NEW YORK – On 16 May, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation Design for Disability Gala, hosted by Sotheby’s, marked a milestone in fashion’s quest for inclusivity. Led by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF), which transforms the lives of people affected by the disorder through research, innovation and collaboration, this premiere event was the culmination of a five-month competition between 35 students from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to design fashion-forward outfits for women with disabilities.

The top five finalists were paired with women with disabilities as their models and produced two outfits, which were unveiled at the Gala. The impressive roster of jurors included designer Thom Browne, Curator in Charge at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, and Academy Award-winning costume designer Ann Roth. Those industry insiders were joined by disability rights advocate and model Dr Danielle Sheypuk and Dr Alette Coble-Temple, Ms Wheelchair America 2016. Guests such as Donna Hanover, Kelly Killoren Bensimon, Jill Stuart and Michael Hainey enjoyed a jam-packed evening of cocktails, silent and live auctions and passionate speeches by Richard Ellenson, CPF’s charismatic CEO, and other inspiring leaders. But the indisputable highlight was the runway show, where the ten models graced the stage and proved lead juror Browne’s poignant reminder to the audience to be abundantly true: “It’s not about difference. It’s really just about good design.”


THREE OF THE COMPETITION JURORS: ANDREW BOLTON, DR. DANIELLE SHEYPUK AND THOM BROWNE. 
© 2011 PATRICK MCMULLAN COMPANY, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Browne also mentored the young FIT designers throughout the competition, but the learning was not limited to the students. “The biggest education for me with this project was not only getting behind Richard's initiative but also remembering that with designing, there has to be a marriage between function and aesthetic,” said Browne. “I think that’s what you’ll see in the designs tonight – the winners had to marry them well.”

As the models made their runway debuts to Selena Gomez’s & The Scene’s uplifting anthem “Who Says,” one thing became increasingly apparent: the five designers did just what Browne asked of them and more. The models’ genuine joy and radiant beauty brought the room to tears, with deafening applause and heartfelt encores. 


COMPETITION WINNER GRACE INSOGNA (FAR RIGHT) WITH HER MODELS AND THOM BROWNE, RICHARD ELLENSON, LOREEN ARBUS AND
ANDREW BOLTON. © 2011 PATRICK MCMULLAN COMPANY, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“I am just grateful that I was able to be a part of this experience, to meet my models and have formed such a bond,” said Grace Insogna, the FIT sophomore who took home the top prize of $5,000. “We’ve worked so closely in order to create clothing which fits them and makes them feel confident and comfortable. Learning about my models’ everyday lives and the challenges they face, that is to me the most important thing.” By working with disabled models, the designers learned how to create solutions for fit problems – for example, their designs utilised wider sleeves and necklines, magnetic closures and kept pocket placement in mind. “I hope this is going to be a catalyst,” said Insogna. “I hope this is going to start some change in the industry.”

According to CPF, every hour a child is born with CP, and with nearly one million people affected by CP in the United States and seventeen million worldwide, CP is finally getting its well-deserved fashion moment. Because, “at the end of the day,” as Browne points out, “just like anybody in life, these women just want to look good. They just want to look pretty.”