Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '06: OIWC Ramp It Up "drag show" raises money, awareness … and concerns

The hoots and laughter heard at the first Outdoor Industry Women's Coalition "Ramp It Up" event were the likes of nothing heard previously over the many years of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market events. Think of it: Seventy or so high-profile, respected and well-known men in the industry, representing outdoor industry leadership from executives and company founders to journalists and sponsored athletes, all modeling technical women's outdoor clothing in a rowdy and packed bar to raise awareness of the OIWC and money for its professional development and mentoring funds.
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The hoots and laughter heard at the first Outdoor Industry Women's Coalition "Ramp It Up" event were the likes of nothing heard previously over the many years of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market events.

Think of it: Seventy or so high-profile, respected and well-known men in the industry, representing outdoor industry leadership from executives and company founders to journalists and sponsored athletes, all modeling technical women's outdoor clothing in a rowdy and packed bar to raise awareness of the OIWC and money for its professional development and mentoring funds.

Intended to poke fun at the now bygone days of women relegated to wearing down-sized men's apparel and gear, the so-called Ramp It Up fashion show on Aug. 11 at the Port O' Call bar left many of the 800 attendees laughing so hard their jaws hurt afterward when guys they knew shook their booty or bumped and grinded their way down the runway.

"This was a huge show for us," said OIWC executive director Sally Grimes. "It raised us to a new level and brought us new awareness.

"In our 10th year," she added, "it was time to step up and show everybody that we've come a long way, but we have a long way to go."

Offense taken
But that very scenario – men in women's clothing, wearing wigs and makeup, in a loud bar, with alcohol flowing – also led to concerns of vulgarity and a show that had become a drag show, not a fashion show, and worries that it was an affront to gays and lesbians. In addition, emcee and celebrity climber Timmy O'Neil took his humor to a new level, with prolific use of words banned on the airwaves and sexual references and sarcasm about the all-male shenanigans on stage.

Not that the OIWC could dream that some of the executives and high-profile men – many of whom were actually scared to death, back-stage insiders said – would take it all off (literally in one case) and shed so many inhibitions on stage. Or that O'Neil would ad-lib so liberally.

"We didn't know that everybody would be so 'into it' on stage," Grimes told SNEWS®. "It was supposed to be more of a fashion show. We didn't know what to expect, and we learned a lot."

Wrote B. James Bottoms, an outdoor industry company executive, who was in the audience, to both SNEWS® and the OIWC: "The event would be considered defamatory and harassing by judicial standards in at least seven states in the USA….

"It is a shame you purposely chose to celebrate your success by putting others down," he wrote in a letter the day after the show. "As I was told … last night, it was not your intention to offend anyone. But intent only matters in the commission of a crime. It is what you actually do that matters. Your actions and failure to separate yourselves from your spokesperson’s statements and actions have clearly demonstrated that your organization supports (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) harassment and discrimination. Again, silence is compliance.

"The fact that people had fun," he added, "does NOT matter if the fun was had at the expense of millions of people."

To read Bottoms' entire letter in the SNEWS® Forum or to comment yourself, click here.

Grimes and the OIWC stated that no offense was ever intended of anybody, for any reason and that the show basically took a life of its own.

Out of control
"Once they were on stage, it was out of our control what they did," said Grimes who noted O'Neil had cue cards and the men had practiced their runway diva dance. But that was before the addition of hundreds of screaming friends and colleagues in the audience egging people on, before a few shots of alcohol and before models got amped up hearing the laughter others before them received.

"Our intent was by no means to have people leave feeling we had attacked them," she added.

Underwriting sponsor Fox River, whose president and vice president of sales were in the show, called the event "fun." It was a humorous look at women being forced "to wear guy's clothing just shrunk down," Joel Anderson, vice president of sales, told SNEWS®.

"There were a couple of guys who got, shall we say, pretty fired up for the event," Anderson said, noting that delaying the start by nearly 30 minutes gave the models more time to tone down nerves with more alcohol shots.

"We're very committed to supporting the OIWC," Anderson said. "Maybe it went too far in a couple of cases, but we didn't go into this to offend anybody or go over the top."

In an official statement to the industry, OIWC wrote, in part:

"We acknowledge that some attendees felt the commentary and signage were derogatory and defamatory. OIWC is an inclusive organization that does not subscribe to, nor condone, exclusion or defamation.

"We sincerely hope that all attendees recognize that our intent for the event was to create a fun, unusual fashion show. The event took on a life of its own, and we regret that it may have offended any members of the outdoor community. We welcome suggestions and the involvement of members of the industry."

