by Linda Zani Thomas
From the Editor: It was my good fortune to attend the convention of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey in late 2010. I saw something there that I had never seen in my almost twenty-five years acting as the Federation’s national representative: a fashion show featuring blind models and conducted with audio description for a blind audience. I was intrigued by the idea. The notion that blind people might be attractive enough to compete in fashion has been given lip service without much evidence demonstrating that it can and should be done. At the New Jersey event I was also impressed by the biographies of the Federationists who participated in the show. Linda Zani, author of the “Looking Good Without Looking” articles that have appeared in the Monitor, organized and narrated the convention fashion show. Here is what Linda has to say about the show and some of the descriptions we heard as the participants strutted their stuff:
On November 5, 2010, the NFB of New Jersey state convention debuted a new concept: the first fashion show featuring blind and visually impaired teens, men, and women modeling outfits from their own wardrobes showcasing their personal styles. The show was videotaped by Christina Zani and can be viewed by searching for “NJ Fashion Exclusive” in the search engine box on Youtube.com or Google.com. Linda Zani Thomas, fashion show host and author of the "Looking Good Without Looking" guides to personal style for visually impaired men and women, can be seen monthly in her new one-hour live interactive personal style and fashion program, Looking Good Without Looking at <www.thruoureyes.org> the fourth Wednesday of every month. It began January 26, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.
The excitement started to build in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clark, New Jersey, as President Joe Ruffalo took to the podium to introduce our inaugural fashion show. Linda opened the show with a quotation from the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was fond of saying that blindness “can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance” once you learn the skills and techniques of blindness. Linda went on, “this also holds true for fashion and personal style. What you are witnessing tonight is a world exclusive, the first fashion featuring all blind/VI models modeling outfits from their own wardrobes that showcase their personal styles.”
Linda wore a black and white ensemble in homage to Coco Chanel. She introduced and thanked Dan Romero, who was seated to the right of the runway. She said, “The music you will hear tonight was provided by Dan Romero, a high school senior at Passaic County Tech majoring in music technology. Dan is a LEAD student and is currently applying to colleges and plans to pursue a career in the music industry. He runs a small studio; is a producer, DJ, and vocalist; and plays keyboard on the local R&B scene.”
Once applause stopped, Linda continued, "It has been a pleasure working with the beautiful models you will meet tonight. They know the secrets of portraying their true selves through the subtle communication of fashion. They have discovered and embraced their assets, successfully projecting their own unique style and image. Now, let’s get this party started. Please put your hands together for the stars of the first ever NFB of New Jersey fashion show.” With that, fashion show coordinator Marisa Zani readied the models in the lobby outside the doors of the ballroom.
The first model to appear in the doorway was NFB of New Jersey’s godmother of fashion, Jerilyn Higgins. Jerilyn is always impeccably dressed, and it was a chance remark she made that inspired Linda to create the "Looking Good Without Looking" guides to personal style for blind and visually impaired men and women.
Jerilyn came down the runway to Shania Twain’s hit song “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” wearing a print ruffled-front blouse, a brown suede shirt jacket, dark wash jeans, and boots. She carried a metallic shoulder bag. Jerilyn is from Verona and is an activities of daily living instructor and a contractor for the Essex County Senior Community Independent Living Services (SCILS). She conducts a program at the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development, Inc., in Perth Amboy. This service helps adults fifty-five plus who have age-related vision loss become independent in their homes and communities. Jerilyn is also a LEAD mentor working with blind teens.
Shania Twain’s song also accompanied Winnie Oyuma as she strode confidently down the runway in a red suit over a black crewneck and carrying a structured handbag, a hot trend this season. Winnie is from Jersey City and works as a multilingual librarian. She originally hails from Africa and speaks eight languages. She works with clients with developmental disabilities in group homes in Hudson County.
Next down the catwalk, to the song “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, came the spirited steps of the super stylish Evelyn Valdez of Hillside. Wearing a draped, deep purple silk dress cinched at the waist with a black belt, Evelyn twirled and blew kisses, joining Jerilyn and Winnie to the left of the podium. Her hair swept up in a loose bun, Evelyn sported gold stiletto heels and a cuff bracelet pushed up her forearm and carried a handbag with a metal chain strap. Evelyn is currently working as a fifth-grade inclusion specialist in the school system. She recently completed her master’s degree in education and would like to work for a federal government agency such as FEMA to help families and communities during disasters. Evelyn is a peer mentor in the LEAD program and president of the New Jersey Association of Blind Students.
“Power,” by Kanye West perfectly expressed handsome Jeremy Capati of Kenilworth, as he made his way to the front of the ballroom wearing dark wash jeans and a long-sleeved, fitted Izod shirt in creamy beige. Nineteen-year-old Jeremy is a political science student at Keane University. A former LEAD student, he is a member of the College Leadership Program and a state scholarship winner. Jeremy will be taking a year off to attend the NFB Center in Colorado to study the techniques of blindness. He plans to return to school and then attend law school to become an attorney. Jeremy likes to play basketball and work out with his brother Jason.
And, speaking of Jason, he electrified the audience when wearing a red Nets Number 34 jersey, basketball shorts, and sneakers. With a gold chain around his neck, he strode athletically down the center aisle to “Winner,” by Jamie Foxx, T.I., and Justin Timberlake. Jason is a LEAD student and a junior at David Brearly High School in Kenilworth, where he is on the basketball team and at the top of the class in academics. Jason also competes in track and field, where he competes in shot put and discus. Upon graduation he plans to go to college to study sports medicine.
