This month I made my debut on the fashion runway in New York City, a looong way from my little hometown in Florida. Here’s how it really happened…
On June 8th at noon, my mom, sister and I made our way from our contemporary hotel in Lower Manhattan to the extravagant Cipriani Club at 25 Broadway in the Financial district, directly across from the Wall Street Bull landmark. (And the defiant Young Girl statue, too!) As I weaved through the masses on the streets, I spotted Debbie (Mindy’s assistant) waving us down from the steps of Cipriani, with its neo-Italian Renaissance architecture — tall columns and detailed etchings in the stone with gold trimming. In reality, it had been the home of a very famous cruise line, Cunard, back over 100 years ago, when NYC was the busiest port in the world.
I maneuvered through the sea of unassembled gift bags and entered the main room…. breathtaking– beautiful steel gate dividers, fabulous murals, and elegant drapery brushing the 65 foot tall painted dome ceilings The atmosphere was calm and quiet — but not for long! Within a hour there were tech people hoisting lighting, audio crews arranging mics and speakers in the voluminous room, waiters arranging tables and glassware for 600, and all of the models showing up for fittings. This was THE REAL DEAL!!!!
Debbie walked us down an adjacent hallway past the sound and lightning control booth to the very back where guys were in the process of putting up makeshift dressing rooms.
For the rest of the day, this room would become the beehive for families, models, make-up artists and seamstresses. Just outside it, clothing racks lined the halls, filled with the new Tommy Hilfiger adaptive collection. It was fascinating to see how the design team executed the adaptations; having studied their adaptive designs online, you can’t fully appreciate their focus on detail unless you have the product in your hand. Designing adaptive clothing, surprisingly, requires extreme technical knowledge and innovation to produce the intended results for both ease of dressing and style. Smart and thoughtful designers like this are in great demand to fill the gap for one of the largest underserved minorities in the fashion industry…Did you know that nearly 1 in 5 people in the U. S. alone has a documented disability, about 57 million people?
Soon, my turn was up for a fitting. The outfit the design team chose for me comprised of a pair of dark skinny jeans, a soft rhinestone-studded gray T-shirt, a navy and red jacket with “Tommy Hilfiger” vertically placed the length of left sleeve, and my favorite… Tommy sneakers! No laces required and so comfortable I wore them for 10 hours! The button and zipper on the jeans were replaced with Velcro and magnets, but from a bystander’s viewpoint, they just looked like regular jeans. The magnets along the shirt’s shoulder seam allowed the head opening to expand for the ease of pulling on the shirt. A seamstress and a member from Tommy’s design team quickly pinned the excess fabric to tailor each garment to fit my specific body type, even though I had sent my body specs to them months before. Every detail, even such as where the t-shirt hem hit my waist, was contemplated. A shorter hem, for example, would allow the jean stitching to be exposed, but a longer hem would prohibit fabric from bunching up in the back. Everything has to look perfect on the runway. And since I wouldn’t try the outfit on again until showtime, they only had this one chance to make the clothes “runway ready.”
Around 1:30, we migrated to a parlor around the corner of the main entrance where we mingled with the other 23 models and their families. Models ages ranged from 5 to 50 years old, representing many of the beautiful body types in the world: Down’s syndrome, spinal cord injuries, amputees, Intellectual disabilities, and cerebral palsy. As I got to know them throughout the day, I realized each and every one of them was proud, fierce and confident about their own unique body. What a refreshing atmosphere to be able to share common views on the world with people with similar situations. Nobody complained about how they wish their situation was better. Rather, we shared passions to change laws, stereotypes and discussed much more on inclusion of those who are differently abled. One family with a severely impacted son expressed gratitude for their mayor, who personally drove them to this event because they didn’t have accessible transportation. It is these unspoken acts of kindness that we need more of in life.
As the clock ticked toward 3:00 it was time for makeup and hair before the rehearsal. Organizers were getting a little antsy for rehearsal to begin. And it was getting hard to ignore the presence of video cameras capturing my every move, even while a professional makeup artist applied eyeliner. Before you knew it, my makeup was flawless and my hair dangled in thick curls. A quick look in the mirror to check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then I hurried off to rehearsal!
