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Princess Diana Exhibition

Americans have long been drawn to famous women who possess style, charisma and that indefinable “it” quality that makes someone a star. These days, a seemingly endless and interchangeable parade of celebrities is granted icon status for making a hit movie or landing a high-profile position on our pop-culture radar.

I can’t think of any one woman alive today who could captivate an entire country, let alone the world.

Princess Diana did. No one has done it since.

I followed every minute of Diana’s meteoric rise from a shy, nursery-school teacher to one of fashion’s brightest stars, from the moment she appeared on her first People cover (gracing the magazine’s cover more than any other celebrity) until her death. Like millions of women around the world, I was deeply affected by her death. I wrote my first book, Diana: The Secrets of Her Style, about her. In addition to it being my own lasting tribute to her, my book analyzed Diana’s ability to communicate with the world through the clothes she wore. It was something she did brilliantly. While Diana helped popularize many looks that still endure today, from pearl chokers to designer handbags, her greatest contribution to fashion was her intuitive understanding of the power of style. It was a gift she used wisely.

 It was the power of Diana’s beauty that enabled her to accomplish her humanitarian goals. Certainly in the last years of her all-too-short life, she came to understand that and used it to her full advantage. Such was the case with the famous “Dresses” auction at Christie’s in New York the summer before she died. Diana sold 80 gowns that she had worn during her marriage to Prince Charles—and donated the proceeds to charity.

At the time of her death, Diana was one of the most famous and beloved figures in the world. It’s hard to imagine another celebrity eliciting the same kind of global admiration at such an incredible level ever again. But over the course of time, Diana has faded from the spotlight.
Until now.

This month, an extraordinary exhibition of Diana’s dresses, once again benefiting a cause close to the princess’s heart, is coming to Naples. The von Liebig Art Center will present Princess Diana: Dresses of Inspiration along with a series of events that are sure to thrill Diana fans, royal watchers, fashionistas and historians alike. Fittingly, a portion of the proceeds from the exhibition will benefit two local breast cancer charities: Bosom Buddies and the NCH Mammogram Fund.

Joel Kessler, CEO and executive director of the Naples Art Association at The von Liebig Art Center, says the exhibition, the first of its kind in Southwest Florida, all started when he heard about an Ocala woman who owned several of Diana’s dresses. Kessler tracked down Suzanne King, who divides her time between her homes in Ocala and Austin, Texas, and the two clicked. Originally, Kessler and King were set to work with another collector on an exhibition, but when things didn’t work out, King suggested that she and Kessler move ahead with their own project.

“It’s grown in scope since we first began talking about doing this last October,” says Kessler, who now expects the curated exhibition to feature 20 of Diana’s dresses on loan from individual collectors from all over the world.

King is one of those collectors. “Never in a million years did I expect to have a collection worthy of public notice,” says King, who owns seven of Princess Diana’s dresses—the second largest collection in the world—in addition to an extensive collection of other British royal family memorabilia dating back to King George VI that she has amassed over the past 25 years. It’s clear when talking to King that Diana was her favorite royal. “I began collecting Diana items because I was fascinated with her and her major transformation. As time went on, I came to admire her greatly because of her devotion to her sons and her charitable endeavors.”

Like the woman she idolizes, King has made it her mission to combine her love of fashion with philanthropy. King founded the Pink Ribbons Crusade in 2000 with her husband, Jess, because they wanted to raise money for breast cancer research and honor Suzanne’s father, Dr. William Shields of Texarkana, Texas, a well-known, retired breast surgeon. The Kings created a commemorative exhibit of Diana’s dresses to be at the center of the Pink Ribbons Crusade’s charitable efforts. “My dresses have not only helped raise needed funds to help in the fight against breast cancer but have allowed me to make wonderful friends around the world,” says King. “There is something about Diana that brings people together, makes them feel positive about the future and encourages them to follow her charitable legacy. I call my dresses ‘working dresses’ because that’s exactly what they do.”

The dresses from Princess Diana: Dresses of Inspiration allow visitors to track Diana’s metamorphosis from “Shy Di” into the fashion icon she ultimately became. Several of my favorites are part of the exhibition and beautifully illustrate her fashion trajectory from naïve novice to style superstar. The flamenco-inspired, black-and-red strapless gown by Murray Arbeid with its dramatic flared skirt is quintessential ’80s Diana. When she wore it to a film premiere in 1986, she accessorized it with one black and one red glove, along with a large star-shaped, enamel-and-diamanté pin from her favorite costume jeweler, Butler & Wilson. During that time, Diana’s love of bold colors and oversized jewelry earned her the nickname of “Dynasty Di” (after her favorite television show) in the British press.

There are several dresses on view from Catherine Walker, arguably Diana’s favorite designer. Walker basically created Diana’s two signature looks that she wore in various incarnations throughout her public life: the impeccably tailored monochromatic suit with oversized buttons worn with a pencil skirt for day, and the fitted column, usually embellished with intricate beading or lace, for evening. One of Diana’s favorite colors to wear was light blue. Walker’s strapless lace evening dress in the flattering shade looked dazzling on Diana.

When Diana knew her marriage was coming to an end, she knew she had to redefine herself in the public eye, and one of the most striking ways she did that was to choose much more daring fashion choices. It is also interesting to note that during that time she began wearing an increasing number of styles from foreign designers, which helped to subtly shape her image as a woman of the world. She had grown very close to Gianni Versace and relied on him for several of her most eye-catching dresses during the ’90s. The black, short cocktail dress in the exhibition is very typical of the silhouette she was drawn to—shorter, tighter and with a lower neckline.

In addition to the stunning dresses that will be on view, the exhibition features a fascinating array of royal memorabilia, including the complete collection of Diana’s Christmas cards, a selection of her favorite costume jewelry and an entire room devoted to items belonging to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. But Diana is the star of the exhibition, and rightly so, says Kessler. “She touched everybody everywhere. Unique people like her come along once in a lifetime.”

Adds King, “I think Diana was the most successful ‘makeover’ there has ever been. I think her legacy has endured because she was not just another pretty face or famous person. Those of us involved in the fight against breast cancer will never forget that she traveled to America twice during the last year of her life to assist in major fundraising efforts to alleviate this disease.”

Kessler expects upwards of 35,000 people to come through the Art Center to see the exhibition. “There is a whole group of people who remain passionate about Diana,” he says, noting he plans to add more events throughout the season to highlight the exhibition. “Diana was in a class by herself. She will never be forgotten.”

Speaking for Diana’s legion of faithful fans, King says, “I truly believe she will go down in history as one of the most beautiful and effective women who ever lived.”




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