Desert Best Friend’s Closet dresses people for success

Victoria Cambron buttoned up a black pinstripe blazer and smiled as she stared at her reflection in the fitting-room mirror. The 25-year-old Indio Hills resident spun around to make sure the matching pinstripe skirt and black blouse were a good fit.

“This is really nice,” Cambron said. “I really like it.”

For more than an hour, Cambron and a volunteer stylist scoured the racks for the best possible work attire, looking for blouses, skirts, pants suits, and dresses. She settled on three outfits, shoes and matching accessories for interviews.

As Cambron begins her job search, she is suiting up with the help from Desert Best Friend’s Closet in Palm Desert. Cambron is among more than 3,500 people who have received work outfits from the nonprofit since it opened its doors in 2010.

“This is a huge help for me because I don’t have professional type of clothing,” Cambron said. She received a voucher for the nonprofit’s services through Riverside County’s Greater Avenue for Independence, GAIN, a social service program aimed at helping people reenter the workforce.

Located in Palm Desert, Desert Best Friend’s Closet is a nonprofit organization that assists low-income residents in the Coachella Valley by providing them with clothes for job interviews.

Connie Gold, executive director and co-founder of Desert Best Friend’s Closet, said the organization focuses on helping low-income Coachella Valley residents by providing them with professional interview and work attire.

635870013676530361-2-SECONDARY.jpgpicture: long formal dresses“Over the years, we’ve worked with veterans, the homeless population, people who are blind, deaf or suffer mental illnesses and more recently people from the transgender community,” Gold said.

The nonprofit works with various social service agencies, homeless shelters and other organizations around the Coachella Valley, including Riverside County GAIN, Roy’s Desert Resource Center, Shelter from the Storm, and the Transgender Community Coalition.

All clients are referred through one of the nonprofit’s partner agencies. During each appointment, women and men try out various outfits for 60 to 90 minutes until they find three prior worn, gently used outfits to keep free of charge.

Victoria Cambron poses for a photograph wearing one of the outfits she chose at the Desert Best Friend’s Closet on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. (Photo: Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)

“Often times, people aren’t sure what the proper attire is for work and we help give them some guidance on selecting outfits,” Gold said. “We want to provide them with a look that is image appropriate for the position they are applying for.”

“We don’t want people to feel like this is charity,” Gold said. “We treat everyone with dignity and respect.”In the last year, Desert Best Friend’s Closet helped 688 people find clothing for job interviews.

Most of the clothes come from donations, but the nonprofit often purchases hard to find clothing by selling donated items at its boutique thrift store in Palm Desert.

The organization also has a prom dress giveaway, a military ball gown program and a ”bridge to employment program,” which offers job search preparation workshops.

The Transgender Community Coalition in Palm Springs started working with Desert Best Friend’s Closet six months ago.

Coalition Director Thomi Clinton said the Closet has played a positive role.

Located in Palm Desert, Desert Best Friend’s Closet is a nonprofit organization that assists low-income residents in the Coachella Valley by providing them with clothes for job interviews. (Photo: Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)

“The transgender community faces high rates of homelessness and unemployment,” Clinton said. ”Providing people with clothes gives them an opportunity to move forward and live an authentic life. Clothing plays an important role in presenting yourself during a job interview.”

Shelley Somerville was referred to Desert Best Friend’s Closet in late September through the Clinton’s group.

She struggled to find employment after transitioning from homelessness, before finding a temporary position as an administrative assistant at the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs.

“Having good clothing helps people’s self esteem,” Somerville said. “The service is vital for people who are poor, homeless, or trying to get back on their feet and find jobs. Services like Desert Best Friends makes a difference.”Located in Palm Desert, Desert Best Friend’s Closet is a nonprofit organization that assists low-income residents in the Coachella Valley by providing them with clothes for job interviews. (Photo: Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)

For Cambron the new look gives her a good foundation as she researches and starts lining up interviews.

”Having these three outfits gives me options, I can mix and match to make them six outfits,” she said.

”I’m learning more and more how important clothing and presentation are for job interviews,” Cambron added. ”I want to be prepared. This is a good start.”

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Searching rewind to the 1999 eruption on Seattle’s streets

The new year explodes with a fantastic debut novel called “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.” Sunil Yapa, the 38-year-old author, sets his story amid the melee of the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. Indelible coverage of that disaster and all the videos of police brutality around the country since then may have withered our capacity to be shocked, but Yapa’s ­re-creation of those horrible hours in the Emerald City arrives like a punch in the chest.

Think back to that innocent age before Sept. 11, 2001. On the eve of the millennium,the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference gathered to usher in a century of expanded economic development. More than 130 countries sent delegates to Seattle; U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and President Bill Clinton were scheduled to bask in the glow of international cooperation. But those hopes were incinerated before the meetings could even begin. More than 50,000 environmental and labor protesters, some dressed as vegetables and farm animals, clogged the streets around the conference center, marching, chanting and dancing. Although the activists were overwhelmingly peaceful and well organized, stray acts of vandalism provoked the police, who were unprepared and badly outnumbered. By the end of the first day, the world watched as the screaming city disappeared under clouds of tear gas.

That confrontation could have inspired a latter-day Tom Wolfe like Garth Risk Hallberg to gather up the whole metropolis in all its clamoring chaos. Indeed, that may have been Yapa’s original intention, but his 600-page first draft was lost during a robbery, and the book he is publishing is a taut novel half that length. “Your Heart Is a Muscle” keeps its focus tight as it circulates through the experiences of several characters caught up and crushed by the WTO protests.

At the center of the story is a black teenager named Victor, who provides the story’s emotional core. He ran away from home after his mother died, and in the intervening years he has been wandering the world doing odd jobs and sleeping where he can. Still fogged by “the fever of grief,” he returns to Seattle to find the city swept with a carnival spirit that should provide the perfect market for selling marijuana. But he attracts the attention of an experienced activist, a woman nicknamed Kingfisher, who foolishly enlists him in her cause to shut down the conference. Desperate for any kind of belonging, Victor tags along, repressing his skepticism just to be near her.

picture: bridesmaid dressesYapa’s single concession to melodrama is that Victor is the stepson of Seattle’s white police chief, Bishop. Shattered by his wife’s death a few years earlier, Chief Bishop turned emotionally brutal toward Victor and drove the boy away in an effort to steel him to the world’s disappointments. But those personal concerns are overwhelmed by the challenge at hand: maintaining the peace, managing tens of thousands of protesters and making sure the WTO delegates can attend their meetings. “The days of community policing were over,” Bishop thinks. “The world was a bottleful of sparkling darkness and the cops the ones charged with keeping the cork in while the rich shook and shook.”