To read the entire statement, click here.

Money raised, still a good cause
Nevertheless, the event became the talk of the rest of the show, with a SNEWS® video podcast of the event drawing hundreds of downloads the next day and others forwarding it to many hundreds in and outside the industry. (Click here to see it if you haven't. )

Grimes said the group raised, after expenses, about $6,000. However, a silent, online auction of the items modeled (no, not the worn ones!) is expected to double that. The auction will be live on the OIWC website (www.oiwc.org) by early September.

Ten percent of proceeds are going to the Women's Wilderness Institute (www.womenswilderness.org), which helps women and girls learn outdoor skills. The rest of the money will go toward professional development for women in the industry, Grimes said, since that's what membership surveys indicate is most needed. She said she expects mentoring and training services to be available to paid members online in a password-protected area, while seminars at a show or event will be open to anyone.

In addition, the group will look to develop outreach activities to bring more young women into the industry, she said. At this time, the OIWC is also looking for someone willing to chair a volunteer outreach committee so the group can research what to do and how to do it.

SNEWS® View: We can't deny that we had a lot of laughs watching men strut their stuff including our own Michael Hodgson, looking pretty in pink and a blonde wig as he tossed his hair and turned with a flirty toss of his feather boa while on the stage. Alex Frankel, of the American Park Network, looked stunning all in white and carried himself with proper drag-queen dignity too. Martin Keen falling off the stage into the audience (yes, he was wearing Mion footwear, what else?) left attendees doubled up, but he was pushed back onto the stage and carried himself back into the act with aplomb. Todd Walton, PR manager at Outdoor Research, actually found size 14 knee-high, patent-leather, white platform boots and he too was divine in an OR tank and skort. Skip Yowell of Jansport of COURSE carried a Jansport Super Sack and everybody probably wanted to help him across the next street with his proper capris and fluffy wig. We could go on … Steve Bendzak, Jon Dorn, Steve Shuster (in heels even!), Mac Tillman (in a cuuute sundress from Nomadic Traders), and Ground athlete/Mountain Link Guide Jeff Justman (a bodybuilder's build with skimpy shorts, a tank and just the right wow twirl).

But all the fun aside and all the great fund-raising that was done, there were elements that indeed spun a bit out of control, be it because of stage fright (and over-compensating), alcohol, one-upmanship or simple theatrics. The OIWC honestly couldn't begin to know this would happen when in fact the group thought they would have trouble talking men into being in the show in the first place.

We suspect it will be a while before OIWC attempts another fashion show with men. However, should another fashion show become part of the entertainment plan for OIWC we'd suggest a few things:

  1. Start the show on time or as close to it as possible. We were told there were late-comers and they tried to hold the start so all were in. First, there was only ONE OIWC person at the entrance who was completely overwhelmed handing out wristbands and glow-in-the-dark sticks. That hung things up greatly. And waiting a few minutes is fine, but it's not fair to those who were there on time to have to wait for late-comers.
  2. Better control an emcee. Timmy could have been funny without being vulgar. There were likely assumptions made about what he would NOT do, but he did. Frankly, having a real drag queen emcee the event, as Bottoms' has suggested is a grand idea.
  3. Write real scripts that talk about the clothing. Actually, there is a certain level of humor in reality. Some we talked to would have really liked to have seen the models truly model the clothes and show them off. Since there was not a fashion show at the show this year, make a real fashion show out of it … with a flair.
  4. Keep the volume down a bit. Sure, the models needed "energy," but it was impossible to hear a lot of what was said so anything about the clothes was nearly lost anyway.
  5. Limit the consumption of alcohol in the model staging area. A drunk model is a model that isn't thinking clearly, and that is not a good thing.
  6. An event like this calls for a much more open, airy, and well-lit venue. Let's not make it a boring and brightly lit ballroom, but something that still keeps folks toned down a bit – with a bar for a few drinks AND better ventilation so attendees don't get so grumpy from the heat.
  7. Impose tighter controls on script, choreography and time on stage. (But, the question lingers, would these execs really pay attention?)
  8. Keep everyone in costume after the stage walk, and throw a party that continues into the night so interaction can continue with the models and the crowd after the show.

There are a lot of other suggestions about structure and we could debate those for weeks. Whatever happens, this is certainly an event that did take a life of its own and could never, ever be re-created (nor should it). It will go down in Outdoor Retailer legend as what it was, perhaps offensive and vulgar at times to some, but still one that entertained like no other Outdoor Retailer event had before.

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