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The Good Fight

A Catwalk For All

Inspired by her dapper, disabled grandfather, Mexican designer Annett Castro started Moda Incluyente, Mexico's first fashion show for people with disabilities.

Mexican designer Annett Castro worked for years in fashion, with stints at the country’s National Chamber of the Apparel Industry and creative agency Snoops, when a non-profit organization named Aequalis approached her with a simple question: Would she be interested in coordinating a runway show for people with disabilities?  She would.

“I told them I could help them and I fell in love with the project,” she said, noting her natural penchant to say yes to helping others.

In 2012, she organized a simple catwalk for dozens of non-traditional models in a local auditorium, attended by family and friends. But the event prompted a career pivot. She left her job at the creative consulting agency and started imag, Mexico’s first large-scale fashion show for people with disabilities.

“At the first show I knew this was what I was going to do,” she said.

Mexican designer Annett Castro, founder of Moda Incluyente.

To date, she has planned nearly 15 shows for models with motor, intellectual, visual, auditory, and growth disabilities at venues around the country, including Intermoda–the largest fashion expo in Mexico –and Museo Soumaya, a museum which hosts a part of Carlos Slim’s art collection. Her first international show will take place in Guatemala later this year.

“There was so much interest that we started doing it better and better,” she said, noting that the annual show at Intermoda has attracted crowds of some 400 people.

The catwalks, which include a cast of approximately 35 models with disabilities, are free of charge with the support of collaborators and are put on about three times each year. Over five years, approximately 100 emerging and established designers such as Maritza Peña, Carlos Herrera, and Isa Valdez have also featured their collections.

Some, such as Guatemalan designer Isabella Springmuhl, who has Down syndrome, are particularly familiar with the style needs of people with disabilities, while others design adapted apparel—such as textured or tailored wear for people with visual impairments or smaller body proportions— for the first time.

Necklaces with words etched in braille, leather gloves for wheel-chair users, and swimwear for women diagnosed with breast cancer have also all made their way down the runway.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world.”

“Each case is different,” Castro said. “Designers meet with the models and hear about their situations before doing their work,” she said, noting that collections are almost always designed around an overarching theme, such as “flight” or “city street.”

All models sit for hair and make-up styling sessions, in addition to photo shoots, and also take home apparel after the show.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world,” said Castro, who noted the personal motivation behind her work: Her grandfather, who she called Güello, used a wheelchair for eleven years. “He had a blocked shunt in his brain and started to use a cane and then a wheelchair when he began losing mobility,” she remembered. “We always said, ‘Oh, grandpa is old, that’s why he can’t walk.’ But now I understand it was a disability.”

Her grandfather died when she was 18, but continues to inspire the project. “He gave me a love for disabilities,” she said.

The shows have also helped her find a way to combine fashion and altruism. “We don’t see all the opportunities because we focus on glamour, but style is something that can be done in a kinder way.”

“The important thing is to be able to do something good within your profession.”

Castro, who was born in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, says she knew she wanted to pursue fashion from an early age. She studied at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara and eventually worked at the Apparel Industry Chamber and then a talent show sponsored by Elle and Snoops before her career took a turn following the Aequalis show. In the last few years, she has worked at Fundación Para Life, a foundation which helps businesses become more disability-friendly, and Arqcesibilidad, a company focused on increasing accessibility with products such as tactile paving. She still gives classes in fashion at Durango Santander University in Sonora, among other places.

“The important thing is to be able to do something good within your profession,” she said.

On a recent day, she was finalizing music choices and booking models for her next Moda Incluyente show, but she was not worried.

The end result is dependably gratifying, she said.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the world,” says Castro.

“There is a moment when you know the models are happy,” she said, recalling one of her favorite memories. “At one show, a blind couple was going to model. And the wife said to her husband, ‘Feel my beautiful dress.’ And her husband swept his hand over the dress and said, ‘Wow, you are beautiful.'”

Castro broke down and cried.

