- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - 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.

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 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.

Story Continues →