If you're familiar with Anna Sui, then you know she's a veteran mix master: Her collections are always packed with deliciously trippy jacquards, psychedelic baby-doll dresses, kooky paisleys and splashy tie-dyes. She's all about the frills and the fantasy and continually delivers fashion through a playful lens. Her work is welcome in a world that often needs an extra dose of color, and after years of creating print-based love letters to the fashion community, the designer decided to lend her sartorial magic to another very deserving — and stylish — group of individuals: those with disabilities.
Sui served as this year's mentor for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation's third annual Design for Disability Fashion show. The event, which took place on Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City, showcased collections designs by five students from Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology that reflect the unique physical needs of people with disabilities.
Leading up to the show, Sui spent several months working closely with these design students to explore challenges in fit, closures, durability and form that people with disabilities face. When the project began, Sui asked the model mentors — a well-accomplished and beautiful bunch of 15 men and women with disabilities — what they would like to express in their clothing. Her favorite response was from Ryan Haddad, an actor, playwright and autobiographical performer with cerebral palsy, who simply and confidently said: "I just want to look hot."
With that, Sui found her purpose: She was to use her love for bold patterns to help recalibrate the way we see disability by putting it in a more vivid light and by giving it a true measure of gorgeousness.
"Having cerebral palsy can be tough, because people don't know how to look at you," the Cerebral Palsy Foundation CEO Richard Ellenson said after the runway show. "People stop and stare, or they don’t look at you at all. And tonight we saw what happens when people do look at you the right way and that just changes everything."
To infuse color in the collections, Sui secured donations of fabric from both Liberty of London and Cotton Inc. for the students to use. "They got to choose their own color story and put together how they were going to do the bottoms, the tops and how they were going to mix the prints," explained Sui after the show. "I thought these prints would bring some sort of happiness to the whole thing." And "happiness" is the exact word I would use to describe what went down the runway.
"Anna [Sui] brings color and whimsy to the world and ours is a world that needs color and whimsy," said Ellenson. "And by God, she brought it."
Between the ear-to-ear smiles, shimmying, hair flips, twirls and singing, it was impossible not to feel a sense of pure joy pervade the room as each model and designer took over the catwalk. The models who both strutted and rolled down the runway included: Madison Ferris, who starred as Laura Wingfield in Sam Gold's acclaimed Broadway production of "The Glass Menagerie'; Jessy Yates, the first physically disabled person to be admitted to to Yale's Graduate School of Drama; and Andrea Dalzell, a former Miss Wheelchair New York.
Throughout the show, you truly felt the power of fashion, that when whittled down to its simplest form, is a tool of utmost expression and transformation. I didn't get verbal confirmation from Haddad on whether or not he considered his new look to be "hot," but his strong runway presence in a bright orange-accented and paisley-printed denim and cotton getup was validation enough. Not to mention, his T-shirt had "sexy" written on it in a bold patterned font.
You can view all five collections in the gallery below.