Yapa’s novel presents the voluntary and involuntary participants in this clash as victims of history rent by their fears and affections. Chief Bishop is a good cop, even-tempered and sympathetic, but those admirable qualities may betray him. “He felt a fondness for these people,” Yapa writes, “a kind of love-struck nostalgia for his city.” As the protests ramp up, he dresses down one of his officers, Timothy Park, for being too aggressive. With his “aura of utter and total self-reliance in the teeth of the world,” Officer Park seems like a thug with a badge. After all, he is intemperate, too eager to swing his baton — but that same energy fueled his heroism when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City blew up. What ultimately will save the greater number of people as civil order boils away? Bishop’s understanding or Park’s aggression?

This isn’t to suggest that Yapa excuses police brutality. On the contrary, before his novel reaches its shattering conclusion, it reenacts such savage beatings that I expected to wipe drops of blood off my glasses. By following the attenuation of moral responsibility that political leaders depend on, Yapa demonstrates the grotesque process that encourages otherwise good, reasonable people to perfect methods of maiming and blinding peaceful protesters. The real triumph of modern capitalism, the novel suggests, is not the division of labor but the division of atrocity that dissipates the burden of guilt. The final workers in that process are the police: “They pickle the world,” Victor thinks, to “preserve it the way it is.”

The two experienced protesters the novel focuses on are equally conflicted and fascinating. Kingfisher clings to her ideal of “the transformative power of militant nonviolence” at least in part to soothe her remorse for a murder she committed. She knows “revolution was not glamorous,” but she expects it to yield some cleansing blessing. Her mentor promotes a radically pure vision that demands people throw their bodies into the gears of government. But that sacrifice is predicated on a species of moral empathy that the modern state is determined to snuff out. Despite all the protests he has joined, he still wonders, “For the country to change, did blood always have to be spilled?”

A glimpse of the delegates provides another facet to this tragedy. Far removed from the commanders of international trade comes Charles Wickramsinghe, the hopeful representative from Sri Lanka (the home of Yapa’s father). Wickramsinghe has survived years of repression in his country, so the ferocity of the Seattle police can’t shock him. He is surprised, though, by the naivete of the protesters determined to “save” little countries such as his by pinching off their only hope for economic development.

What is so enthralling about this novel is its syncopated riff of empathy as the perspective jumps around these participants — some peaceful, some violent, some determined, some incredulous. Constantly moving to “one more story among a thousand such stories,” Yapa creates a fluid sense of the riot as it washes over the city. “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” ultimately does for the WTO protests what Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” did for the 1967 March on the Pentagon, gathering that confrontation in competing visions of what happened and what it meant.

How, Yapa asks, given the existential challenges we face and the forces arrayed against solving them, can we respond to “the problem of remaining a person yourself, a person who cares. A person who feels. A person who does not hate”?

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The 8 African Brands Starting a Fashion Revolution From the Soles Up

On the heels of Aurora James’s rousing success with her brand Brother Vellies (which began with the goal of introducing the rest of the world to her favorite traditional African footwear, while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs within Africa), a new wave of African shoemakers is proving that the continent can compete with the likes of Europe and America when it comes to high-quality footwear.

Handmade in such countries as South Africa, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Ghana, with a focus on sustainably sourced materials, ethical manufacturing, and the employment of marginalized women, these footwear brands are not only reviving traditional African shoemaking techniques (while simultaneously rekindling our interest in them), they are demonstrating just how profitable slow fashion and local hard work can be.

“The solution for Africa is not charity, and charity, and charity again,” says Mehdi Slimani, founder of Ethiopian-based sneaker label Sawa. “Sawa is living proof that African people can manufacture high-quality finished goods.”

For Oliberté founder Tal Dehtiar, it is fashion’s powerful ability to change perceptions—in this case, how we perceive Africa and the continent’s manufacturing capabilities—that is most promising. “If we can figure out how to make beautiful, high-quality, and sustainable shoes here in Ethiopia, there’s no reason why other companies can’t do this elsewhere in Africa. We are starting a movement, to get people to build something locally that makes an impact.” Here, the eight brands reshaping Africa’s shoemaking industry.

When Toronto-raised Tal Dehtiar started his Ethiopian-based footwear label, Oliberté, in 2009, he was tired of how people looked at Africa: helpless and in need of constant aid. So what better way to symbolize Africa’s potential? “By making the best shoes in the world, crafted with the most authentic story, right here in Africa,” says Dehtiar. “It’s not just about showing people that Africans can work and compete and create stuff, but also that under the harshest conditions, we can make the most responsible product the world has ever seen that can take care of its people.”

It’s a lofty undertaking, but one that has paid off. With the help of his general manager, Feraw Kebede (who, like Jimmy Choo, trained at London’s Cordwainers’s Technical College), Dehtiar built his own shoe factory in Addis Ababa, which has since become the first Fair Trade Certified shoe factory in the world. Oliberté, which uses traditional stitch-down techniques for its desert boots, has also made a point of hiring unskilled or unemployed workers, putting them through a six-phase training program, which can see them start out as a cleaner and work their way up to a managerial level within two years. “The company’s plan is to give someone who doesn’t have skills a job so that he or she can achieve something in life. Some people come in from the street—to shape them up and bring them to this level is exciting,” says Kebede.

Dehtiar hopes to ultimately change how larger African shoe manufacturers run their factories. “Africa is such an amazing word; when you say Africa, everyone has so many different connotations: safari, corruption, politics, famine,” says Dehtiar. “What I hope is that for the 100,000 people who have put on our shoes so far, the word Africa means something different to them.”

http://media.vogue.com/r/h_660,w_440/2015/12/23/00-african-shoes.jpgpicture: formal dresses melbourneCrafted from vintage Moroccan rugs, supple suede, and leather, every pair of Ten & Co. shoes is handmade in small batches by a cobbler in Marrakech using traditional hand tools and a bit of elbow grease. “His most high-tech gadget is a foot-pedal sewing machine,” says Brooklyn-based founder and designer Tory Noll, who first visited the city four years ago.