“We are looking for people who have never thought of being models,” she said. “We don’t want people to say ‘Aww, what a nice show.’ We want them to say, ‘That model was so incredible even if she had a disability.”

Her aspirations are also evolving. She would like to create a modeling agency to promote models with disabilities, and wants to further publicize the Moda Incluyente shows and expand her network of collaborators.

What would her grandfather say? “I think he’d be very proud,” she said.

Moda Incluyente’s most recent fashion show took place in Guadalajara, Mexico on July 19.

The Good Fight

How Fashion Is Getting Friendlier

From homegrown labels to Manhattan's top designers, more brands than ever are realizing that people with conditions want to be fashionable too.

From homegrown labels to Manhattan’s top designers, more brands than ever are realizing that people with conditions want to be fashionable too.

One day, former North Carolina State assistant football coach Don Horton came home and told his wife Maura that he could no longer button his own shirt. The coach had Parkinson’s, and that day, one of his team players had buttoned his shirt for him. Maura remembers, “It haunted me, to tell the truth.” He was leaving for a business trip the next day, and they were strategizing how he could keep buttoning his shirts away from home. “He was going through so many changes I couldn’t help with—but this, I could.”

Maura had noticed that the concept of a magnetic iPad cover could be applied outside of electronics, to make shirts easier to button. She applied washable magnets underneath his shirt buttons. Then, she expanded her sights to helping more people with arthritis and a spectrum of afflictions that make buttoning painful or difficult.

“I decided to take a huge leap of faith, and we started a company,” she said. To date, her company MagnaReady has sold more than 10,000 shirts, and they will soon appear in retail stores through a deal with PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.

More brands than ever are realizing that people with chronic conditions need to feel fashionable too.

More brands than ever are realizing that people with chronic conditions want to feel fashionable too.

MagnaReady is part of a growing group of companies that give fashionable solutions to consumers with specific health needs.

Care+Wear launched two years ago, also based on a personal connection, and they dub themselves “healthwear.” The founders had seen family members and friends unhappy about the unfashionable tube socks they had to wear over their PICC lines while getting chemotherapy. Now, they sell antimicrobial covers in a variety of colors, in addition to shirts that accommodate patients with ports. Covers and shirts are now sold in Walgreens, and available to patients at a number of hospitals including the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, as well as hospital gift shops nationwide.

“I do think it’s a trend,” Horton says. “Sometimes, it’s still on the cheaper manufacturing side of things. There have not been any luxury brands that have tackled it. None of the large brands have fully embraced it.”

This is exactly the gap that many of these companies are hoping to bridge. Horton has noticed that clothing for patients has focused on function over aesthetics. Although that might seem superficial or unimportant, frumpy clothing comes at an emotional cost.

After being diagnosed with a disease, all that’s available are elastic waist pants?

“After being diagnosed with a disease, all that’s available are elastic waist pants?” she says, remembering her husband’s dilemmas. “That changes the way you feel about yourself if you’re not dressing like the way you want to, or you’re used to. The older population, 50 to 60, they don’t know what a casual Friday is. That generation, even if they’re retired, they wear a button-up shirt because that’s what they’re used to. If they can’t wear a button-up shirt, it affects their self esteem.”

Care+Wear's armband is fashionable and keeps PICC lines secure.

Care+Wear’s armband is fashionable and keeps PICC lines secure.

In the past, what was available on the market made patients feel limited or uncomfortable, says Chaitenya Razdan, founder of Care+Wear. Chemotherapy used to mean staying in the hospital or on the couch, but advances in technology make patients more mobile today. One of the company’s customers was worried she had to quit her collegiate running career because of her PICC line. But when she showed her doctor her PICC line cover through Care+Wear, the doctor gave her the OK to keep running. Another customer was self conscious about going to prom with her PICC line, but she found a cover that matched her prom dress.

“It’s designed to be clothing first, not to feel like: Oh my gosh, I have to put on my special chemo shirt today,” Razdan explains.

