A certain Thursday evening at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel found Thunder Folds ready for his closeup in an outfit that would have made Billy Idol jealous — leather coat, orange Mohawk, round-rimmed purple glasses, and chunky silver accoutrements. His companion for the evening, Kate Arian, was dressed to match in a black leather vest, long-sleeved ripped black fishnet shirt, black skirt, and silver-studded black leather belt.
As befitted his status as an Instagram influencer (53,000 followers and counting), Folds appeared unfazed by the strangers angling a smart phone in his direction to snag a photo — a feat made just slightly more impressive because Thunder is a 4 ½-year-old Scottish Fold cat, so those strangers weren’t just snapping, but petting him as well.
Like Thunder Folds, the eight other kitties in the Algonquin’s VIP green room, also dressed in handmade outfits, seemed unimpressed, if not sedated. But I was assured they had not been slipped anything — they were simply used to this experience.
This was the Algonquin Cat’s Annual Celebration & Cat Fashion Show to benefit the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. The event, in its 13th year, raises money to benefit the charity, which works with more than 150 rescue groups and shelters to protect the lives of New York City’s homeless animals. Out in the Algonquin’s main lobby, 150 cat enthusiasts — some with kitty ears, others sporting glittery feline-themed masks — were mingling, sipping cocktails, and nibbling on homemade tarts and high-end donuts as they waited for the show to start. Each had paid $75 to be here; the event would raise $10,000, not counting the proceeds from the silent auction.
As charities compete for funding, and grapple with the many ways to ask for and donate money online, the Mayor’s Alliance still clings to an age-old idea: creating an event, a memorable experience, is what opens wallets best. Add to that a phenomenon as true offline as it is online — people are into cats — and you have charity gold.
“Not every designer knows how to make clothes and sleeves that fit. The pink on Saki really matches her coloring.”
“We can run digital campaigns, but the opportunity to have an event like this is huge for us,” says Elyise Hallenbeck, the group’s director of development, who says buzz from the fashion show leads to donations year-round. “In a digital world — and in the New York City market, which is deeply saturated with charitable events and other things to do — this one has a lasting effect.”
The magic is in the details, and the details are meticulously chosen, from the cast of cat influencers to the threads on the feline garments. To celebrate and pay homage to this year’s theme, “It’s a Small World,” certified pet fashion designer Ada Nieves created cat couture representing the U.S., China, U.K., India, Egypt, Spain, Germany, France, and Ireland.
Nieves, a bubbly native of Puerto Rico, has been the solo designer at the event for the past six years. “I’m always casting animals for different shows,” she said. “To do this show, the cats have to be tame, social, good with people, and able to pose for the camera but not be scared of flashes or sounds. And they need to let people pet them,” she said.
Folds, who represented the U.K., didn’t even need to audition.
“This is his fourth show. His Instagram account is pretty active,” said Arian, Folds’ owner and social media manager. “Someone from the cat community reached out to us. He has a great disposition and a punk rock attitude. We’re doing good and raising money for homeless animals.”
Here’s where I want to paws, or pause.
The Algonquin, which opened its doors in 1902, is most noted for its iconic literary “round table,” a group of luminary writers, actors, and critics — including Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, and Harpo Marx, among others — who gathered at the hotel every day for lunch from 1919 into the next decade.
But the Algonquin also had a long lineage of feline ambassadors, dating back to the early 1920s when a stray named Billy appeared in the lobby one afternoon and became the hotel’s house cat. Eleven additional cats have followed — the most recent, Hamlet VIII, an orange tabby whom the hotel adopted three years ago.
The most famous of the lot was Matilda III, who passed away in 2017 at age 11. The white-colored, gray-faced, long-haired cat, who held the residential position for seven years, routinely feasted on chef-prepared crab cakes, and in 2016 had a book published about her — hardcover, no less — called “Matilda: The Algonquin Cat,” which chronicled her luxurious life.
Hamlet VIII is pampered and primped often, as he appears regularly on TV and has his own Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. He receives fan mail and gifts, and can also be reached via e-mail. (I’m told he responds.) He also has a roadie, Alice De Almei, the hotel’s chief cat officer.
Back in the green room, it was 5:30 p.m., and the two cats that were running late had thankfully arrived. The other meow members and their owners were dressed and doing interviews.
Melanie Lee, 48, whose two cats were decked out in traditional Indian and Egyptian wear, was impressed with Nieves’ handiwork.
“Ada amazes me. These outfits are fantastic,” said Lee, who has six rescue cats, along with a dog and ferret. “Not every designer knows how to make clothes and sleeves that fit. The pink on Saki really matches her coloring.”
Indeed it did. The cat seemed comfortably wrapped in a soft, pigmented silk pink outfit adorned with pearls and matching headpiece, complete with antique pearlized broach with two white feathers sticking out. Her front paws were purr-fectly wrapped in silky pink material, silver and pearls embroidered at the sleeve. “I don’t know how she finds the time to do it,” Lee said of Nieves. “She’s just so busy, always doing something different.”
Nieves truly is a busy woman. She creates her pet outfits in about two months, but does almost a year’s worth of research beforehand. “I started with dog fashion shows. Then people asked me to dress their other animals. I’ve dressed pigs, chickens, iguanas, snakes, and a camel.”
At 6:00 p.m. a meow duet — sung opera-style by two human performers — kicked off the show. Then it was time for the catwalk to begin. A wooden door in the far back opened, and the first cat appeared, dressed in a shiny green outfit and matching shamrock hat. The room became a lightshow from flashing phones. There was ooohing and ahhing and chatter, followed by clapping. Each cat was carried out by its owner and placed on the wooden bar-turned-catwalk, while the emcee deconstructed and explained the outfits.
“I can’t believe she made these,” said one woman who was snapping photos with her phone. “I can’t believe they’re actually wearing them.”
Her neighbor agreed. “She really nailed the punk cat outfit.”
Then the owners dutifully carried their pets down the elongated red carpet. They struck poses, waited patiently for the paparazzi to take their photos, did interviews — the owners, not the cats — and returned to the green room.
Dan Croutch, the Algonquin’s general manager, who admitted he was not a cat person because he’s allergic, was on his third fashion show at the hotel. “Seeing the reaction from a social consciousness standpoint is really worth it,” he said. “We could quadruple the tickets we sell, but we limit the event to 150 people so this feels comfortable. We’ve been sold out for weeks.”
Charmaine Rice was a return attendee, and praised the costumes, the themes, and the cause. And her praise contained a hint of aspiration: There’s a chance next year’s event might feature Rice’s cat, whose face was embossed on her canvas tote.
“I’ve thought of putting my cat in a fashion show. I put clothing on him all the time,” Rice said. “My mother made him a sweater, and I recently bought him a waistcoat. They say a dog is man’s best friend. Cats are a woman’s best friend.”