After stumbling across the cobbler’s workshop, Noll became completely fascinated by his craftsmanship and soon made her first pair of shoes out of a pillow scrap. The line is based around classic shapes (the oxford, the desert boot, the flat, and the strappy sandal), and Noll makes a point of using recycled materials whenever possible: finding small-batch leathers and scouring rug auctions, Marrakech flea markets, and the Atlas Mountains to discover vibrant, handwoven antique textiles.

Noll discusses and negotiates wages with her workers, “because they know better than I do what their living wage is,” she explains. “I’m not using this company as a jumping-off point to start a sweatshop and increase my margins and take over the world with shoes. My goal is simply to utilize the existing talent and craftsmanship of the men and women of Morocco—and hopefully others will also want a piece of that in the form of beautiful shoes!”

It is easy to see why J.Crew began stocking Sawa sneakers in 2014. Coined “kicks with a conscience,” the Ethiopian-designed and -constructed shoes are built out of distinctive suede and traditional African loincloth, and they are made to showcase Africa’s ability to manufacture high-quality goods while supporting the local economy.

Indeed, Mehdi Slimani founded Sawa in 2009 simply because “shoes are an efficient product” as far as employment is concerned. “The shoe manufacturing process needs a lot of people. Because most of the stages are manual, from cutting to packing, Sawa can employ 150 people,” he explains. “Half of the team consists of women—especially in the stitching department, while men are focused on [the] lasting department. We are made in Africa, from coast to coast!” To give customers a glimpse into its Made in Africa label, Sawa’s Fall/Winter 2015 campaign is dedicated to the brand’s high-skilled employees.

At any given moment, there are eight to 16 women working on Harper Poe’s famous raffia sandals—some styles sell out before she even has the chance to put them up on her website, Proud Mary—with up to five men adding soles in a small cobbler shop in Marrakech.

A former volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in South America, Poe launched Proud Mary in 2008 with a firm goal in mind: to spur economic growth and promote global craft preservation. “I wanted to ‘make a difference,’ but knew that the bleeding heart approach would not be sustainable,” Poe says, and instead she put her faith in creating and nurturing for-profit businesses. “These traditional crafts are a means of carrying on the culture of indigenous communities,” says Poe. “Many of our weavers come from a long line of craftspeople; their designs carry on the message of their tribes, families, and religions. They are visual storytellers.”

Poe sources her raffia in Morocco, stressing the importance of keeping production in one country to add income sources across multiple channels: raffia dyers, female weavers, male cobblers, and leather dealers, for example. Rather than “reinvent the wheel” of shoe design, Poe says she chooses to work with simple styles, to better highlight the artisanal techniques and materials inherent to a certain country or culture. “Our designs are a play on traditional Moroccan shoe styles but often stripped down, giving them a modern touch.”

During a visit to Cape Town, Paul Maria Burggraf, a German-born and Swiss-raised carpenter, met Arnold Vengayi, a young shoemaker from Zimbabwe, from whom he ordered several pairs of shoes. As Burggraf tells it, he instantly “fell in love with the traditional handicraft: the leather, the glue, the tools, and the artisan’s strength.” Four years later, the pair founded African Handmade Shoes together, hoping to bring Africa’s authentic shoemaking qualities to the world with bright motif espadrilles.

“With the idea of making shoes came the idea of exporting a piece of Africa with them,” explains Burggraf. “Our products are not simply pairs of shoes; they carry the soul of Africa in them. We are proud of our roots and try to be as transparent as possible with our customers.”

Sustainability is also one of “the leading pillars” of the brand, says Burggraf, who aims to keep a work environment that meets high standards (good salaries and ethical working conditions), while sourcing materials almost exclusively from South Africa to support the local market rather than importing from cheaper suppliers.

After a shoeshine boy insisted that high-end shoes could never be made locally in Ghana, former athlete Fred Deegbe set out to prove him wrong. “Luxury and Africa were rarely used in the same sentence, so when we started, we knew we were going against the norm,” says Deegbe. “But we are a continent rich with natural resources, beautiful weather, and vast lands with which to hone our crafts.”

Founded in 2011 with a handful of local artisans, Heel the World incorporates traditional African shoemaking skills (like the intricate weaving process of making Kente cloth and the detailed dyeing process used on local fabrics) with traditional European craftsmanship (Deegbe has worked with Parsons School of Design grads) to produce classic bespoke dress shoes.

Heel the World also trains students across the continent in shoemaking and leatherworking—many of whom have in turn begun their own footwear companies in their respective countries—and has partnered with local universities to offer a shoemaking course, slated to begin in April. “Ghana is set to be a continental leader in high-end shoemaking,” says Deegbe.

“People have become so disconnected from the clothing and apparel they buy,” says Grandt Mason, who along with five artisans pioneered vegan footwear alongside sustainable production processes in South Africa with his namesake shoe label, Grandt Mason Originals. The shoes, which make use of biodegradable components (cork, cork rubber compounds, and natural rubber soling), are “built to last, with a strong focus on comfort and ergonomics,” says Mason.

The brand recently introduced a leather range after realizing the vegan market was too small to sustain growth; however, Mason stresses that the leather is locally sourced and tanned using a chemical-free, water-safe approach called veg tan. “It was a tough decision to make after running a vegan label for 13 years,” he admits. “The reality is that our local market wants leather, so I looked for a sustainable option and found it in veg tan. We happen to have one of the only veg tanneries in Africa right on our doorstep.”

For Mason, launching an ethical footwear line in Cape Town was a given. “South Africa used to be the center of footwear production in Africa and competed on a global scale before cheap imports crippled the industry,” he explains. As a result, there was “an abundance of skilled craftsmen” available, and all the materials and infrastructure needed to run a business. “African people are born craftsmen who have an innate ability to create using their hands,” says Mason.

It can take a female artisan two days to craft one pair of Rafia Chic shoes, requiring a level of finely detailed craftsmanship that is important to Australian cofounder Patricia Barnes. “This is why there is such a limited number of pairs that can be made. You can feel the quality as soon as you put them on,” says Barnes, who, along with cofounder Lindy Rochester, employs 30 women to work on the shoes in a small atelier in Morocco.

“[In Morocco] the women are often not free to work outside the home and are accompanied by men when in public. Working in the atelier allows these women some freedom, to learn a valuable craft, to earn their own money, and to socialize while they gather at the atelier,” explains Barnes. “We really like the idea of being able to make a difference for the women and families in this culture, while helping to preserve this beautiful traditional craft.”