Isabelle Rodriguez walked to the beat of “Diamond Girl” by KMW, with one hand on her hip, her long, thick hair flowing over an animal-print fitted top with a black vest, and a charm bracelet dangling from her wrist. She wore skinny jeans tucked into boots, one of the key silhouettes of the season. Isabelle is a former LEAD student and a senior at Passaic High School, where she is a member of the student council and choir. She would like to attend either Rowan University or the University of Maryland and major in music therapy or developmental psychology and minor in music performance.
The crowd clapped enthusiastically for the dynamic duo of sisters Melissa and Marie Lomax of Plainfield as they came down together in hooded, cropped military jackets; dark sunglasses; and T-shirts imprinted with the word “Awesome.” “Rock Your Body” by Stagalie and MVP played as the crowd went wild when they stopped in unison and dropped the hoods from their silky, long, black hair, revealing beaded hoop earrings.
Big sister Melissa is nineteen years old and a former LEAD student. She attends the University of Maryland with a double major in English literature and education. Melissa excels at writing and has won many scholarships with her essays, including the national and state NFB scholarships, a scholarship from Walmart, and the Owens scholarship, sponsored by Queen Latifah and her mother. Melissa attended a seminar in Syria this past summer sponsored by the Open Hands Initiative. She is attending the Colorado Center for the Blind to master the skills, techniques, and confidence of blindness.
Sister Marie is fifteen, a LEAD student, and a sophomore in high school, where she is a member of the swim team. Marie is a fashionista and sews many of her own clothes. Upon graduation Marie plans to pursue a career in fashion.
Next up was the suave Elyard Whalen of Baltimore accompanied by the tune “Pretty Boy Swag” by Solja Boy. Elyard definitely brought the swagger and cool attitude as he stopped to stroke his chin and glance left and right at the adoring crowd on his way to the right side of the podium. Elyard wore a white button-down shirt, a dove gray V-neck argyle sweater, grey jeans, and bright white Adidas sneakers. Sixteen-year-old Elyard is a student at the Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, a high school that prepares teens who want to go into a medical field. Elyard plans to become a veterinarian.
Bespectacled Isaiah Green of Delaware, as tall and thin as a male model, smoothly made his way down the runway to Ciara’s “Picture.” He wore a black business suit with a white shirt, a fitting ensemble for this aspiring information technology executive. Isaiah is a sophomore at Hayton Prep School in Delaware, where he is student body president.
Khalil Abdul-Majid, a LEAD mentor from Delaware, eased his way down the runway to Flowrida, F.T, and T-Pain’s “Get Low.” He is a new member of the NFB and is studying to be a massage therapist. The bearded and cool Khalil wore a tailored suit with a light salmon colored shirt and coordinating necktie. His suede sneakers gave his look a contemporary edge.
Ben Vercellone, a junior at Montclair State, chose a piano interlude to accentuate his typical weekend wear when he goes to his piano lesson in Manhattan: navy slacks, black casual shoes, a checked teal button-down shirt, and a teal scarf. Ben is a former LEAD student from Montvale and is an English major. He likes to write and do woodworking, which he picked up during his stint at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
“Glamorous” by Fergie played as the head of the contingent from Delaware, Catherine Newman, appeared, wearing a navy blue dress that set off her peaches-and-cream complexion and gorgeous thick fawn-colored, nearly waist-length hair. She holds a master’s degree in school counseling from the Wilmington University Graduate Center and is a vocational rehab and transition counselor. Catherine planned to donate her hair to Locks of Love by year’s end.
Hand in pocket, Brian Mackey of Medford confidently walked down the runway to “Tonight’s Going to Be a Good Night” by the Black Eyed Peas. Brian wore an Elvis tie with his subtle navy, green, and gray plaid sports jacket and button-down shirt, perfect for his new internship with Liberty Tax Service as a bookkeeper at its Maple Shade location. Brian is a die-hard Philadelphia Flyers fan, a former LEAD student, and a recent graduate of the Harris School of Business in Cherry Hill in its computerized accounting program. Upon graduation Brian will pursue a career in data entry or bookkeeping. He is a black belt in karate with the special needs karate group in Marlton and a recent member of the Middle Atlantic Blind Golf Association.
The evening ended fittingly with two beautiful models in evening wear. Entering smiling with her hand on her hip was the lovely Melissa Hurff in a strapless ombre blue silk gown sprinkled with sparkles. She twirled and posed, her dark hair swept back in a long ponytail, the dress perfectly highlighting her porcelain complexion. Melissa is a former LEAD student and a current peer mentor and board member of the New Jersey Association of Blind Students. She has participated in the College Leadership Program sponsored by the Jernigan Institute and is a student at Gloucester Community College in Deptford, from which she will receive an associate’s degree in May. She plans to continue her studies at Shenandoah College in Virginia with her ultimate goal to earn a BA and MA in pediatric occupational therapy. Melissa has a passion for music, loves to sing show tunes, and has been involved in many plays and musicals.
Finally, the tall and regal Shafeka Hashash appeared in the doorway, her gold chandelier earrings flashing against her long dark hair as she turned and posed in a chocolate brown silk shantung gown topped with a matching short jacket and gold brooch at the bustline. Godets in her long gown sparkled with bronze beading and crystals. Shafeka is a LEAD student, a senior at Bergen County Academies, and hopes to attend Princeton University to study political science and international relations with an emphasis on Middle Eastern studies. Shafeka recently attended the Clinton Global Initiative at the invitation of the Open Hands Initiative in Syria for her work on an integrated American and Arab youth with disabilities comic book series.
One by one the models then walked into the lobby, led by Shafeka, to raucous applause and whistles by the appreciative audience.This article was written by fashion aficionado Linda Zani Thomas, mother of Marisa, a multiply-disabled diva who rocks her signature color butter yellow as often as she can. Linda would love to hear stories of your personal style journey and will answer your questions at <[email protected]> or at (201) 314-8045.