2014 Detroit Auto Show Charity Preview: Insider Report

Posted on January 22, 2014

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To paraphrase Dos Equis’ World’s Most Interesting Man, I don’t often attend auto shows but when I do I wear a tuxedo.

My husband Brandon is an automotive engineer and a car enthusiast, bar none.  He never misses a Toronto or Detroit car show if he can help it but has come to accept that I don’t share his excitement for endless displays of metal mechanisms.  However, a couple months back during a boozy dinner out he suggested we celebrate his 40th birthday by checking out the black-tie charity preview evening of the upcoming North American International Auto Show (as the Detroit show is officially known).  Needless to say, he had my attention.

As soon as we got home we went online and dropped $700 on a pair of tickets to an event we later realized we knew little about.  The web site was fairly vague and calls to the organizers weren’t much help.  Moreover, the preview’s timing – 6 PM to 9 PM – seemed awfully early and awfully short considering that regular visitors can spend all day at the show for a measly $13.  Sure it would be followed by a free Sheryl Crow concert and an official after-party but we had no particular interest in seeing Ms. Crow and even less in dropping another $300 to get into the party.  It was a very real possibility that we had just spent a good chunk of my Christmas bonus for the privilege of finding ourselves out on the street in our tuxedos when the night was just starting.  So we took a deep breath, set our expectations low and hoped for the best.

Well, it turns out the NAIAS Charity Preview is kind of a big deal.  Like, the largest single-night fundraiser in North America kind of a big deal.

We’re talking nearly 14,000 black-tie clad guests, endless lines of limos, live local media coverage and spin-off private receptions at every hotel and restaurant in the downtown area. In fact, this year was an even bigger deal than usual as we read in the following day’s paper.  The event’s energy and fundraising had been lagging since 2009 due to the automotive industry’s downturn, the recession and Detroit’s declining fortunes but things were looking up this year and the excitement was palpable even to us out-of-towners.

Arriving at the private reception. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Guests arrive at the private reception. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Dignitaries on stage at the ribbon cutting ceremony prior to the event. (myfoxdetroit.com)

Dignitaries on stage at the ribbon cutting ceremony prior to the event. (myfoxdetroit.com)

Our first taste of this enthusiasm was at the private reception and ribbon cutting ceremony held prior to event.  (Our invitation was an unexpected favour given by a friendly staffer at the box office.)  VIPs in attendance were a who’s who of Michigan society including the state’s governor, the city’s mayor and the CEOs of Ford, GM, and Chrysler.  The MC, a local radio personality and fervent Detroit advocate, mirrored the audience’s excitement for a new mayor who offered new hope, the history-making first female CEO of a ‘big three’ automaker, the highest number of ticket sales since 2008 and, consequently, the $4.8 million raised for local children’s charities.

That’s all very nice Peter, you’re saying, but what were people wearing?  Excellent question.

I’d estimate there were 200 to 300 people at the private reception and I have to say the men were dressed remarkably well.  The two-button notched lapel was the most popular jacket style but there were also plenty of one-button peak lapels.  Interestingly, the shawl collar was virtually nonexistent.  Under the jackets there were some tall vests but mostly uncovered waists, or at least I assume they were uncovered as just about everyone had their jackets buttoned (as they should).  While there were long ties on display they were outnumbered by bow ties and of those I’d say at least half were self-tied (another commendable trait).  There were even a couple of midnight-blue tuxedos, although no one else seemed to shared my husband’s and my predilection for grosgrain facings. Amateurish wing collars, pre-tied bows and coloured accessories were happily few and far between and the 5% or so of men that settled for regular suits must have felt like hiphoppers crashing an opera.

With the ribbon cutting completed, the elegantly dress crowed then moved in to the main hall.

The first thing I noticed was that the sea of overhead lights standard for showcasing the vehicles’ metallic paint and chrome finishes was equally effective at spotlighting the guests’ dazzling attire.  Combine that with the sexy high-tech backdrops incorporated into many of the displays and the result was a distinct feeling of being on stage at every turn.

All the world was indeed a stage that evening. (Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press)

All the world was a stage for guests that evening.
(Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press)

Something else that struck me was the many men who brought their teenage sons along, some of whom were dressed even finer than their fathers.  What a magical experience that evening must have been for them to share.