After happening upon raffia weaving at a local souk during a trip to Morocco, Barnes and Rochester were so impressed by the quality of the all-natural shoes, they were sure Australians would feel the same. “We thought they offered such a fantastic appeal to suit our Australian lifestyle,” says Barnes. American customers seem to agree: You can now find Rafia Chic at Rachel Comey in New York.

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Yards of treasures stock the shelves, bins at Alma’s Variety Shop

“Come on in here. Nobody’s got what I’ve got. Nobody’s got nothing like this.”

So begins a dive into a box of goodies at Alma’s Variety Shop at Deweese and Short streets.

It’s the kind of place you could pass a hundred times and never realize it is there. It’s also the kind of place a mother might drag her reluctant daughter into, only to have that daughter fall in love with fabric after fabric.

Alma Parrish, 91, has seen it happen. For 60 years, her shop has sold lace for wedding dresses, silks for stunning gowns, upholstery for sofas and drapes for fine homes, and much more.

“Every piece you pull out is just gorgeous,” Parrish said. “They don’t sell this in the stores. This is from designers. This is their overruns, so nobody’s got it.”

She got into the business through her father, William N. Parrish, who was in salvage. Known for having an eye for beautiful fabric, Alma Parrish also inherited her father’s eye for the deal.

“He always said you gotta buy stuff cheap, so you can sell it cheap. I never buy nothing wholesale. Never,” Parrish said. “I went to New York about 20 years ago and I went to where they made lace. And they said, ‘We can’t sell you this lace, this belongs to people. Bob Mackie and all of them.’”

How did she convince them?

She just happened to have thousands of dollars with her, “all $100 bills. And they accidentally fell on the floor! … They said, ‘Are you going to spend that?’ and I said, ‘Why, hell yeah, what do you think it’s for?’”

Alma Parrish, 91, has run Alma’s Variety Shop at 128 Deweese St. in Lexington, for almost 60 years. She specializes in laces, silks, and upholstery overruns that she can buy and sell cheaper than wholesale.picture: long formal dressesShe established contacts who would sell her overruns, leftovers, and bits and pieces for less than wholesales prices, and soon word of mouth began spreading that Parrish had the kind of fabrics, trims and laces used for high-end gowns and furniture. But for much, much less.

Draping an embroidered white lacy fabric across her arm, Parrish said it was available only two places: in her shop for $20 a yard and in $3,000 dresses.

Much of her fabrics end up in wedding dresses; she sold material to three generations of one family. Another woman who wore a dress made of lace from Parrish’s shop has purchased yards and yards more — to one day make wedding dresses for her daughters, one of whom has not been born yet.

Alma’s quite a remarkable woman. Always an encouragement. An absolute hellcat. She’ll tell you like it is.

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose

People don’t sew like they used to, Parrish said.

“But when people come in here, they decide they’re gonna make something special,” she said.

Parrish made matching lace-covered beds for her dogs. She also collects dolls (she has 2,000 Barbies and Madame Alexander dolls) and sells loads of silk at doll shows.

“I buy anything,” she said, from Thoroughbred racehorses to Turkish rugs. She sells, too, but not on the Internet.

“I don’t want to fool with it,” she said.

And Parrish has made a name for herself among those looking for quality furnishings.

Besnic Gojani, a native of Kosovo who has lived in Lexington for 16 years, doesn’t remember exactly how he found Alma’s, but he’s gone there several times to get fabric for chairs and couches that he reupholsters.

“She has a store that nobody has in the United States. The varieties and the things she has, for upholstery and for decorators, is the best,” he said.

While Parrish has a feel for what will sell, sometimes there are surprises. She held up a length of delicate lace that she’s been selling a lot of recently. Turns out people were buying it for simple curtains.

Many of her customers have been coming for decades, so Parrish often knows what they will like. She pointed to a bolt of embroidered silk, saying, “That’s for Miss Kincaid.”

June Kincaid, who majored in fashion design at the University of Kentucky, has been coming to Alma’s for years.

“I remember when Alma had her first shop on Broadway. She has wonderful fabric,” Kincaid said. “I’ve bought drapes for three different houses from her.”

When Kincaid would get an idea for something she needed, “I would go to Alma’s because I knew she would have it.”

Betty Spain, owner of Bella Rose dress shop in Lexington, has been an Alma’s customer for 30 years.

“I’ve been shopping there for as long as I’ve been in business,” Spain said. “I still have fabric on a sofa that I bought from her 20 years ago.”

In addition to upholstery fabric, Spain said she has bought lace and trimmings for Kentucky Derby hats and draperies.

“Alma’s quite a remarkable woman. Always an encouragement,” Spain said. “An absolute hellcat. She’ll tell you like it is.”

Parrish freely admitted that’s the case, remembering one customer she scolded for buying too many rugs.

“She stopped coming,” Parrish said. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”

But nobody can deny that Alma’s is a treasure trove.

Denise DiSantis has been shopping there for the goods to make award-winning dance costumes, first for her daughter and then other girls.

“It is the perfect thing for me — if I have to do a group of people, she has drawers of the same kind of appliqués that I can dye, but she also has one-of-a-kind things that are old, vintage,” DiSantis said.

DiSantis is moving to Florida, but “I’ll probably be coming back here to buy stuff at Alma’s. Nobody knows what a gold mine it is.”

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Tuskegee Airman served U.S. and Ohio

Walter McCreary’s daughter likes to joke that her father loved the Air Corps and his P-51 Mustang fighter plane as much as, if not a smidgeon more than, his family.

“He named his plane ‘Skipper’s darling,’  ” said Stephanie McCreary-Lynch.

Curious, she asked him why.

“And he said, ‘I was the skipper, and the plane was my darling,’  ” McCreary-Lynch said and laughed.

One of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen and a former prisoner of the Germans during World War II, McCreary, a longtime Columbus resident, died on Sunday of heart failure. He was 97.

Raised in San Antonio, the son of a railroad worker, McCreary never felt as comfortable as when he was soaring above the clouds, his family and friends said.

“The man was an authentic American hero,” said Jack Marchbanks, a music-history reporter and co-host of Jazz Sunday on WCBE (90.5 FM) who also was a 30-year friend of McCreary’s. “While my heart hurts that he is gone, he’s definitely in the pantheon of the sky, with God smiling down on him.”

McCreary had graduated from Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1940 when he got a draft notice. In 1942, at Tuskegee Air Field, the government began testing the ability of black pilots to fly in combat — a then-radical idea when most were assigned to support companies.

