You know it’s a new era in Richmond when the head of the area’s biggest annual holiday fundraiser starts talking about her midriff.
“That was the only rule,” said Katherine Wintsch, the founder and chief executive of The Mom Complex and the 2015 Richmond Christmas Mother. “No bare midriff. I told them anything else goes.”
Since being named Christmas Mother this summer, Wintsch has jumped into the role of fundraiser-in-chief for a program that raised, and distributed, more than $321,000 last year to help make the holidays special for people who would otherwise struggle through.
While Wintsch is pushing forward with the usual Christmas Mother programs — decades of mothers before her honed some very popular traditions — she is also trying to add a contemporary twist.
In a word, couture.
“I went to the VCU fashion show in May, and I was completely blown away by the talent,” she said.
A few months later, she was named Christmas Mother and, she said, “I put two and two together.”
“I thought, ‘How can we spread the word of the Christmas Mother to a younger audience?’ ”
Her answer? By asking fashion students at Virginia Commonwealth University to design the outfit she will wear to the illumination of the Christmas Tree at The Jefferson Hotel on Nov. 30 and by turning the request into a contest.
Senior Maria Fernanda Londoño and juniors Deborah Sedlacek, Katie Gwynn and Lauren Maimone submitted eight ideas for an outfit. From those, three were chosen as finalists by Wintsch and two other judges: Kimberly Guthrie, the assistant chair of the VCU Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising; and Hank Greenberg, the owner of Roan, a luxury boutique in Carytown and a sponsor of the contest.
The students’ illustrations will be online today through Nov. 8 and on display Monday in the tasting room of the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. For a donation of $10 or more — payable online all week or as part of your bar tab at Hardywood on Monday — people can vote for their favorite. The design that raises the most money will win.
The winning student will then have a few weeks to make the outfit. Greenberg is paying for the materials, and the students also will earn a $250 stipend.
“Students live for a design challenge,” Guthrie said.
Fielding requests for student designs isn’t unusual, she said, but Wintsch provided an opportunity that most others don’t.
“Working with a client is different from working on theory in class,” Guthrie said. “She’s a real client. She’s going to wear this design. It doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, if it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t work, it’s not good.”
Wintsch met with the students this fall and promised that she was game for their creativity.
“I told them I’ll wear anything they designed,” she said. “That seemed to perk them up.”
She left that meeting in good spirits.
She considers herself “fashion-forward” and didn’t think twice about what the students might create.
Then she started talking to her friends.
“One of them told me, ‘You know, whatever they design for the grand illumination is going to light up,’ ” she said.
The students came up with some interesting ideas, but none opted for embedded lighting.
“I think there are some beautiful options here,” Guthrie said.
Wintsch will model the most popular of those options at The Jefferson. It’s an iconic Christmas Mother moment, with Wintsch descending the grand stairs toward the tree.
The designs that finish second and third also will be made.
And then in the true spirit of the Christmas Mother, Wintsch will offer all three as a final fundraiser of the season.
“It’s about bringing in the most money possible,” she said.