Apparently the cars were interesting too.  Brandon was elated to discover that preview guests were allowed to inspect the luxury vehicles normally off limits to visitors during the show. Truth be told, I myself basked in the James Bondness of sitting behind the wheel of a Jaguar in my new midnight-blue three-piece tuxedo.

Brandon demonstrates the seat-back laptops and leather cushions featured in the $300,000 Bentley Mulsanne.

Brandon demonstrates the seat-back laptops and leather cushions featured in the $300,000 Bentley Mulsanne.

The original Ford Mustang and yours truly both celebrate our 50th this year.

The original Ford Mustang and yours truly both celebrate our 50th this year.

The mass of black-tie humanity at the Preview proper. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

The mass of black-tie humanity enjoying the preview.
(Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press)

(Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press)

(Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press)

People crowd around the Ford exhibit. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

People crowd around the Ford exhibit. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

The transition from the hors d’oeuvres and prosecco served at the reception to the main event’s fudge squares and Michigan sparkling wine – blithely referred to by staff as “champagne” – was my first hint of the affair’s dual nature.  As the evening progressed and throngs of guests coursed unceasingly into the hall I noticed that  the quality of the men’s black-tie attire was increasingly more mixed than what had been on display at the private reception.  The  appearance of poorly fitted suits, coloured waist cover & bow tie sets, pre-tied neckwear and 1980s wing collars were clear indicators of clothing on temporary loan.  At the same time, as the 24,000 bottles of wine and “champagne” served that night flowed nonstop, voices became louder, gaits more unsteady and women’s stocking feet more common.  Noting the frequent site of guests cheering and hugging each other upon recognizing colleagues and friends, I remarked to Brandon that the evening had developed the air of an adult prom.  (In fact, I found out later that the locals themselves affectionately nickname the evening The Detroit Prom.)

Guests watching the post-preview concert. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Guests awaiting the post-preview concert.
(Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

By pure coincidence we wandered out of the exhibit hall right at 9 PM just as the Sheryl Crow concert was beginning in the atrium.  By this point we were famished for lack of food and so when we happened upon complementary hot dogs we gladly scarfed down two each, vegetarian diet be damned.   With our strength renewed we headed out into the night in search of supper amid the ongoing prom-like atmosphere that extended throughout Detroit’s downtown core.  Every restaurant we passed was booked for some industry insider party or another.  Not that it really mattered though, as anyone wearing a tuxedo or evening gown that night could pretty much walk into any establishment they pleased.  We successfully tested this theory a couple of times but stopped short of indulging ourselves on someone else’s tab and instead headed back to our hotel for our late-night meal.

The evening was truly a memorable one; at many times I was literally overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of tuxedos assembled in a single location.  I don’t imagine I will ever experience anything like this again.  In fact, I’m not sure what other North American black-tie event parallels this scope short of the presidential inaugural balls.

However, I suspect that one event of this scale is enough.  I look forward to the more conventional nature of our next scheduled black-tie affair: the 2014 Tuxedo Park Autumn Ball.  Considering that it is invitation-only it’s a safe bet the headcount won’t number in the thousands. And I’m fairly certain the champagne bottles won’t be labelled “made in Michigan”.

Next: a behind-the-scenes look at the black-tie aspect of this mega event

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Random Related Thoughts

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that if the worst thing that happened to black tie was the adoption of two-button notch-lapel jackets the institution would do just fine.  As long as the distinctive black-and-white palette and distinctive bow tie are maintained the overall effect of a multitude of such outfits is still quite striking.
  • Conversely, I have a hard time buying the argument that regular dress shoes are perfectly appropriate for black tie.  The fact is that every other item of clothing in a black-tie ensemble is inappropriate anywhere outside of a formal evening event so why dilute the outfit’s potential by using ordinary office shoes to pull double duty?  No matter how hard or long you polish them they’ll never sparkle like patent leather.
  • For those who are interested in seeing more of this massive event, check out the video coverage on Click on Detroit (including comments on how this year’s Michigan sparkling wine was better than the “cheap champagne” of previous years)
Posted in: Formal Fashion