McCreary already had a civilian pilot’s license and signed up for the Tuskegee Army Air Corps program, becoming one of the first pilots of the all-black 100th Fighter Squadron. The Tuskegee Airmen flew as well as any white pilots, if not better.

In Europe, they finished 200 escort missions without losing a bomber. In all, they flew 15,000 sorties against the German Luftwaffe, shooting down 111 enemy aircraft and destroying 150 others on the ground.

picture: www.queenieau.com/bridesmaid-dressesMcCreary flew 89 missions before his plane was hit by enemy flak on a strafing run over Hungary on Oct. 22, 1944. He bailed out and was captured and turned over to German soldiers. He was held in a German prison camp in what is now Poland until May 1945. Like many POWs, McCreary didn’t talk much about those days.

“His is a story of service and sacrifice that is both remarkable and truly uncommon,” said Daniel Fleming, a retired Army colonel who lives next door to McCreary’s daughter in Burke, Va., where McCreary lived for the past 18 years.

Everyone who came into contact with McCreary immediately admired and respected him, said Fleming, 62, an Athens native who graduated from Ohio University. “There was a greatness about him.”

McCreary and the other Tuskegee Airmen’s sacrifices were not for naught, said Marchbanks, 62, of the Near East Side.

“It was a victory over the Nazis and a victory over Jim Crow,” he said.

McCreary often said he found it interesting that the Germans, although guilty of lethal prejudice against the Jews, did not practice segregation against the blacks at their prisoner-of-war camps, daughter McCreary-Lynch said.

It wasn’t until he and other POWs had been freed and they were back in the United States that he was again steered by “colored only” signs, she said.

“He told us he was insulted, but it made him want to pursue a military career even more,” McCreary-Lynch, 62, said.

After the war ended, McCreary was among the Tuskegee men sent to Lockbourne Air Force Base (now Rickenbacker). He met his wife, Dorothy, a graduate of East High School and Ohio State University, in 1950.

“I remember the social life of a military officer being so busy, with mom in pretty dresses and dad in his uniform,” she said.

McCreary retired from the Air Force in 1963 as a lieutenant colonel and then spent 20 years employed as deputy director of the Ohio Department of Finance and, later, Administrative Services. He retired again in 1983 and volunteered at the YMCA East as its bookkeeper until he was 80.

“He had a mathematician’s brain,” McCreary-Lynch said.

Among his many honors, McCreary was awarded the Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and POW Medal. In 2007, he and other Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that Congress can give civilians.

He moved to Virginia to live with his daughter’s family after Dorothy, his wife of 47 years, died of colon cancer, in 1997. His favorite pastimes included visiting with other retired military members and spending time with his daughter; her husband, David; and their 20-year-old son, Nicolas, McCreary-Lynch said.

“He was an extremely sharp, CNN, History Channel kind of guy until almost the very end,” she said.

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Reeds American Table has abundant potential

I didn’t expect to leave Reeds American Table raving about the burger, but here we are, standing in the twilight of 2015 — a year already overstuffed with comfort food, with fried chicken and barbecue and ranch dressing — buttoning up coats that fit more snugly than they did last winter, and I’m shaking my head in wonder, wondering whether Reeds would sell me a pint of its tallow aioli to go.

Yes, the gifted chef Matthew Daughaday dresses the burger ($12) at his 3-month-old Maplewood restaurant with a beef-tallow aioli so rich that it could finance a vanity campaign for president of the United States. A cap of melted Vermont cheddar further gilds the patty, a juicy, assertively seasoned marvel of ground dry-aged rib-eye (with some brisket). As much as I love that tallow aioli, the smartest touch here is the pickled tomato, crisp bursts of tartness that cut through all that richness and sharpen the beef’s mineral essence.

Now, I’m not surprised that Daughaday makes a terrific burger. The three years he spent as executive chef at Gerard Craft’s Taste established him as one of the rising stars of St. Louis dining. His cooking could be playful, thoughtful and soulful — a rare trifecta. When he announced late last year that he would leave Taste to open his own restaurant, Reeds immediately became one of the most anticipated debuts of 2015.

I am surprised, however, that few other dishes at Reeds excite me as much as that burger does.

(Who is the eponymous Reed? This is Daughaday’s middle name as well as his paternal grandmother’s birth name. Why is there no apostrophe? Reed also refers to the plant and how it bends but doesn’t break in a storm, which Daughaday explained to me is a metaphor for how important the team at Reeds is. Knowing this, how many times have I still written Reed’s instead of Reeds? Many.)

picture: cheap formal dressesThe menu at Reeds of course includes the sorts of small plates with which Daughaday made his reputation at Taste. (Some, like the cornbread fried in bacon fat, he has brought over directly from Taste.) There are also more traditional main courses, but even these you and your companions will likely end up sharing. When busy — and Reeds is already exceptionally busy; a friend and I waited nearly an hour for walk-in seats at the bar on a Monday evening — the noisy, bustling vibe of the shotgun bar and dining room encourages a grazing free-for-all.

Aside from the burger, Reeds’ greatest pleasures reside among the small plates. A deceptively simple plating of four pork ribs ($12) belies their complex flavor. Braised with molasses and beer and sticky with an orange-soy-hoisin glaze and a beer beurre monté, the ribs deliver a lovely balance of savory and sweet, with a lingering whisper of five-spice powder. Roasted, candied pumpkin seeds, pumpkin-seed oil and pomegranate lend a toasty-sweet depth to garlicky hummus ($10).

If you eat only one small plate at Reeds, it must be the braised beef cheek ($12), the already luscious meat outrageously enriched by a foie-gras cream. Arugula and oven-dried tomato give the dish the necessary sharp edges, and everything sits on a slice of focaccia, making for a luxurious open-faced sandwich. It’s the best example yet of Daughaday’s approach, high and low, serious in technique, fun on the plate.

Yet, even among the small plates, inconsistencies arise. My order of beer-battered green beans ($8) arrived closer to warm than hot, undercutting the smart accompaniments of pickled enoki mushrooms and a sweet-onion aioli. A sort of hash of Brussels sprouts, carrots, leeks and shiitake mushrooms made an excellent bed for a slab of pork belly ($12), but the meat needed a bit more browning on its surface, a touch more fat rendered. It collapsed into the hash instead of standing against it.