Accomplished fashion designers have directed their talents toward solving for this underserved market. Izzy Camilleri has been featured in Vogue and designed for celebrities like David Bowie and Meryl Streep before she got a special commission from a journalist who uses a wheelchair. The project was eye-opening, and Camilleri began to realize how neglected an entire population had been up until that point. The designer decided to shift her focus toward making fashionable clothes for wheelchair users and launched IZ Collection. Since then, like Horton and Razdan, Camilleri has realized how psychologically important clothing can be.

It’s designed to be clothing first, not to feel like: Oh my gosh, I have to put on my special chemo shirt today.

“This woman called me after receiving her skirt,” Camilleri says. “She just wanted to tell me …  she’s worn it every day since she’s gotten it. It made her feel human again. That’s huge. I have other people tell me it’s changed how they feel. They’re starting to care more about how they dress. It makes them feel alive.”

Sadly, a worthy mission and passionate customers aren’t always enough to keep a business afloat. Camilleri recently announced that she’s putting IZ Collection on an indefinite hiatus to regroup and figure out her market. She’s had trouble balancing overhead with the number of customers in her market. Occupational therapists have told her that their patients are slower to try new clothing. It’s also difficult for customers to buy an item online when they have very particular fitting needs and can’t try the clothing on in person. “It’s hard maintaining overhead and stock and everything when things grow slowly,” she says.

The IZ Collection.

The IZ Collection by Izzy Camilleri is as stylish as anything out there.

It’s also tricky to market to customers not necessarily united by the same interests, but simply by the same needs. “Just because you all have a spinal cord injury doesn’t mean you all want the same thing. It’s a massive undertaking to get the brand out there because everything is scattered to the wind: [People] aren’t all looking at the same disability magazine.”

“There are a lot of people out there who need what we do,” Camilleri says. “But it’s about finding that common thread that links people together.”

Still, the needs are there, and where there is a gap, there are also business opportunities. Horton has started selling her magnetic shirts in department stores such as Kohl’s and JCPenney.  

If there’s one thing Horton has learned about the fashion industry, it’s that they are slow to change. “But once they understand some of the demographic base and once they get it, they fully embrace it. It’s been a journey just to get initiative behind it. Adaptive clothing, they see it as a niche market, like: Oh, that would help two percent of buyers. But when you take it out into the marketplace, that’s when they realize it’s a necessity.”

Customers helped some big retailers understand the market demand, Horton says. “Once it was in the marketplace, people were like, ‘My gosh, my cousin, my uncle, my niece… they need that!’ We have to change it from being a niche to a necessity.”

Profiles

Because Surviving Breast Cancer Makes You More Beautiful

After her own bilateral mastectomy, Dana Donofree began designing clothing for breast cancer survivors.

Designer Dana Donofree began AnaOno to make bras, robes, camisoles, and other clothing specifically tailored for breast cancer survivors. But she didn’t fully understand her apparel company’s mission until she found someone crying in a dressing room.

Dana Donofree. Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

Dana Donofree. Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

The incident happened at AnaOno’s trade show debut. Donofree has a habit of grabbing life by the horns, but that day she was nervous. She was laying out her work to be embraced or criticized for the first time. A woman approached her. She had undergone a mastectomy, and she didn’t wear a breast form because her scarring was too sensitive. She was getting married soon, but she couldn’t find any bras to wear. She hoped that Donofree might have something for her.

“I’m like, ‘This is what I set out to do. Please don’t fail me now,’” says Donofree. She handed her one of AnaOno’s most flexible styles, the Kelly, a bralette made out of a two-way stretch lace, to try on. Shortly after the woman disappeared behind the curtain, Donofree heard sniffling. Concerned, she asked if she could step in to check on her.

“She flung open the curtain and her face was full of tears,” says Donofree. But she was also smiling. “She looked at me and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt beautiful since my surgery.’” In that moment, Donofree saw that she wasn’t just selling lingerie: “I realized how much it really meant to us as women to feel beautiful and feel good about ourselves.”

