YORK racecourse had seen nothing like it. Away from the brilliant green of the turf and the roar of the racing crowd, the Persil white of the Fashion On The Field marquee promised an oasis of serenity.
Inside, the all white of the stage and block seating was broken up by a shocking pink carpet.
In one corner, a pop-up store from Debenhams was selling racing essentials (anyone who lost their fascinator en route to the racecourse would be sending up a prayer).
Alongside were make-up counters and a nail bar, just in case you fancied a new lippy or a set of acrylics before the 3.45 (or more likely, a trip to the champagne bar).
The marquee drew one grumpy customer, complaining that it was blocking the view of three furlongs from the stands; but most visitors displayed a mixture of curiosity and bravado.
For this was the Ebor Festival’s new fashion frontier. In a hook-up with Debenhams, York is the first venue in the UK to stage the Fashion On The Field competition.
The concept has been borrowed from Australia, where it has been a huge hit at the Melbourne Cup.
Menswear designer Jeff Banks, of Clothes Show fame who now designs for Debenhams, comperes the event in Oz and is the force behind bringing it to the UK.
Next year, FOTF will take place at five racing festivals across the UK, culminating in a grand final at next year’s Ebor.
But we are racing ahead of ourselves. Today marks the first final of the event, with the winners from the daily heats earlier in the week invited to return to the catwalk for the ultimate style showdown.
The stakes are big – today’s winner will scoop a two-week holiday in the Caribbean as well as a £500 personal shopping trip with Jeff at Debenhams, lunch at The Ivy with Jeff and a celebrity-style make-over and photoshoot; make-up from YSL and Elemis; a pair of bespoke shoes from Jimmy Choo and a magnum of Champagne.
Each day, a panel of judges, led by some of Britain’s top-named designers, considered the fashion form at Knavesmire and picked their favourite; awarding them a bottle of champagne, £150 to spend at Debenhams and a golden ticket to today’s final.
The fun began on Wednesday, when I sat on the panel alongside judges, designers Andrew Fionda, Ren Pearce and Ben de Lisi. All three had journeyed up from London for the event and were as unsure as anyone how it might go.
“Shall we go and find some people,” suggested Ren, whose design partnership with Andrew (Pearce Fionda) has been a staple of the designers at Debenhams collection for 13 years. Their trademark is occasion wear for women, so it was a safe bet Ren and Andrew would spot a winning outfit.
Ben de Lisi’s credentials were impeccable too. Remember the gorgeous single-strap red dress Kate Winslett wore to the 2002 Oscars? That was Ben’s.
A team of fashion scouts were at large, enticing stylish racegoers to come over to the marquee and strut their stuff before the judges.
After a faltering start, there was a mini stampede at the end as women, children and men (well, all two of them), signed up for the competition.
Perhaps word had got out that Ben de Lisi was no Simon Cowell in disguise (have you ever seen Mr Scowl in a panama?); or that comperes Jeff Banks and milliner Yvette Jelfs were sweethearts who only had the loveliest of compliments to pay to every brave soul who graced the stage.
I’m not sure the fashion hopefuls realised their moment in the spotlight was being simultaneously broadcast on giant screens across Knavesmire in the lull between races – which was probably just as well.
There were 100 entrants on the first day, which was judged a big success – and one which organisers hope to build upon as the event becomes better known.
As for the judges, it was a pretty unanimous decision picking our top three: a lady in green, one in red and the winner in bright orange.
For anyone hoping to turn the judges heads today, here’s an insider’s tip. In a sea of outfits, it’s the striking ones that stand out. For us, it was the combination of bold colour and complementary accessories.
Our winner, Sophie Kenny, 28, from Manchester, was the last entrant on Wednesday, but blew us away in a bright orange, drapey dress, which fell to mid calf and was teamed with a black feather fascinator, black shoes and a simple black pendant.
Ben was knocked out by her. He said: “She showed originality; referencing trend without being trendy and was clearly comfortable in her own skin. This one ticked all our boxes.”
Oh, and another thing: Sophie’s dress cost £29 from H&M, which shows you don’t have to spend a million dollars to look it.
• To take part in today’s Fashion On The Field competition, register at the marquee on the Bustardthorpe Field