Now the real chaos begins! 4:00 pm …It’s two hours until guests arrive and major issues arose with the fluidity of the show. The situation with only one ramp left no room for two wheelchairs to pass on and off the runway, so everything was changing. Staff frantically re-ordered the lineup over and over, so there would be “walkers” between the wheelchairs. By now I was getting used to “DELAINA!” being shouted and pointing for me to move here and move there! This went on at least for an hour. Mindy Scheier loved how my chair stood up and we decided rolling the runway with my own “standing Segway” would be a treat for the guests. The first time I rolled that runway in rehearsal, it got real–real fast! The lights shone on the cavernous room with 600 empty chairs…but soon that would change. My dreams were coming true… to immerse myself into an untapped segment of adaptive fashion in the industry and inspire others that nothing is impossible if you live fearlessly! New York City and the RUNWAY!!!!
The clock ticked 15 past 5:00 and all of the models still needed to eat something plus change into our newly tailored outfits. We crowded in the back room slamming down pieces of New York pizza while taking turns in dressing rooms. Clothing flying, pizza blending in with the makeup, people ducking under hot hair irons, and wheelchairs bumper to bumper. Heck with this… I had my sister hold up a jacket and changed right there without noticing (until too late) a video guy filming another model while I happened to be in the background. Oh well…! Stylists touched up my hair and I escaped that crazy room as soon as I could.
In the hallway, my sister and I ran into Tobie Hatfield, a guest honoree at the Gala, for his innovation of the Nike’s “FlyEase” adaptive shoe. I remember countless mornings when I was in elementary school, and the struggle to put on shoes over orthotics was oh-too-real. I’m fortunate I don’t have to wear them anymore but for the millions who do, I celebrate when companies like Nike commit to making life easier for ALL its customers. From the half hour we spoke with Tobie, it was rejuvenating to hear how genuine and passionate he was about this shoe and the purpose behind it. He literally walked around cradling the shoe like a baby. Also, I met Matthew, the guy who wrote the letter to Nike and the reason why the FlyEase exists today. He’s a senior at Florida Gulf Coast University, and remains very close with Tobie. While listening to all these amazing people, I learned the world is ready for acceptance of the differently-abled, but it takes a nudge from young bold people like Mathew and all the models that evening to ignite the spark of inclusion. One of my fav models was Rebekah Marine, the “bionic model” who shares her bionic arm prosthetic with the world in a beautiful way. Anna was another of my peers whose personality overcame the loss of her lower limb, and later dazzled on the runway like a pro.
6:30 p.m. on the dot! I could hear the guests clinking their cocktail glasses around the corner. Happy hour for some, maybe, but modeling is hard work…especially when we had to hold our position in line for 2 more hours. Two hours gives you precious time to observe people, and time for me to reflect on the gratitude I had for this experience. Finally, finally, the speeches had ceased, the awards awarded, and the runway was lit! Showtime! One by one, the models were greeted with encouraging cheers from many of New York’s fashion dignitaries, media, and trendsetters…all in the name of adaptive fashion! Once my #17 turn came and I faced the lights, there was Mindy giving me a reassuring thumbs up…deep breath, short prayer to stay ON the runway, and I was off. No sounds hit my ears, not even my Runway song; “24-karat Gold,” by Bruno Mars! Calmness overtook me as I vamped with turn and poses for the cameras, videos and applause. I WAS ON THE RUNWAY!! If you would have told me one or two years ago that I would have an opportunity to roll the runway in New York City, I definitely would not in a million years believe you.
Over the past year, my life has changed a lot… going new places, meeting new people, and becoming a Brand Ambassador for the Runway of Dreams Dream Team. It’s the hard work and the FEARLESS INDEPENDENCE to stand up for yourself and others who can’t. It’s being open to life changing opportunities like this that you will remember forever. I’m eternally grateful for my family who goes the extra mile and continually encourages me to be the best person I can be. By rolling the runway, my hope is to show young women of all abilities that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to!