Large plates suffer from muted main ingredients. The butcher steak ($22), a teres major cut on my visit, is cooked in a sous-vide bath for two hours so that the meat is a perfect, gorgeous medium-rare from center almost all the way to the edge. My steak seemed to have only a passing acquaintance with salt, however, and struggled to assert itself against multiple sauces — an herb-heavy sauce vert (more than enough bright flavor by itself), a leek soubise and a smear of saba — as well as a sweet-potato gratin.

Likewise, an abundance of chickpeas dulled the distinct flavor of lamb in the lamb stew ($16), nor were the spice of harissa or the tang of yogurt as apparent as they should have been. The meatloaf ($14), a comfort-food slam dunk made with ground beef, pork and lamb and then slathered with ketchup, was mushy.

Still, Daughday’s track record suggests that Reeds will soon rise to and likely exceed expectations. And it is a good restaurant right now, supported by a crack team. (By the way, the team was aware of my presence.) Andrey Ivanov, St. Louis’ most acclaimed young sommelier, oversees a stunning wine list that showcases his knack for finding boutique producers and undersung varietals. If the list itself sometimes reads like Ivanov’s study notes for a master-sommelier exam, he is skilled at talking you toward the perfect wine that you never would have ordered.

Pastry chef Summer Wright, whose experience ranges from the great Daniel Boulud in New York City to Gerard Craft’s empire here, is an ideal match for Daughaday’s reimagined comfort fare. A dash of star anise in the whipped cream enlivens a classic chocolate pot de crème ($9). Candied kumquats spark a rich date cake ($8), a perfect early winter dessert.

Reeds’ current charms and its abundant promise are more than enough to draw me back. The real trick will be ordering something other than a burger.

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What Happens When A Lesbian

I’m 22 years old, and while out at the bar, I drunkenly invite my jaw-droopingly gorgeous girlfriend to come over for the holiday. She enthusiastically agrees to come.

A few weeks later, when it’s finally time for Christmas dinner, I’m sober and having regrets.

For tonight’s holiday festivities, my mother has ordered a long banquette table and decorated it with elephant statues, massive crystals, antique candelabras, and peacock feathers.

We’re having between 25 and 30 guests, including new divorcees, wild British eccentrics, and hard-nosed Republicans who have never seen a lesbian couple in their lives. They all know I’m gay, and besides the occasional stereotypical question about when I’m going to cut my hair off and stop wearing dresses, my family is very open-minded.

My mom proudly wears her AIDS awareness pin on her one-shoulder Norma Kamali dress. My dad worked in the cosmetics industry where his number one clients were gay men. My sister snuck me into a gay bar in Boston when I was 13. And once, when I accidentally repeated the word “fag” to my mother after reading it in a book, she freaked out on me.

“Never, ever, ever, EVER say that word again!” my usually passive mum shouted at me, English accent clipped and proper. “People have called Uncle Peter that terrible bloody word, just for being gay. It’s a dreadful word.”

I came out to my mom at a casual Italian restaurant in Florida. Because I was never home anymore, my mom thought I was on drugs, but really I was spending every night at my new girlfriend’s apartment. (I figured having my mother believe I was drug addict was worse than her knowing I was gay.)

About three-quarters of the way through a bottle of champagne, the words spilled out of my mouth.

Alexey Kuzmapicture: cheap formal dresses online“Mom, I met someone. A girl.”

My liberal, fashionista, Londoner mother nearly fell out of her chair. She asked me over and over again if I was “sure.” I told her I had never been more sure about anything in my entire life.

It was awkward between us for awhile. On the outside, she supported me. She did every textbook thing a mom to a gay child should do. She researched lesbian sex on the Internet. She asked me questions. She reminded me she loved me no matter what. (She also told my dad behind my back when I asked her not to.)

But deep down, I felt I had disappointed her. She had a neat little vision for my future: Spend a few years dabbling around in acting and modeling, marry a rich guy and have children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Instead, I opted for a life of pouring my guts out on the Internet, having sex and falling in love with women, making my own money, and living alone in a six-story walk up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (At least I got the neighborhood right).

I love this life. I really do. But nobody in my family has ever actually seen a piece of it. And the night I bring my girlfriend to dinner for the first time, they’re going to.

My brother is bringing his new girlfriend home from LA, but it’s not the same. Everyone is so excited to meet his girlfriend, Sasha that I’m acting like I’m just bringing my new best friend.

My girlfriend Shay* arrives to my house 30 minutes early, looking androgynous and chic as hell in black leather pants and a starched white shirt. My palms are sweating.

Little by little, the guests start to arrive, and Shay and I both inhale wine like it’s going out of style. We’re usually all over each other — we’re that kind of newly out young couple that can’t keep their hands off of each other, finally free of the burden of pretending to be straight for our whole lives. But tonight, I try to water down my affection toward her. I don’t want to throw my “sexuality” in everyone’s face.

Meanwhile, my brother Blake is three whiskeys deep and all over his girlfriend. I realize everyone is talking about “Blake’s new girlfriend” and are just referring to my girlfriend as “Shay.”

Around 9 pm, Shay puts her hand on my knee in front of everyone. I gaze down at my lap. Even though I’m drunk and my vision is hazy, her hand looks perfect against my black lace stockings.

Maybe it’s the bottle of champagne I’ve consumed. Maybe it’s because love really is a more powerful force than fear. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to not give a f*ck. But I start being as affectionate with Shay as my brother is with Sasha. I put my arm around her and begin to aggressively call her my girlfriend.

I realize that the more comfortably I display my affection toward Shay (even going so far as to kiss her on the lips in front of the whole fam), the more comfortable everyone else becomes.

The reason they were hesitant to refer to Shay as my girlfriend wasn’t because they were being judgmental and bigoted — it’s because they were following my nervous lead. This was all new to them, too.

The more my family saw Shay and I together, acting like typical loved-crazed 22-year-olds, the less mysterious the whole “lesbian thing” became. They realized love is love, and we’re all the same.

This is when I decided that the best thing I can do as a queer girl is to just be comfortable with who I am.

If this is your first time bringing your queer love home for the holigays, don’t worry. It’s totally okay to be nervous and for your family to be nervous. What’s new is always a little jarring at first.

But I don’t think you need to water down your love to make others feel comfortable. That’s not your job. Visibility is what will eventually make people comfortable, anyway. And if family members throw dirty looks in your direction, that’s really not your problem.

