Betsy Bro and her friends came to the Scottsdale Arts Festival on Friday to look at art. Not long after they arrived, the three women started trying on "wearable" art instead.
"It's so pretty," Bro, of Scottsdale, commented as friend Nancy Valone - a Des Moines transplant who winters in Scottsdale - tried on a beige and black fitted jacquard jacket inside the L. O'Neill Design tent.
Bro, Valone and Maggie Gray, from New York City, couldn't seem to pass up the exhibit, which was filled with the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company's handcrafted handbags, tapestry jackets, caps and coats.
Bro said she's been attending the annual festival, now in its 38th year, for quite some time and enjoys browsing the art inside the long rows of small white tents.
"I'll buy something if it catches my eye," said Bro, pointing to the two, thick jeweled silver bangle bracelets on her wrist - acquired treasures from past festivals.
On Friday morning, Bro had already purchased a brown leather-bound journal from the Iona Handcrafted Books booth for her brother's 60th birthday when she encouraged Valone and Gray to buy jackets.
One of Scottsdale's oldest arts festivals, the event was started humbly by community artists. The Scottsdale Cultural Council picked up the reins more than two decades ago and through its Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts division, has produced a show that now draws thousands of attendees and features more than 150 fine juried artists from around the U.S.
"We always feature new artists each year," said festival director Janice Bartczak, noting that this year her staff received over 1,000 artist applications.
Bartczak said this year's event, which runs through Sunday, features exhibitors in categories including photography, painting, sculpture, 3-D mixed media, metal and ceramics. Of the 150 artists, Bartczak said between about 10 percent and 15 percent hail from Arizona.
For shoppers like Bro, part of the appeal is finding one-of-a-kind pieces of wearable art.
"People like wearable art, something they won't see other people coming and going in," said Patrick O'Neill, co-owner of L. O'Neill Design, who's been showcasing his wares at the festival in the fiber art category for the past five years.
O'Neill said the clothing, which features rich jacquard fabrics (ranging in price from $450 to $750 for jackets and $65 to $180 for the embellished matching fabric handbags) can be custom made in any size and matched to the purses.
"People are glad to see something different and made in America," said Greg Roche, owner and designer of Roche Leather of Watsonville, Calif., who's been exhibiting his colorful leather handbags at the Festival for the past decade.
Roche, a self-described "self-taught" designer, said he started designing handbags some 30 years ago. He said what sets his collection of handcrafted purses, totes, and briefcases apart (prices range from $100 to $540) are the embellished details and fine leather he imports from an English tannery.
Bartczak said the jewelry vendor category was the most competitive, with 180 designers vying for fewer than 30 open spots.
Jewelry designer Yumi Ueno of Los Angeles, a former "best in show" Scottsdale Arts Festival winner, said the festival's quality, weather and hospitality is hard to beat.