High spirits, fun and fashion mark Charity Preview

Michael Hodges
The Detroit News

Mother Nature smiled on the auto industry Friday, raising nighttime temps to a toasty 34 degrees so those attending Detroit’s big annual wingding, the black-tie Charity Preview, wouldn’t freeze.

(From left) Noel Delahaye, of Ferndale, Val Jones, of White Lake. and Chelsea Jaros, of Royal Oak, have fun inside a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

As the glittering crowds flooded into Cobo Center, North American International Auto Show Chairman Ryan LaFontaine announced that the 2018 Preview raised $5.1 million for eight children’s charities.

Much like this year’s auto sales — impressively robust, if down a couple percentage points from last year — the funds generated by the 13,000 revelers fell just short of last year’s $5.17 million.

That tiny shortfall, however, did nothing to dampen the celebratory mood. As usual, the stars were out.

Detroit Pistons legend Vinnie Johnson shook hands and posed with fans who vaulted up to him with warm greetings of, “Microwave!”

“It’s a fun event,” Johnson said. “Everybody gets dressed up, and they get to dream — dream about owning one of these wonderful vehicles.”

Standing by one of those wonderful vehicles — a sleek red Mustang — Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. reflected on the changes in Detroit during the past decade. Back in 2007, he noted — during Michigan’s long economic slump — the mood at the preview was much darker.

In many ways, he said, what’s happened to the city of Detroit corresponds nicely with what’s happened in the auto industry.

Detroit “is the comeback city in America,” Ford said. “And our industry is doing really well.

“We raise a lot of money for charity, both at this event and at the afterglow,” he added. “It’s great for the city and I love it.”

Surrounded by a crowd near the GMC exhibit, celebrated boxer Tommy Hearns, in a stylish black velvet suit with a brocade pattern, cheerfully smiled for selfies with fans.

“I wouldn’t want to miss the Detroit auto show,” said Hearns. “My favorite part is the people. The people are so wonderful.”

Charity Preview contributes to eight Detroit-area children’s charities, ranging from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan to the March of Dimes Metro Detroit.

Tickets this year were $400 a head. Since 1976, the black-tie event has contributed more than $112 million to help kids across the metro area.

The best years for Preview fundraising appear to have been 2004-2006, when sell-out crowds of 17,500 paying $400 apiece jammed the convention hall, raising $7 million annually.

The party popularly known as “Auto Prom” is also, of course, one of the best opportunities fashion-conscious Detroiters have to strut their stuff, and they did not disappoint.

“Glamorous. Sophisticated. World class.” That’s how Alissa Lincoln Sobek of Pleasant Ridge described the scene.

Sobek added, “It’s a chance to get dressed up and celebrate the foundation of what makes Detroit the Motor City.”

Fiat Chrysler design head Ralph Gilles was looking as sharp as his team’s new Ram 1500 in a dark jacket from Birmingham’s Dolce Moda boutique.

“We work on these things for four years and they’re under cover and (now) they’re finally out,” Gilles said of the spanking-new car designs.

“The reception’s been great,” he added. “The dealers are happy. It’s good to see their reaction.”

Jason Flowers of Detroit reflected one of the biggest trends of the night: floral patterns. Flowers wore a narrow fitted floral jacket — he wanted an outfit to go with his name —with black sequined tuxedo pants.

Flowers, an assistant to Judge Vonda Evans, said, “I knew it was going to make a bold statement.”

City resident Nefertiti Johnson came decked out for a masquerade ball, complete with mask, a black gown she designed herself, fur-covered shoulder bag and Prada sneakers.

“I’m trying to bring a little bit of mystery,” she said mysteriously.

Alexander Zonjic, the popular flautist and radio host, confessed he’s actually a car nut.

“Growing up, cars were everything to me,” he said, “so this is like being a kid in a candy store.”

Zonjic wore a navy suit with no tie. He said you’d have to tie him to a chair to get him into a tuxedo.

“This is Detroit putting its best foot forward,” he added. “It’s a magical moment for downtown. It’s a showcase.”

Doing his part to showcase fashion standards, Al Trombetta of Royal Oak sported a hat crowned by a vintage card from the 1954 General Motors Motorama, the show that anticipated the modern auto show.

In addition to the hat, made by his girlfriend Ava Sand, Trombetta’s shoes were equipped with LED lights.

Al Trombetta wore shoes with LED lights connected to the soles.

“I can make them any color,” he said, “but I thought, ‘What better than red and blue, headlight and taillight?”

A big trend this year for women were dressy pantsuits, like Holly Heiss’ black, one-piece pantsuit with sequin top, which the Birmingham resident bought at Nordstrom.

Heiss, a GM retiree, was surprised to be among so many be-trousered women, “But I’m liking it. It’s a trend. It’s comfortable!” she said.

Nearby, Nicole Marijanovich of Bloomfield Township wore an art deco-inspired dress with a lovely sequin pattern.

“I found this on Amazon,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve done that and it paid off!”

Melody Baetens, Maureen Feighan and Adam Graham contributed.