Behind the Scenes at the NAIAS Charity Preview

Posted on January 23, 2014

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NAIAS Executive Director Rod Alberts (David Freers/Detroit Free Press)

NAIAS Executive Director Rod Alberts
(David Freers/Detroit Free Press)

After attending the Charity Preview of the 2014 North American International Auto Show last week I spoke with the show’s Executive Director Rod Alberts for some insight into North America’s largest annual black-tie event.  It turns out that his views on the dress code are much the same as mine.

But first, a bit of background on the event.  Back in 1968 two of the organizers of the then Detroit Auto Show decided to add a black-tie fundraising night to the show’s schedule to benefit local children’s charities.  Tickets were a mere $30, attendance was about 2,000 and proceeds raised were approximately $50,000 per year.  In 1989 the regional show’s scope expanded dramatically when it renamed itself the North American International Auto Show and began showcasing auto manufacturers from around the globe.  Accordingly, the fundraising evening elevated its game with more glitz and glamour, much higher ticket prices (upwards of $300) and a new title of Charity Preview to reflect its role as the precursor to the public show.

ord executive Joe Hinrichs, wife Maria and son Andrew arrive for event. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Ford executive Joe Hinrichs, wife Maria and son Andrew arrive for the 2014 event. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

The show and preview flourished with the economic bacchanalia of the 1990s, often selling out 17,500 tickets at $400 a pop and generating waiting lists of up to 5,000 more potential guests.  This sell-out capacity was actually somewhat arbitrary says Alberts.  While the organizers could have easily sold more tickets, consideration had to be given to the logistics of moving vast numbers of people into and throughout the exhibit hall.  Alberts is keenly aware that it is possible for an event to be too big in which case it ceases to meet the high standards guests rightfully expect from a black-tie affair. In fact, that’s exactly what happened around 2005 according to Ward’s Auto when attendance and proceeds began to decline.  Michigan’s struggling economy was certainly one factor, says the industry web site, but some critics also argued that “the event has been allowed to grow so crowded and ‘pedestrian’ that many previous attendees have decided it’s no longer worth the hassle of dealing with the traffic, parking and excruciatingly long lines for bathrooms and coat check.”  Alberts now says that the “magic number” is 15,000.

A sea of black tie at the 2014 Charity Preview.  (Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press)

A sea of black tie at the 2014 Charity Preview.
(Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press)

It's quite a balancing act to serve thousands of guests both quickly and elegantly. (myfoxdetroit.com)

It’s a challenge to serve a multitude of guests with both speed and finesse.
(myfoxdetroit.com)

Getting down to the crux of the matter, I asked Mr. Alberts what, in his view, a black-tie dress code brings to the evening.  After 21 years of directing the auto show he says he couldn’t imagine the charity preview without it. The evening simply wouldn’t have the same panache or swank if guests wore business attire.  But he wisely added that the dress code is not for every affair.  It should be reserved solely for those that are truly special and one-of-a-kind.  Start applying it to less extraordinary occasions and it begins to lose its significance and relevance.

Albert freely admits that it takes a little extra time to dress up in formal wear but for him the process is part and parcel of the evening’s excitement, triggering an anticipation of what’s to come.  As for his guests, while he has received many complaints about many things over his tenure never once has anyone objected to the dress code.

(Black Tie Guide)

Top renting models at a Detroit Men’s Wearhouse. (Black Tie Guide)

So if there are upwards of 8,000 men attending this event one has to wonder where they get their tuxedos.  No doubt many of them just turn to their closets but there must obviously be a substantial segment that relies on rented formal wear each year.  To find out how Detroit-area renters provision the country’s largest black-tie affair I dropped by a local Men’s Wearhouse store and spoke with its effervescent manager Amber Anderson.

It turns out that the chain’s local outlets not only welcome the huge surge in business each January but actively maximize the occasion’s potential.   Rather than sit back and wait for customers to come to them, store managers visit the area’s car dealerships and offer them a 40% group discount.  (The auto show is actually put on by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association which means that dealers make up a huge contingent of the preview night.)

When I asked what styles were popular these days Ms. Anderson’s answer largely reflected the trends I had seen at the Charity Preview.  Her most popular tuxedos by far were the two Vera Wang three-piece models with contemporary two-button jackets, narrow notched lapels and trim fits.  The black version was the most desired and featured grosgrain facing and a grosgrain vest.  The grey version (sans grosgrain) was a common alternative.  The fact that these models were also the store’s most expensive says a lot about the importance that customers placed on having quality clothing for this event, even if it was only on loan.  The second most popular line was Calvin Klein with its more traditionally proportioned peak and notch lapels.  The former is a one-button model, the latter a two-button.

As for the accompaniments, turndown collars were preferred to wings, buttoned shirts to studs and bow ties to long ties, trends that mirror recent red-carpet fashions.  In fact, a large number of men were asking specifically for self-tie bow ties.  Just like Alberts, Anderson referenced the extra time required to get dressed properly as something that actually adds to the sense of occasion and heightens anticipation.

Clearly the elegance of the Charity Preview owes itself as much to the guests as to the organizers.  And so it should be.

Stay classy, Motor City.