Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Fashion continues to be an industry of innovation and change, but when it comes to advancements in design for individuals with disabilities, things have remained relatively stagnant over the past few years. A quick Google image search for adaptive clothing is proof of how little has been done. Functional, sure, but most of the clothing on offer just doesn't live up to what we see on runways or in magazines.
And yet last night, in the center of a square-shaped runway at Sotheby's Auction House in New York, a group of students from the Fashion Institute of Technology proved that adaptive clothing can be both of those things.
The first annual Design for Disability Gala was the culmination of a six-month competition asking FIT students to design clothing for women with disabilities and ultimately transforming their fashion experience.
A group of about 31 contestants were whittled down to five semi-finalists (Grace Elizabeth Insogna, KatiLin Stone, Emily Chao, NyLeah Ford, and Ayao Sasaki) by the CPF's group of high-profile jurors, including the Met's Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton, the Academy award-winning costume designer Ann Roth, and Disability-Rights advocate and model, Dr. Danielle Sheypuk. Designer Thom Browne signed up to mentor the final five, and along with Dr. Sheypuk met with each student to offer tips on how to improve their final designs from both angles.
"It's incredible to see these young kids — and I call them kids, because they're still young and in school — to see how they're able to marry function with aesthetic," Browne told me before the event. "Because at the end of the day, function is important, but the models really just want to look good."
Creating beautiful clothes that actually fit and work with wheelchairs and crutches was a lot easier said than done, according to the winner of the competition, Grace Elizabeth Insogna.
"Something we had to take into consideration is the fact that we can't just drape our designs on a dress form and expect it to fit our models. Their bodies are different, and there are certain nuances that you have to accommodate for," Insogna said. "The main goal is that these women feel amazing, they feel confident, and they feel like fashion is speaking to them."
For Insogna's models, Andrea Dalzell and Jessica Mucciariello, it all came down to movement. Insogna's black and white garments included a cape and accessible pockets for Mucciariello, and a pencil skirt for Dalzell that wouldn't get caught in her wheelchair.
Other notable designs included a pink dress by the contestant Emily Chao that adjusted to her model, Jessica Yates's, body.
"It's really incredible to have a dress tailored to my body," said Yates, an actor and performance artist in New York. "I take up a lot of space when I move, and I'm always adjusting. But [Chao] made it so that I have a dress that is tailored to my waist and still gives me a shape."
Aside from hair and makeup and getting the chance to take part in the fashion show, Jessica De La Rosa said her favorite part was raising awareness.
"I think bringing fashion and disability to the eyes of people who don't know about it is my favorite part. Everyone has this printed vision of what disability looks like and what they feel it should look like, and tonight will hopefully break that mold," said De La Rosa, the current Ms. Wheelchair title holder and an advocate for children with disabilities.
The fashion industry may have a long way to go in terms of creating accessible clothing, but CPF's CEO, Richard Ellenson, said he hopes this event will serve as a message for designers now and in the future.
"It's all about changing the way we look at things," Ellenson said. "That's what fashion and design is all about. It changes things."