NEW YORK — When they step into a ring at the Westminster Kennel Club show, they’re supposed to be well-groomed examples of functional elegance.
No, not the dogs. The handlers.
While New York Fashion Week stakes out clothing’s cutting edge, a more toned-down style is getting its own showcase two miles away at the nation’s most prestigious dog event.
Haute couture, meet hound couture — where shoes are sensible, pockets are prized, this season’s colors are whatever your dog isn’t, and hemlines are watched only to ensure that bending down doesn’t create a wardrobe malfunction.
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Karen Oglesby, a professional dog handler from Napa, Calif., strategized for two months to assemble 15 outfits to go to Westminster and related events with Pirata, one of the first Portuguese podengo pequenos ever to compete there. It took Oglesby a year to hunt down the dress she planned to wear if he made it to higher rounds: a royal-blue, long-sleeved Ralph Lauren that she hoped might help make the right impression for both of them.
“With this dog, I’ve tried to be very memorable,” said Oglesby, who wore a plum-colored, sleeveless dress and brown, riding-style boots to show Pirata on Monday.
Mr. America, a Leonberger who appears in theater and film, awaited his turn to show Tuesday in a sequined coat in Westminster’s trademark purple and gold. His owner, Morgan Avila, wore a lime-green, floor-length jacquard skirt suit and a black hat with a lime-green flower to help show him off before his handler showed him in the ring.
“I’m his stage mom,” said Avila, of Lynbrook, N.Y.
Fundamentally, of course, Westminster is about assessing dogs, not togs. But both male and female handlers feel their look is part of the presentation, and dog show style is rich in customs, theories and tricks of the trade.
And with the top rounds playing out on national television, the ensembles trotted around Westminster’s green-carpeted ring get exposure — and sometimes snarky commentary — to rival the designs strutted down Fashion Week’s runways.
How to describe green-carpet chic? Circumspect-sparkly? Dressy-professional-slash-mother-of-the-bride?
“It’s Bat Mitzvah-level,” said Denise Flaim, a former fashion and pet columnist who shows Rhodesian ridgebacks and breeds them in Sea Cliff, N.Y. “It’s not about trendy because it’s so steeped in tradition. … What you’re really hoping to communicate is a pulled-together, classic look.”
While there’s no exact dress code, Westminster notes that “the outfit should not distract from the dog.” In practice, handlers say they aim for a sartorial sweet spot: sharp enough to help the dog stand out without upstaging it.
Professional handler Clint Livingston, for instance, makes a point of adding ties and vests in Westminster’s signature purple to the Armani and Canali suits he sports at the event.
“It just screams, ‘I want to win,’” said Livingston, of Brighton, Colo., who has guided some dogs to breed and group, or semifinal, wins during more than 30 years of showing at Westminster.
Eliza Denoeux, meanwhile, put a black dress under a straight, silky bronze jacket, flocked with a Spanish-style black floral pattern, to echo the colors of her Cardigan Welsh corgi Filbert as she showed him to a ribbon Monday.
“I wanted to be Filbert’s coat writ large,” said Denoeux, of Oakland, Maine.
There are a few rules of thumb: Don’t wear the same color as the dog’s coat, so the judge can see the animal easily. Flat- or low-heeled shoes are a must for jogging around the ring. Outfits generally get more formal in the higher rounds. Avoid dangling jewelry or flowing skirts that could flap in the dog’s face. And hemlines and necklines need to pass the bend-down test.
Poodle handlers have a reputation for fancy dressing — “you have to look as good as your dog,” handler Sarah Perchick, clad in a Chanel-style, heliotrope-colored skirt suit trimmed with gold-colored beads, explained Monday after showing a black standard poodle named Flame to a breed ribbon.
Scottish deerhound exhibitors have been known to wear kilts and plaids. And handler Michael Canalizo made waves when he wore a black-sequined Michael Kors dinner jacket in the best in show ring with an Afghan hound called Tryst in 1996.
“It happened to be very fitting for the breed,” given the Afghan’s flowing coat and fashionable image, he said. “And I still have it.”
To be sure, dog show dress engenders some catty remarks. “Those dog handlers SERIOUSLY need some fashion intervention,” begins an online comment thread a spectator started after the 2010 show.
But particularly for women, it’s not easy to find something that looks right and has pockets for treats and brushes, fabric that’s slobber-and-wear and doesn’t collect dog hair (some handlers even shop with a dog hair sample to test the cling), and a price that allows for the possibility of a ruinous liver-treat stain.
Indeed, some businesses have sprung up to cater to handlers. In a year of running Dog Show Suits, Beaverton, Ore.-based miniature bull terrier breeder and exhibitor Kimarie Wolf has sold 180 ensembles in a year to customers as far away as Alaska and Northern Ireland after hunting down the clothes in outlet and secondhand stores.
“A lot of people say, I can’t find anything’ or I don’t have time to find anything,’” Wolf said by phone.
Not that it takes a wardrobe to do dog sports. At Westminster’s first-ever agility competition Saturday, handlers wore athletic pants, competition-issue T-shirts and sneakers.
The only rule of dress there, said Karen Profenna, who handled her beagle-Boston terrier mix, Hailey, is “you have to be able to move.”