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CIAA 2012: Mode Noir puts a runway in the middle of the mayhem 

Sean Combs, better known as Diddy, is a man known for many things, including his Sean John clothing line and Ciroc vodka. He's an entrepreneur who banks on his brands, and he does it with style.

This week, Diddy will host a party at the N.C. Music Factory during the CIAA tournament (which draws tens of thousands to the city for day parties, night parties, in-between parties, late-night parties — oh, and basketball). But Diddy's got some serious competition this year from one Charlotte woman.

LaVonndra Johnson is the founder of the three-day event Mode Noir, happening Feb. 29 to March 2 — right smack in the middle of the CIAA mayhem. The "fashion week," which boasts Mayor Anthony Foxx's official stamp, is intended to highlight African-American and minority designers, focusing on high fashion.

Last year, more than 190,000 fans attended official CIAA events during the course of the week (and that's not counting unofficial events), bringing in more than $44.3 million for the city. The list of parties for this year's CIAA is well into the hundreds and continues to grow each day. The most popular ones feature big names like Diddy, Nas and R. Kelly — not exactly representatives from the world of couture.

But does CIAA week really need a project runway?

The term "fashion week" is all too familiar in Charlotte, where, last September, two different organizers each hosted a "fashion week" — at the same time. That's something Chris Jenkins, CEO of CharlotteVibe.com, is concerned about.

"Charlotte already has a fashion week event that has taken some interesting turns recently," says Jenkins, 36, who has been covering CIAA since it arrived in Charlotte in 2006, via party listings on his website and photos and recaps during the games. "In my opinion, it will be challenging for another fashion week to take place so soon. Unless you will have an A-list celebrity, it will be tough to detract the attention of the 200,000 people in town to something different."

Lovers of high fashion, though, will find the line-up of national talent impressive. Featured designers for each night are, respectively, Rafael Cox (seen on season nine of Project Runway), Avnah Davis (who's dressed celebrities like Kelly Rowland), and Edwin D'Angelo (his designs were highlighted in the movie The Devil Wears Prada).

"I have designers coming from Chicago, Atlanta, Maryland, New York, Charleston, virtually all over the place," says 31-year-old Johnson. "This is one thing that makes this show really different from the other fashion shows that take place here in Charlotte. It's a complete national cast."

Johnson attended North Carolina State University in Raleigh, home of the CIAA conference before Charlotte became the host city, and is familiar with the tournament's impact. She wanted to take part, but as a single mother who owns her own business (the NoDa women's boutique Elle VJ), Johnson wasn't interested in what CIAA week is primarily known for: the parties.

"The idea of having so many people in town and having an awesome time — that sounded great, but I'm not a party girl," Johnson says, adding that her fashion show "is something for the elite, something for those that come to CIAA, particularly the alumni, that don't necessarily party but want to take advantage of all that Charlotte has to offer."

Johnson wasn't alone in her search to find something different to do during tournament week. Lauren Price, 30, plans to attend Mode Noir Thursday and Friday. The owner of a boutique public-relations firm, Price has worked with designers Kevin Carter and August Brandon and is looking forward to seeing other people's reactions to their lines.

"It's something different," Price says of the fashion event. "The parties, the ones that do really well, are the ones that are done by the same promoters every year. I wanted to give something different a chance."

Another Charlotte resident, Omri Frost, 29, is also intrigued by the prospect of a different kind of CIAA event. She's been partying during tournament week since its first year in the city. "I definitely think that there is a niche for this type of event," Frost says. "There are a lot of people like myself who have been partying from the beginning in our early 20s, and are now approaching or have approached 30 and beyond and are looking for something a little more low-key. We still want to be a part of the festivities but don't necessarily want to party every single night."

Anthony McPherson, 32, is co-owner of Maz Entertainment, which is in its fourth year of hosting CIAA parties. Last year, events by Maz at Founders Hall drew more than 3,500 people — even without a big-name celebrity on the flyers.

"Just as the tournament has grown in popularity and economic impact, so has its culture," McPherson says. "It has evolved from tens of thousands coming to support their alma mater to hundreds of thousands pouring into the city for a myriad of reasons. A fashion-related event is a must in order to capture the full essence of the diversity of the week's festivities."

One concern that's come up about Mode Noir is its location, The Harvest Center, at 1800 Brewton Drive. Located one stoplight past the North Carolina Music Factory, the venue is outside of Uptown (by two minutes, approximately), where people scurry about on foot between the games and parties.

"Most people like to stay Uptown so they can walk everywhere, especially visitors who do not know the city that well," says Michael Kitchen of The Sol Kitchen, who's promoted parties during CIAA week for six years.

For Johnson, though, The Harvest Center is ideal because the space accommodates a runway and balcony seating for up to 1,100 people. In addition, The Harvest Center serves to feed the homeless during the week, and the rent money for the space will go back into the center.

Yvette Reed, 36, who has attended CIAA parties the last three years, is also skeptical of how people will receive an event focused on fashion. An alum of North Carolina A&T, she says CIAA tournament week is like a homecoming for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "I just don't know if this is the fashion crowd. We basically want to party, have fun, get some drinks and hang out. There are a lot of people who come into town who are not interested in the parties, but these are the people who are actually interested in what CIAA is: the basketball games."

Mode Noir is about more than just fashion, says Johnson. In addition to raising money for the Presbyterian Hospital Blume Center, which cares for and treats children with sickle cell disease, the event is about culture. Each night of the show, Patricia Elaine Sabree of Sabree's Gallery will showcase her Gullah-inspired art, and Johnson plans to include some performing artists in the mix as well.

With such large numbers in town watching basketball, reuniting with friends and stepping out to the parties, fashion will undoubtedly be on people's minds. Partygoers will go all out for their outfits, which will range from classy, chic and sophisticated to scantily clad, bold and borderline "What were they thinking?" But skeptics aren't sure that's enough to drive traffic to a fashion-focused event.

"Fashion is always important in the urban market," Kitchen says. "You are guaranteed to see some things you will never see anywhere else. I think if a big clothing line is tied to the event with maybe a big-name designer, it can be pulled off. For example, If Diddy did a fashion show for Sean John and was in attendance, it would be a great event."

Even without a big-name celebrity on the flyers, Johnson is ready for her own great event. She'll just have to do it Diddy style.

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