Hold your partner’s hand with all the confidence and pride in the world, and most likely that pride will be contagious. Most parents are just going to be happy to finally see you happy. Even the most conservative parents have surprised me.

Even if the night is a disaster, take comfort in knowing that in this country, in this fine year of 2015, LOVE F*CKING WON. And will continue to win.

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New York City unveils new rules on gender discrimination

Restaurant owners can’t require ties for male diners only. Gyms can’t tell clients which locker room to use. And in most cases, an employer can’t put ”John” on a worker’s ID if she prefers ”Jane.”

New York City’s Human Rights Commission is establishing what advocates called some of the most powerful guidelines nationwide on gender-identity discrimination, releasing specifics Monday to flesh out broad protections in a 2002 law.

”Today’s guidance makes it abundantly clear what the city considers to be discrimination,” which can lead to fines of up to $250,000, Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis said in a statement. Officials said complaints about gender-identity discrimination have risen in recent years but couldn’t immediately provide statistics.

Some cities around the country have added transgender people to anti-discrimination protections, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did likewise for his state this fall. Other communities have rebuffed them: Houston voters this fall defeated an ordinance that would have established nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people.

635863772902783299-Sodium-On-Menus-Davi.jpgpicture: red bridesmaid dresses”New York City vaults to the front of the line” with its new guidelines and strong legal framework for human rights complaints, said Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund. ”These are real, everyday struggles for transgender people.”

The guidelines apply to many businesses, landlords and employers. Public schools already have their own, somewhat similar rules. Some religious institutions and private clubs can be exempt.

Groups representing restaurateurs and landlords didn’t immediately respond to inquiries about the new provisions, nor did a major fitness-center chain.

An estimated 25,000 transgender or gender non-conforming people live in the city, officials said.

Besides overall bans on discrimination in housing and hiring, the new guidelines speak to such specifics as balking at using the personal pronoun of someone’s choice — ”Ms.” or ”Mr.,” for instance. Commission officials say they understand there can be honest mistakes, but repeating them, refusing to correct them or ridiculing the person can be a violation.

The rules also declare that transgender people can’t be denied access to the restroom or locker room where their gender identity belongs, at their discretion. Unisex, single-occupancy bathrooms are suggested but not required.

Objections from fellow patrons or employees ”are not a lawful reason to deny access,” the guidelines say. Officials point to existing harassment and sex-crime laws to address any concerns about sexual predators gaining access to intimate settings, a concern raised during the Houston referendum, though its supporters called the problem minimal.

New York’s rules also address topics ranging from health coverage to employee dress codes. They needn’t be reduced to one unisex outfit, but a business can’t require dresses or makeup for women only, for instance, or bar only men from having long hair.

Federal courts have upheld gender-specific dress requirements in some cases, but the commission says that such differentiation ”reinforces a culture of sex stereotypes” and that there’s legal room for the city to set its own guidelines.

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The 15 stories that had you talking in 2015

Maybe it’ll be the tiny body of a drowned migrant boy, face-down on a beach in Turkey. Or the swagger of Donald Trump, carpet-bombing his rivals on a debate stage. Or crowds of Americans straining for a glimpse of a humble Catholic leader in a white robe. Or the bold femininity of Caitlyn Jenner, gazing back at us from the cover of Vanity Fair.

Here are our choices for the most buzzed-about news stories of 2015. They weren’t all necessarily the biggest or most impactful stories, especially in a year that had the U.S. reopening its embassy in Cuba, a newly belligerent Russian President Vladimir Putin, attacks on Planned Parenthood and earthquakes in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people.

But these were stories that raised issues, sparked debate and prompted conversations that lasted weeks, even months. They outraged us, inspired us, saddened us and engaged us. For better or worse, they kept us talking.

Which of these 15 stories kept you talking in 2015? Vote below for your choice.

Paris attacks and the growing threat of ISIS

ISIS was carrying out attacks and beheadings across the Middle East at an alarming rate this year. But then came the November 13 rampage in Paris, which killed 130 people and plunged the City of Light into temporary darkness. The attacks pierced the heart of a favorite European capital, sparked anti-Islamic fervor, shook up the U.S. presidential campaign and raised new fears in the West about ISIS’s ability to strike anywhere.

Donald Trump dominates GOP field

When the year started, Jeb Bush was seen as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, and Donald Trump was a tycoon-turned-reality TV star. But by midsummer, Trump had soared in the polls atop a crowded field, buoyed by lavish media attention and a restive electorate weary of career politicians. Despite a string of outrageous comments insulting everyone from women to Muslims, Trump has surprised pundits with his staying power — portending an unruly GOP nomination fight in 2016.

Migrant crisis engulfs Europe

picture: formal dresses melbourneHundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and other countries poured into Europe, straining services and sparking tensions with EU citizens wary of the flood of outsiders. Many desperate refugees died crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats, a tragedy driven home by widely circulated photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and put a grim face on the crisis.

Racial unrest over police killings roils U.S. cities

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, galvanized by last year’s fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, found no shortage of new grievances in 2015. Riots shook Baltimore in April after Freddie Gray died in police custody, and Chicago protesters called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation following the release in November of a graphic video showing police shooting a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, 16 times. Those incidents and others spawned protests against police brutality in cities across North America.

Confederate symbols banned after Charleston church massacre

The South was forced to re-examine its stormy past after nine African-Americans were gunned down inside a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June by a white man who said he had hoped to spark a race war. The shootings renewed long-held debates about Confederate symbols that many view as racist and led officials to remove Confederate flags from South Carolina’s capitol, the Ole Miss campus, New Orleans and other places across the South.

Supreme Court affirms same-sex marriage nationwide

The tide in the U.S. had been turning in favor of same-sex marriage for months, but in June, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry nationwide. Many same-sex couples rushed to marry in the 13 states where such unions had not been legal, prompting cheers from supporters but protests in places like rural Kentucky, where clerk Kim Davis became a hero to some conservatives by refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

White House brokers controversial nuclear deal with Iran

In July, the White House announced an agreement with Iran that will ease economic sanctions against that country in exchange for new limits on its ability to develop nuclear weapons. A focal point of President Obama’s foreign policy, the deal marked a historic thaw in relations between Iran and the U.S. while drawing blistering criticism from Israel and Republicans in Congress. Its effects, still unclear, will probably ripple across the Middle East and beyond.

