Inside an abandoned furniture store, tucked in a corner of Hyde Park Village, Bob Singerman inspects the elaborate sequin and bead work on a silk evening gown once worn by a princess. Up close, it is a tapestry of flowers in pink, green and gold. But stand at a distance — the way the gown was meant to be viewed, Singerman says — and the detail of the bodice and matching bolero jacket looks like encrusted jewels. "This," Singerman says breathlessly, "is the centerpiece."
Only village shoppers with a careful eye would likely have any idea what Singerman, president of the People's Princess Charitable Foundation, was talking about. This week, the foundation quietly opened an art gallery-style exhibition highlighting the gowns and goodwill of Diana, Princess of Wales, inside the former Storehouse space.
The exhibit of 17 dresses includes the pink silk dress designed by Catherine Walker, Diana's favorite designer, for the princess' state tour of India in 1992. It's one of 13 dresses that Tampa businesswoman Maureen Rorech Dunkel bought for nearly $700,000 at a Christie's charity auction just two months before the princess was killed in a car crash in 1997.
Rorech Dunkel, who serves as board chairwoman for the University of Tampa, decided to keep Diana's legacy alive by forming the People's Princess foundation and sending the dresses on a world tour that would raise money for various causes.
Most of Rorech Dunkel's collection, which now totals 15 dresses, is currently on a 10-year loan to Kensington Palace in London. But the palace doesn't display all the pieces at once, and Rorech Dunkel was given two gowns to lay the foundation for what she has dubbed the Dresses for Humanity II tour, which launched in Tampa on Sunday.
Walker loaned the other dresses and day suits in the local exhibit. After Diana's divorce, the princess borrowed rather than bought most of her clothing from the designer, Rorech Dunkel said. Those items have not been displayed for public viewing before this latest incarnation of the dress tour.
Rorech Dunkel is in talks now regarding a permanent exhibition in Central Florida.
The exhibit is scheduled to be in its current location until May, Singerman said. Organizers hope to draw traffic from Super Bowl visitors and school groups. The space can also be rented out for private functions. A portion of the proceeds from ticket and memorabilia sales will go to the Tampa Museum of Art.
Visitors should expect to spend 45 minutes to an hour viewing the exhibit, which features museum-quality story boards with details of Diana's life as a royal, mother and ambassador for the poor and sick. From certain angles, you can see her face reflected from these displays onto the glass encasing her clothes.
The swelling crescendos of the background music complete the reverent mood. Composer Tim Janis wrote 15 songs for the exhibit, one for each of the dresses in Rorech Dunkel's collection.
The organizers might want to consider adding some tissue boxes.
Yovana Wilson, a security officer in Hyde Park Village, got an early peek at the exhibit, and it made her cry. She got chills just talking about it a couple of days later.
"I feel the humanity with the love that she had for the people and the children," said Wilson, 42. "You go in the door, and you can feel her presence."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.