True Blue: How Fashion Became a Driving Force in Keeping Tahoe's Waters Blue

Suzanne Ennis | July 22, 2019 | Lifestyle Style & Beauty

Saks Fifth Avenue and the League to Save Lake Tahoe celebrate 50 years of fashion, freindship and fundraising to preserve a national treasure.

Last year’s parade of models.

On Aug. 3, some 650 luminaries will gather at Kern Schumacher’s Incline Village estate for the annual fashion show presented by Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit the League to Save Lake Tahoe. Beneath the glittering surface, however, will be a strong sense of purpose. This year marks the fundraiser’s 50th anniversary, and its role in preserving the “noble sheet of blue water,” as Mark Twain described the lake in the 1870s, may be greater than ever before.

The late Nan Kempner and the late Bill Blass with Sally Debenham in sunglasses at a show in the 1980s.

These days, the benefit is summer’s hottest ticket, but its glamour belies bootstrap beginnings. In 1969, with help from Saks Fifth Avenue General Manager Jim Ludwig, a barefooted Bill Blass presented his fall collection to 100 guests on the sands of Rubicon Beach. Just $15 bought a ticket and a picnic lunch, and amateur models (including Blass and Ludwig’s friend, society maven Sally Debenham) walked a makeshift runway. Proceeds supported the League to Save Lake Tahoe, an environmental advocacy organization whose members included arts philanthropist Dolph Andrews Jr., shipping heiress Diana Dollar Knowles and several others who were instrumental in pulling off the event.

Lunch is held at the water’s edge, where event regulars know to wear flats to cope with the sand.

Three decades and many charmed lakefront shows later, the legendary American designer took his final bow. “In all those years of doing it, it never rained on the show,” Debenham recalls fondly. “They called it ‘Blass weather.’” In 2002, with Oscar de la Renta at the helm, what was an intermittent event became an annual soiree. Over the years, it evolved in other ways too. “It got much more fancy,” says longtime Oscar de la Renta Executive-at-Large Boaz Mazor. “People are now buying clothes to dress up for the next Lake Tahoe show!” Oscar de la Renta designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia are carrying on the tradition, appealing to a new generation with their fresh aesthetic. “Lake Tahoe is an authentic American treasure. We are thrilled to help preserve it,” says Alex Bolen, the company’s CEO and the late founder’s son-in-law. To date, the annual event (tickets are now from $600 each) has raised more than $18 million to “Keep Tahoe Blue,” to borrow the League’s famous slogan. But as the party’s grown, so, too, have threats to the lake. Founded in 1957, the League to Save Lake Tahoe originally fought unfettered development; today, its foes include polluted runoff, aquatic invasive species and climate change. Visibility has dropped from more than 100 feet in 1968 to 70.9 feet last year (following 2017’s all-time low of 59.7 feet). Fashion-show dollars enable the league to carry out a range of innovative hands-on and behind-the-scenes projects that protect the lake’s quality and clarity, as well as ensure its resilience. “The support of the benefit and all our members allows us to be adaptable and seek out those innovations,” says the nonprofit’s chief strategy officer, Jesse Patterson. “We’re very, very thankful.”

The 2019 resort collection is shown at the 2018 lunch.

The sold-out 50th anniversary event will celebrate and support their work—all while entertaining and outfitting the arbiters of style who return year after year. “It has become a time-honored tradition for our clients to have the opportunity to be some of the first to preview the Oscar de la Renta Resort collection each year with the one-of-a kind backdrop that is Lake Tahoe,” says Anna Chung, Saks Fifth Avenue’s vice president and general manager in San Francisco. Once again, Christie’s Robbie Gordy will host the live auction, which includes a trip to Fashion Week in New Yorkwith front-seat tickets to Oscar de la Renta’s show. This year, a VIP cocktail party the night before the fashion show will be followed by a dinner for 60 with Kim and Garcia.

Oscar de la Renta in a blue blazer at his first show on the lake in 1995.

Menlo Park's Jessica Hickingbotham, the granddaughter-in-law of Knowles, is a staunch supporter who sits on the fashion show committee with Barbara Brown; Knowles’ daughter, Heidi Cary; Hillsborough’s Krista Giovara; event planner Riccardo Benavides; and league board member Robert Damaschino (longtime committee member Edith Andrews Tobin, Dolph’s daughter, died in January).

Dolph Andrews and Bill Blass in an undated photo.

Hickingbotham’s not only following in Knowles’ footsteps, but is also looking ahead to the next 50 years of keeping Tahoe blue. “In the last several years, my teenage daughter and her cousins have sold raffle tickets at the event,” she says. “This is where they begin their journey in taking care of Lake Tahoe, and, hopefully, someday, they will be on the fashion show committee carrying on the legacy.”

Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley

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Photography by: Bill Blass Photo Courtesy of Sally Debenham; Runway and Lunch Photos By Drew Altizer Photography; All other Photos Courtesy of The League to Save Lake Tahoe