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525

When a German jetliner crashed in the French Alps on March 24, killing all 150 people aboard, mystified experts first blamed pilot error or a possible equipment malfunction. But then the chilling truth emerged: Pilot Andreas Lubitz, possibly suicidal, had locked his co-pilot out of the cockpit, ignored radio messages and deliberately slammed the plane into a mountain. The crash unnerved fliers everywhere, led to changes in airlines’ policies and sparked a global debate about how to monitor the mental health of pilots.

Nations strike landmark climate-change accord

In December, representatives from 195 countries adopted a historic agreement to abandon fossil fuels and reduce emissions with a goal of limiting global warming by less than 2 degrees Celsius. The world’s first accord on climate change, the agreement came as data show that 2015 is almost certain to become the hottest year on record. Though some skeptics said the deal didn’t go far enough, Obama called it ”a turning point for the world” and a major step toward embracing clean, renewable energy.

Mass shootings renew terrorism fears, debate over guns

In the deadliest mass slaying in the U.S. in three years, a heavily armed married couple opened fire December 2 on a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. The rampage, on the heels of mass shootings in Louisiana, Oregon, Colorado and other states, revived a long-standing debate about limiting access to assault weapons. The assailants were found to be radicalized Muslims inspired by ISIS, stoking new fears about Islamic extremists and domestic terrorism.

Americans flock to see Pope Francis

Millions of Americans packed the streets of New York, Philadelphia and Washington in September to see and hear Pope Francis, who charmed audiences in all three cities with his gentle humility and compassion for the less fortunate. His six-day tour — the first papal visit to the U.S. in seven years — included meetings with political leaders and a giant open-air Mass but also extraordinary visits to a homeless shelter and a prison. For the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, it was a triumphant trip.

Caitlyn Jenner and the rise of transgender identity

In a much-watched TV interview in April, former Olympian and reality star Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer, ”Yes, for all intents and purposes, I am a woman.” Six weeks later, Jenner unveiled a new look, and name, on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her high-profile transition, along with transgender story lines in TV (”Transparent”) and movies (”The Danish Girl”), inspired other trans men and women while educating millions about the fluid nature of sexual identity.

NFL, Tom Brady sacked by ‘Deflategate’

This story had almost everything: scandal, celebrity and the biggest stage in American sports. The New England Patriots and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, were accused of using underinflated footballs to get an advantage during a playoff game in January, a scandal that carried over to the Super Bowl. The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell benched Brady for the first four games of the 2015 regular season, but a federal judge vacated the suspension. The saga dragged out for months, another black eye for a league already facing controversy over chronic brain injuries to its players and domestic violence.

NASA makes major discoveries on Pluto, Mars

In July, NASA’s Horizons spacecraft completed humankind’s first fly-by of Pluto, snapping photos and making surprising discoveries — such as the presence of towering ice mountains — about the distant dwarf planet. To reach Pluto, the probe traveled for more than nine years and 3.6 billion miles. Two months later, NASA announced that it had found evidence that water still flows across the rocky surface of Mars, a potential breakthrough in the search for life beyond Earth and future ”Martian”-like colonization of the Red Planet.

Online photo of ”the dress” sparks global debate

Blue and black? Or white and gold? A seemingly frivolous question posted to Tumblr about the correct colors of a random dress consumed the Internet in February, splitting people into rival camps and sparking conversations about optical illusions and colorblindness. Memes sprung up. Celebrities weighed in. ”The dress” was 2015’s leading example of the social web’s mysterious power to spin an international dialogue around a trivial scrap of content.

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Day for Night looks to future, nods at past

The Day for Night music and art festival is very much about Houston now and in the future. But Saturday’s headlining act was a welcome bit of nostalgia.Fans braved a bit of a chill to catch ’80s synthpop act New Order, who hasn’t played Houston in more than two decades. It’s also the group’s only U.S. show this year.The set ran the expanse of the band’s catalog, from 1981’s ”Ceremony” to new album ”Music Complete,” released in September.

It was a wall of looped beats and guitars. The crowd swelled to its biggest when the band took the stage.Janelle Monae was a funk-soul standout just before New Order’s headlining set. She was wheeled out onstage a la Hannibal Lecter and whipped herself and the crowd into a frenzy.”Are you ready to go to church in the future?” she asked.Monae and her band were dressed in black and white and were perfectly in sync throughout her hourlong set.

New Order performs at the Day For Night Light and Sound Festival on Saturday at the Silver Street Studios in Houston. The '80s synth-pop act hasn't played Houston in more than two decades, and this was the band's only U.S. show this year. Photo: Jamaal Ellis/j.vince Photography, Freelance / ©2015 Houston Chroniclepicture: plus size formal wearShe went from originals ”Dance Apocalyptic,” ”Cold War” and ”Tightrope” to James Brown and Jackson 5 covers (two of her obvious influences.Early acts Cazwell and Amanda Lepore brought after-dark vibes to the early afternoon. Cazwell is a gay rapper with a penchant for pop culture and camp.

Lepore is ”the world’s most famous transsexual” whose career includes music.They took the stage separately and together during an hourlong set. Cazwell’s set was a bouncy collection of rhymes and commentary on gay culture: ”No Selfie Control,” ”Rice and Beans,” ”I Seen Beyoncé at Burger King.” He changed frequently during the set and was joined by a pair of male dancers.Lepore strutted back and forth in a succession of see-through dresses, all lips and hair and curves. Her songs (”Cotton Candy,” ”Champagne”) are just an extension of her persona, celebrating debauchery, excess and a punk rock spirit of sorts.

Some of the light crowd ate it up, even singing along with the hooks. And others watched with a mix of bewilderment and awe, unsure what to make of this pair of after-midnight performers under the midday sun.Numerous art installations throughout the Winter Street complex truly dazzled.”Sparse,” by David Cihelna and Gene Han, is a collective amplifier that makes the audience a participant.

Each person visits sparse.online on their cell phone, which plays a separate piece of a music score. Several phones create an impromptu symphony.”Infinity” is an immersive art environment project by Turkish artist Refik Anadol. Participants enter an enclosed room surrounded by light, mirrors and sound. It distorts perceptions while at the same time creating a peaceful, meditative experience.

”Volume” by Parisian outfit Nonotak is one of the fest’s most unsettling installations, a maze of fence poles, strobe lights and ominous, droning sound effects. The crowd walks through the area, which evokes a concentration camp. It’s a haunting experience.Sunday’s lineup includes rapper Kendrick Lamar and DJ Dillon Francis.

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