On the catwalk: This unique fashion show is a runway for all abilities
DOUG ERICKSON | firstname.lastname@example.org | 608-252-6149 | Posted: Friday, May 28, 2010 4:30 pm |
Jenny Henze often is very quiet, but occasionally and unexpectedly she will pump the air with a fist and burst forth with “cool!” and “awesome!” in such rapid succession they merge into one word.
Her exuberance earned Henze, who is 23 and has Down syndrome, the nickname “Chili Pepper” at DeForest High School because she spiced up so many classes.
Thursday night at Monona Terrace, Henze’s personality again grabbed people, this time at the fourth annual “Fashion Show for All Abilities.” Before a crowd of nearly 300, Henze, one of 47 models in the show, snapped her head back as she strutted up and down the catwalk, then stretched both arms wide and drank in the audience’s cheers.
In showbiz lingo, she killed.
The event, sponsored by the UW-Madison Waisman Center and the Dane County Department of Human Services, is intended to send the dual message that everyone is beautiful and that people with disabilities are consumers who deserve respect in the marketplace.
Sixteen retail outlets loaned clothes for the night, and volunteer stylists did makeup and hair.
“It’s glamorous, it’s glitzy, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a wheelchair or on crutches,” said Diane Bretthauer of McFarland, whose autistic son, Jack, 8, wowed the audience in a blue blazer and khaki pants from Boston Store.
Rocking the runway
Speakers blared “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt” and music by the Black Eyed Peas as participants modeled evening gowns from Deb Shop and suits from Nedrebo’s Formal Wear.
The idea for the fashion show came from Chantel Brown of Waunakee, who became disabled at 16 after overdosing on anti-depressants in a suicide attempt. Oxygen deprivation left her legally blind and unable to walk.
Brown, now 32, had been taking modeling lessons prior to the suicide attempt and sought to continue that career path afterward. But modeling opportunities dried up, and she felt invisible to retail clerks.
“They didn’t even look at me,” said Brown, who uses a wheelchair.
She took her frustration to Nancy Murphy, her case manager at Catholic Charities in Madison.
“We just weren’t getting anywhere,” Murphy recalled. “Chantel had really hit a lot of walls with her modeling portfolio, so we decided that if we couldn’t get into that system, we’d create a whole different one.”
Brown pitched the fashion show to the Waisman Center, which supports research on developmental disabilities. From 23 models the first year, the show has snowballed to where Rachel Weingarten, the Waisman Center employee who coordinates the show, had to turn down nearly 80 prospective models this year. The 47 on the catwalk Thursday were chosen by a random drawing.
Brown, dressed in casual clothes from Fair Indigo, participated as a model for the fourth year.
In a nod to the kind of inclusiveness the participants hope to see elsewhere, the show has always included a few models with no disabilities there were three this year.
“Maybe over time, this will lead to a broader base of models for all fashion shows,” said Paul White, director of Waisman Center outreach programs.
‘Ham it up’
In mid-May, the models gathered at a Madison office building for runway training.
“This is all about you, so ham it up out there,” KJ Lynn, a Madison-based model, told the participants.
At the show Thursday, some models really took the advice to heart, basking in the adoration and seeming not to want to leave. Co-host Jonathan Suttin, a disc jockey for 105.5 FM, gently offered them an arm and a chivalrous escort off the catwalk.
The fashion show is billed as a “community awareness event,” not a fundraiser. Organizers think it has led to heightened awareness among retailers for accessible dressing rooms, wider store aisles and checkout counters low enough for people in wheelchairs.
Beyond that, the show simply creates a lot of joy.
“I just love to see people who are really shy get out there and flaunt their stuff,” said Dawn Cieszynski, 30, of Madison, a model in the show. She uses walking sticks due to strokes caused by bacterial meningitis.
Just a few years ago, one model, Ben Sanzen, 34, who is autistic, was nearly a recluse who rarely left his apartment, said his mother, Joan Sanzen of Cross Plains. With a batch of new friends and caregivers, “he’s really blossoming,” she said.
The fashion show was another big step for him, she said. Surprising even himself, Sanzen started doing muscle poses on the catwalk, then gave two big thumbs up to the crowd.
“He’s currently single,” co-host Rachel Friedman, a Dane County social worker, announced to the crowd. “This is an available man.”
Sanzen beamed and flashed peace signs at the audience.
“He’s getting kind of full of himself, which is just so wonderful to see,” said his mother.
Posted in Local on Friday, May 28, 2010 4:30 pm Updated: 5:59 pm.