway show were very wearable, all ready-to-wear,” says Orlando resident and past Fashion Week attendee Laura Collins. “Yoana Baraschi was my favorite designer last year.”

People have been known to fly into town for the event, and it’s not just the ladies who can be found in the audience. “We get more than ‘some’ men,” says Cearley. “Attendees are about equal, men to women.”

“The majority of those who attend are regular Winter Park shoppers, but there are certainly those people who enjoy Fashion Week who might not have found Winter Park otherwise,” says Aimee Hitchner, owner of Ginger boutique in Hannibal Square and co-chair of this year’s event. “Last year we did a trunk show for Southerly, with designer Helen Martinez. She’s the daughter-in-law of Senator Mel Martinez. It was a successful show, very well-attended, and a lot of fun.”

In a nod to the current economic climate, this year’s ticket options have been scaled back slightly, but VIP tickets should still be a hot item. “VIP tickets get you a swag bag,” explains Cearley. “Plus you get into a VIP party the night before the event, you get primary seating for the show, and there will be a VIP lounge and bar set up in the actual tent for VIP card-holders.” Last year’s luxe pre-party was held in a Winter Park jeweler’s showroom; this year’s party site had not yet been determined at press time.

“I enjoyed the VIP lounge during [last year’s] show,” says Collins. “It was designed like a hip bar, with drinks and hors d’ouevres. It was a fun party atmosphere…[a]nd there were definitely some fashionistas in the audience.”

Tickets for the October 3 runway shows and VIP events are available online at Seating is limited, of course, but there are more than enough ramp-up events to keep fashionistas and their male counterparts busy and happy. Park Avenue merchants will feature all of their finest lines, including Trina Turk, Black Halo, Lilly Pulitzer, Tibi, Eileen Fisher, and Nanette Lepore. Fabulous shoes and accessories are also debuted this week.

Fashion Week is the perfect chance to explore this upscale enclave just north of downtown Orlando, which was the first planned community in Florida. The city was envisioned in the late 1800s by wealthy New England industrialists mesmerized by its rolling hills, lovely canopy of giant oaks, and chain of lakes. It is said that Winter Park enjoys more park space per capita than any city in Florida.

Life for residents seems to revolve around Park Avenue, the heart of the city. Gracious, shady, and lined with busy outdoor cafes, Park Avenue offers a concentration of high-end boutiques and plenty of sexy places at which to broker a power deal. Luxurious sports cars line the curbs, and the air at lunchtime buzzes with titillating conversations about everything from development deals in Hawaii to book signings, fine wines, or the new Manolo Blahniks across the street.

The city offers all sorts of wonderful diversions, from the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (featuring the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany) to a bike path that traverses the distance from Cady Way Park to Orlando’s trendy Baldwin Park district. Winter Park is also home to Rollins College, the oldest recognized college in the state of Florida.

Winter Park has two hotels that make an excellent home base for the week: the wonderfully located Park Plaza on Park Avenue (light sleepers should be sure to ask for a room fronting Park Avenue to avoid the noise from nearby railroad tracks) and the Best Western Mount Vernon Inn. Several Orlando-area hotels also offer package deals for Fashion Week, including the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes; the Peabody Orlando; and the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes.

So if you tend to think that the end of September is a boring time of year in Florida, think again. Rubbing shoulders with other fashion-minded folks and seeing the latest couture for 2010 should certainly add a little excitement into your life, and give you plenty of reasons to strap on your Jimmy Choos and hit the town.

Freelance writer Libby Boren McMillan is a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands, RSW Living, and Bonita Living.