More than 3.1 million women in the U.S. have a history of breast cancer, and an estimated 307,660 will be diagnosed this year. These women will confront a range of difficult, body-altering treatment decisions, including whether to have a lumpectomy, in which only the tumor is removed, or a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy. Even if they choose reconstruction, their bodies will undergo dramatic and painful changes. Some women come to see their surgery scars as triumphant symbols of what they endured, while others initially struggle to regain their self-confidence and accept their new shape, whatever form that may take. For many women, this struggle is as much — if not more — about their fear that their cancer may return as it is about their physical appearance. Even when surrounded by loving caregivers, the experience can feel lonely and isolating.

Donofree knows this journey well. In spring of 2010, the day before her 28th birthday and her bridal shower, she received a devastating call from her doctor: she had infiltrative ductal carcinoma.

“Somebody drops that bomb on you and your world just goes black,” says Donofree. “I remember nodding my head and listening to all these keywords, like ‘Your cancer is really aggressive. It’s infiltrating.’”

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

The next day she shared the news with her friends and family at her shower. Then she and her fiancé postponed their wedding and focused on saving her life. Less than a month later, she had a bilateral mastectomy. Over the following year, she suffered through six rounds of chemotherapy that nearly killed her, and endured a grueling reconstruction process, which involved having tissue expanders inserted beneath her sliced pectoral muscles to restretch her muscles and skin ahead of her implants. Donofree called these building blocks her SpongeBob SquareBoobs or Lego boobs. The nicknames were cute, but the pain was anything but. Each time she had saline pumped into them, she could see her pecs spasm beneath her skin. 

“I felt like a broken woman,” says Donofree. “It was up to me to see myself in a new light, but this was not an easy task. My fiancé always told me I was beautiful. I didn’t believe him, not once.”

After the agony of the expanders, getting her implants was an incredible relief. She had her “boobs back,” and she was ready to feel normal again. But she didn’t. In an essay for xoJane, she describes her new breasts as “stiff, sensation-less, nipple-less mounds,” and her scars as raw reminders of “poisonous chemo drips” and the “laborious process of recovering from surgery.” Her scars were still full of anger and pain and she couldn’t bear to look at her naked reflection.

After going “through a year’s worth of hell,” Donofree and her fiancé flew to Las Vegas and tied the knot. 

“I was a newlywed,” says Donofree. “My husband and I had just gone through a year’s worth of hell. All I wanted to do was be intimate and feel like a couple again, but I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin yet. I thought, ‘If I can’t take off all my clothes, I sure as hell better be wearing something sexy that’s going to stay on through the whole process.’”

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

She pulled open her lingerie drawer, hoping that the pretty things inside would help her feel more feminine. The drawer was full of lovely never-worn bras from her bridal party the year before. She began trying on “all these sexy, lacy things.” But one after another, the bras didn’t fit. “I just started throwing them in a pile in my room,” she says.

When she went shopping, the frustrating experience repeated itself. She tried on “dozens and dozens of bras” and ended up walking out empty handed every time. Implants aren’t as flexible as breast tissue, and the shape is more like an orange than the pear-shape of natural breasts says Donofree. Underwires and molded cups no longer fit. The only thing she could tolerate was a sports bra, which wasn’t exactly the sexy look she was hoping for. Everything else left her crying or taking a muscle relaxer at the end of the day because they hurt so badly. The whole ordeal left her confused and questioning her decision to undergo reconstruction.

Like many great solutions, Donofree’s answer struck her like a lightning bolt. She awoke in the middle of the night, albeit probably from a tamoxifen-induced hot flash, with a lingerie epiphany: She should make bras that fit her and the many other cancer survivors like her. She grabbed the sketchpad that she kept by her bed and she started drawing. She had a degree in fashion design from Savannah College of Art and Design and more than 10 years experience working in various areas of the fashion industry. As a designer, she’d always dreamed of having her own business, she just hadn’t landed on what it would be yet. Now she knew.

“I thought, ‘Why am I not doing something about this? What’s the worst that could happen? I try and I fail? I already had cancer, you know? I think the fear was gone,” she says.

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

Photo: Frances Schwabenland Photography

In May 2014, AnaOno officially launched. The line now includes extra soft camisoles that won’t bother irritated skin during radiation therapy, robes that come with detachable drain pouches for after surgery, and bras that are made to fit women who’ve had breast reconstruction, mastectomies without reconstruction, and those who wear breast forms and those who don’t. The company’s tagline “never alone” neatly sums up the company’s inclusive attitude, and harkens back to a lesson that cancer brought home for Donofree.

Throughout chemo and her surgeries, she had approached her cancer treatment like she had approached everything else in her life — like a bull ramming a brick wall. That tactic helped propel her through a harrowing year. But when she lost her first friend to breast cancer six months later, her “world came crumbling down.” Donofree realized then that she hadn’t fully dealt with what she had just been through. “It’s crazy how isolating this whole thing feels,” she says. “When you have cancer, there’s only so much that you can say about your deepest and darkest fears to people that love you.”  

That all changed when she found a local chapter of the Young Survival Coalition, a national organization for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. “All you have to say is, ‘I had breast cancer,’ and you jump through so many phases of getting to know one another. You just go straight to the nitty-gritty,” says Donofree. The women could talk about their fears of dying or the fact that they’ve been puking for days, and not feel like they had to sugarcoat the conversation. They were with people who got it. “You feel like you’re constantly held up by others and you need that when you’re going through something like this,” she says.

Those women became her first models, helping with fittings and figuring out designs. That sense of community continues to run through AnaOno, particularly at its photo shoots, where every woman has a history of breast cancer and most have never posed in their underwear before.

“I will take whatever woman is willing to help me share her story,” says Donofree. “It’s women with one breast, with no breasts, with lumpectomies, with mastectomies, with breast forms, no breast forms. The boobs don’t even matter in this entire scenario. It’s the women. That’s where the power comes from, and I think you can see that in the photographs.”

Melanie Lisitski stumbled upon on AnaOno’s call for models on MyBCTeam.com, a social networking site for women with breast cancer. She showed up at her first photo shoot with one breast and stuffing in her bra. That day, she ended up in the middle of Philadelphia in a tutu and a champagne lace bra without the stuffing. “The first time I saw the pictures and videos, I cried — a good cry, very emotional,” says Lisitski. “Wearing the Kelly with only one breast was a turning point for me. It made me look at the ugliness of cancer and how I felt and say, ‘So what! I’m still beautiful as a person and this doesn’t define me.’”

It made me look at the ugliness of cancer and say, ‘So what! I’m still beautiful… and this doesn’t define me.”

For Sandi Morina, a member of the YSC group, modeling for AnaOno was life changing. “I took a risk, exposed my insecurities, discovered my strength, and gained acceptance of my body,” says Morina, who now has a front-closure bra with scalloped detailing named after her. “I met an amazing group of women; some of whom I remain friends with to this day and some of whom I miss dearly because we had to say goodbye way too soon because of this disease.”

The photo shoots, which often take on the vibe of a support group, have become one of Donofree’s favorite activities. She feels like the women who participate in them need the experience, and AnaOno, just as much as she did when she began the company.

“They walk in as one woman and they leave as another,” says Donofree. “It’s so empowering. They’ve taken back not just this piece of their life, but it’s a moment where they own their sexuality. They own being a woman. They own their body.”

Ultimately, for Donofree and her customers, that is what AnaOno is all about. It’s not just about lingerie. It’s about camaraderie. It’s about feeling radiant and whole, and the sometimes difficult process of fully embodying those feelings after cancer’s physical and emotional traumas. And it’s about that moment, whether it’s in a trade show fitting room or in a bedroom at home, when a breast cancer survivor looks in the mirror and loves whom she sees.